Combating Climate Change: Two Indian Initiatives Hold Promise

The breakthrough climate agreement between China and the United States in 2014 has meant that India has sometimes provided a pallid comparison when it comes to emissions reductions efforts. Unlike China, India has refused to designate a peak year for its coal use. It has likewise declined to adopt periodic five yearly reviews of its emissions reductions pledges, despite the urgings of the UN. However, there are some encouraging trends that are worthy of consideration.

Two in particular offer reasons to be optimistic: India’s joint founding of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) at the Paris Climate Conference last year; and New Delhi’s odd-even car scheme. These illustrate the bidirectional impetus to reduce emissions. On the one hand, there is an international commitment to address climate change, particularly in the form of championing the cause of solar energy. On the other, there is domestic pressure to reduce air pollution, which in turn will have many co-benefits for addressing climate change.

At the Paris Climate Conference last year, India jointly launched the International Solar Alliance with France. It also committed to achieving 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. This is a strong signal of India’s determination to play a more active role in global governance when it comes to climate change. Likewise, it signals that India is ‘placing a bet on solar’, as The Diplomat’s Raymond E. Vickery notes. While those coal power plants currently under construction represent a galling 75,000 MW, the Ministry of Power has determined that no new plants need to be built for a further three years due to declining growth in demand for coal. Recent hikes in the government’s Clean Environment tax are also likely to accelerate the decline in imported coal.

The establishment of the ISA reflects India’s preparedness to take international leadership in the global transition towards renewables. However, another encouraging trend for India’s emissions reductions will not come from state-level initiatives with an eye towards the international society, but from city-level initiatives with the more circumscribed aim of improving urban air quality.

Air pollution in Delhi is at frightful levels, at least as bad as that of Beijing’s. Over the period from 2009-2015, the PM2.5 levels (used to measure fine particular air pollution) rose by 13%, while levels of sulphur dioxide increased by almost one third in the same period. A recent scheme implemented in Delhi aimed at addressing this problem is the first of its kind in India. For 15 days in January 2016, the local government trialled a scheme whereby road use altered daily according to whether a car’s license plates were odd or even numbered. The empirics of just how much this managed to reduce air pollution are contested. However, it seems that the effect was likely minimal. The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, has been playing up its role in lowering traffic congestion, rather than concentrating on the air pollution aspect.

The point that Johannes Urpelaine makes is a valid one. He argues that irrespective of its efficacy at reducing air pollution, the scheme should be celebrated purely because it heralds the beginning of urban strategies seriously aimed at increasing public health. ‘This is the first time in India’s history that media, policymakers and citizens are talking seriously about solutions to India’s urban air pollution and traffic problems’, he comments.

Josh Busby goes a step further. He argues that this demand on the city level for cleaner air may be a more effective strategy—for China and India alike—at convincing countries to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. This is because addressing air pollution delivers many ‘co-benefits’ for addressing climate change. Reducing car exhaust, for example, would service both of these goals. While the overlap is not total (for example, moving some power plants further away from urban centres, while helping lower urban fine particle levels, will simply relocate the emissions), he acknowledges it is nevertheless likely to be quite pronounced. It will be the domestic demand for cleaner air, consequently, that may present the best avenue for weaning India off coal.

There’s a lot of merit to the strategy of emphasising improving air quality to convince Beijing and New Delhi to deliver policies that also tackle climate change. However, there are also limits to the strategy, which would be best used in tandem with an international strategy emphasising climate change per se. Firstly, as illustrated in the above paragraphs, India has already made some salient strides towards renewable energy production as a result of this strategy. Secondly, the scale of the transformation required to meet meaningful emissions reductions is likely to exceed any air pollution reduction efforts in the foreseeable future. This way, the scale of the problem risks becoming obscured if we indulge arguments for parsing climate change through the prism of air pollution.

Instead, we should see both of these developments as positive and mutually supportive. To be sure, there are many challenges remaining—both for India’s newfound climate leadership at the helm of the ISA, and for future city initiatives aimed at reducing air pollution. While we would do well to avoid becoming overly sanguine about our overall progress towards avoiding catastrophic climate change, these trends nevertheless demonstrate that there are strong bidirectional pressures and commitments that will continue to incline India towards effective action against climate change.

Jack Shield is completing a Master of International Relations (Advanced) at the Australian National University.

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Image credit: UK Department of International Development (Flickr: Creative Commons)