Towards the end of the hottest year since temperatures have been recorded, world leaders gathered in Paris for climate talks. While I was debating what to write about for this column, I saw two events juxtaposed beside one another in the news – photographs of Obama, Merkel, Xi, Modi and other world leaders debating climate change steps, and pictures of people in Chennai wading through submerged roads and offices, battling devastating weather that has left 269 dead so far.
As temperatures rise – a key impact of climate change – these challenges are only increasing in severity. We are already seeing the effects in India – more than 6 million people across the country have been affected by floods, with over 250,000 people evacuated. Over 12,300 Indian farmers committed suicide due to drought and crop failures in 2014. 18 out of India’s 36 states and UTs have been hit by drought, including our top grain-producing states – Punjab, Haryana, Bihar and UP. While these catastrophes have multiple causes including poor infrastructure planning and disaster recovery, environmental issues have been the triggers.
The Prime Minister has denied the prevalence of climate change in the past, and has only recently acknowledged its impact while speaking in international circles. Whether he has had a change of heart on the subject or whether his assertion is merely theatrical is indeterminable. Even as he announced climate change as an important concern while in Paris, in India his government is working overtime to weaken environmental protections. It recently withdrew the ban on mining on the sensitive Konkan coast, and is diluting critical environmental laws – the laws for air and water pollution, and forest conservation. While farmer suicides are rising, the Prime Minister has yet to visit a single farmer in distress and his government is yet to announce steps to arrest the issue. We have been talking about ‘smart cities’ while we ignore entire villages suffering through deep agricultural crisis. Aren’t smart villages more important than smart cities when the majority of our country continues to rely on the agrarian economy?
In Bengaluru, I have seen the impact of environmental degradation first-hand – in our unplanned urbanization even as our tree cover diminishes, acidifying lakes where garbage and untreated wastewater are being dumped, and the increasing illnesses that accompany the pollution and the smog. In Mandya, a constituency I had the opportunity to represent in the 15th Lok Sabha, I have seen the plight of our farmers due to unpredictable weather and crop failures. It is then that I released that our farmers are the foremost victims of climate change.
While the Prime Minister has been making a slew of promises around renewables, we need to see the government get into the trenches and show us actual results in combating climate change and reducing emissions. We need a broad policy for sustainable rural development. Not just that, we need an energy policy that balances our economic goals and our environmental responsibilities.
In India we depend on coal – ‘dirty energy’, as the main source of our electricity. Destructive open coal mining has created uncultivable wastelands across Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. If we are to leave coal in the ground and reduce future consumption, we have to do this keeping in mind India’s current environmental and rural challenges.
One part of a better approach is investing in solar – where cost per kilowatt hour, thanks to technological innovation, has fallen rapidly over the last decade. While the government has adopted ambitious solar targets, it needs to take the steps needed to make these achievable by making solar rooftops more viable, investing in solar energy storage and adopting smart grids and smart meters to support solar infrastructure.
Community led efforts here can also be key to enabling solar energy use. A UNDP partnership with the Global Environment Facility and Barefoot College of India for example, has initiated an effort to train women in poorer communities to install and maintain solar panels. This gives women a source of income in addition providing the community with clean energy. This is a significant step since women are most severely impacted by climate change. Safeguarding them and their interests is of paramount importance.
A second aspect is biofuels – a vital part of building a sustainable rural approach. We have an opportunity today to insulate our farmers from agricultural distress by incentivising them in biofuel farming, specifically sugarcane, of which we are the world’s second-largest producer. Emphasizing hybrid, low-water consuming sugarcane combined with drip irrigation can help India build a strong ethanol-production economy, giving us two big wins: cleaner fuel, as well sustainable income growth for our farmers.
Evidence from Brazil is encouraging. Brazilian farmers have already seen significant progress in using sugarcane to turn the country into a biofuel powerhouse. Sugarcane based ethanol has become a major energy source, available in gas stations across the country. Today, it has the largest number of flex-fuel cars that can run on any blend of ethanol and traditional fuel, with mandatory blends varying between 10 per cent and 27 per cent. Similar policies here in India could potentially transform India’s rural economy. Bagasse, a byproduct of the cane-sugar industry, can also be a source of green electricity. Farmers’ cooperatives and the state are co-producing energy via this method in Mandya in Karnataka. Other large sugar-producing states can be incentivised to do the same.
A third aspect is conservation – of our green cover, and of our water sources through stronger policies in favor of watersheds and water harvesting. The government is going in the opposite direction in this regard, targeting, for example, areas with green cover of only over 70% for conservation efforts, from the previous 40%. This shift makes much of India’s green cover vulnerable to deforestation, and will make us even more susceptible to erosion and droughts.
We can also actively take steps to store carbon in soil, by encouraging farming practices such as reduced tilling and the planting of legume crops. More carbon in soils would both bring down emissions and enhance soil quality.
Finally, we need to strengthen our local environmental agencies that regulate urban construction, waste management, and protect our water sources. These agencies are currently ill-equipped and poorly funded, and cases filed by civil organizations and citizens against unregulated construction and polluters take a long time to get a hearing and a ruling, by which time significant damage is done.
India’s low emissions – at 1.7 metric tons per capita, compared to the global average of 5 metric tons – signal that we have a smaller legacy of ‘dirty’ infrastructure compared to the developed world. We have the opportunity to drive our growth in a more thoughtful way, focusing on renewables, tying these efforts to our local communities and ecosystems. We can respond to climate change not as a result of external pressure, but as a way to tackle our growing domestic challenges.
We are staring at another weak monsoon in 2016. How we respond to it will help determine how successful we will be in responding to the profound effects of climate change. We can lead rather than be in the back seat – to help save the planet, and help save communities here India who are already reeling from the effects of global warming.
The common man / woman today does not yet fully understand climate change and its effects. Our farmers and the tribal communities who live in our forests are left out of conversations on the subject. These people are however the real wardens of our natural resources, and are now paying the price for the damage we have caused to the planet. We need to include them in a larger national debate on climate change. Through focused media and ground efforts, we need to increase their awareness of the challenges we are facing, and of the solutions that are possible.
We will only be able to do this by acting together and acting quickly. I hope we finally see not just talk, but some action from the government. And for that, the onus is also on us, the citizens, to ensure that our elected representatives take this issue up – not occasionally and half heartedly – but in full measure.