After Paris, 6 ways to balance growth of economy and environment

  • Madhav Acharya
  • Updated: Dec 30, 2015 14:03 IST
A woman sits on a sand berm created by city workers to protect houses from El Nino storms and high tides in Los Angeles. After the world leaders reached the first truly universal climate pact, aimed at limiting average global warming to two degrees Celsius, the hard part now comes– following up on all the commitments. (AFP)

At the recently concluded Paris climate conference, India stepped forward to show that it is willing to take seriously its responsibility towards the issue of climate change. Despite the fact that our contribution to the problem is a mere fraction of the developed world, we understand that collective action will be required to address the issue. The initiative to launch an international solar fund is further proof that we do not intend to simply be coal hogs, but are interested in pursuing cleaner technologies, along with other nations that are blessed with abundant sunshine.

But now comes the hard part – following up on all the commitments. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road – and it will be a long and hard road ahead if we are to provide everyone with access to electricity. Of course, as any examination of the developed world reveals, it doesn’t stop there. Once you have the basics, you very quickly want to move into a nice house, fill it with appliances, get your own car as opposed to riding in a bus, start frequenting restaurants and movie halls, book trips to Singapore and London – in short, become a consumer. The few hundred million Indians that have moved into the middle class since liberalization in 1991 are all firmly established on this path – they will soon be joined by another 300 million more.

Unless, of course, we conceive a different vision for India. One that is more in line with the Father of the nation, who famously said “there is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed”. Had we followed his prescribed path, India would have adopted a model for development unlike any other nation – one focused on small-scale industries, centered around people and not machines – a realization of Ned Ludd’s dream, when he and his followers were busy smashing looms in early 19th century England. Instead, we adopted the Nehruvian model of building the temples of modern India – large scale dams and industries, ironically aping the Western model of development. That we did not leap forward like the other Asian tigers is unfortunate, attributable partly to our enormous population (330 million even at the time of independence) and the socialist policies that were in place for over four decades – otherwise we might well have been sitting comfortably at a $15,000 per capita GDP, emitting 7 tons of CO2 per person, and lecturing sub-Saharan Africa on the need to adopt a cleaner development pathway.

The India stand at the COP 21, the United Nations conference on climate change, at Le Bourget near Paris. Though India had a fractional contribution to the problem of climate change, it took a major part in the responsibilities to mitigate the impact of global warming and industrial pollution. (AFP)

Prescribing the Gandhian model for development at this stage will be near impossible, now that we have experienced almost a quarter century of the free market. While this has lifted millions out of poverty, brought huge amounts of investment into the country, and put us in a position that the West actually needs us to be part of any global agreement, it has also wreaked havoc on our urban environments, compromised the health of younger Indians, and created serious problems of domestic stability related to land acquisition. Within a generation, we have reduced hunger, but increased the number of people with diabetes; put millions behind the wheel of a car, but have the highest number of traffic fatalities in the world; increased the number of malls, but reduced the amount of open space for our children.

Here are six suggestions for how we might be able to strike a balance between economic and environmental well-being:

1. Change the metrics

For two decades now, we have eagerly measured our progress through GDP. From the time it was introduced in 1934, however, every economist, including its proponent Simon Kuznets, has cautioned against its use as a measure of the well-being of a nation. We should break with tradition and insist that we utilize an alternative, such as the Geniune Progress Indicator (GPI). Let’s take inspiration from our tiny neighbor to the north that has championed the Gross National Happiness index, and is using it to leapfrog to using clean technologies to ensure their environment is protected for posterity. The common man doesn’t measure his daily existence in terms of GDP, but in how much he has to eat, what clothes he has to wear and the sense of belonging within his family and community.

2. Don’t wait for technological miracles

Bill Gates and his fellow billionaires announced the creation of a new venture focusing on clean energies – but when you look at the historical evidence, these will be a long time coming. Energy transitions take several decades to complete, and we are right in the middle of moving to natural gas as the preferred “clean fuel”. Carbon capture or energy storage is unlikely to achieve widespread commercial deployment in anything less than two decades, during which time carbon emissions will continue to rise, and the effects of climate change will worsen. Nature has already provided a perfect carbon capture and storage technology in the form of trees and vegetation – as the PM pointed out in Paris, “when a child is born, we plant a tree”. Focus on harnessing small scale, homegrown technologies like the mitti cool fridge, and clean cookstoves, which will both help manage emissions, improve health and spur domestic creativity.

3. Use land efficiently

The US and China are blessed with abundant land, something that we lack relative to our population. Our solutions to develop, therefore, have to focus on solutions that utilize every square foot of space as efficiently as possible – something that has been done amazingly well in Japan and Europe. The vision of creating several smart cities is brilliant, but we need to ensure that the planners are using as their model not Houston, but Tokyo. The few planned cities we have in India, like New Delhi and Chandigarh, unfortunately would not pass muster as a 21st century solution. Recall that a few millennia ago, we had some of the finest city planning in the world at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, with sewage systems and water storage. Revive indigenous concepts for living rather than borrowing those designed for the temperate western climates.

PM Narendra Modi with minister of state for environment, forest and climate change Prakash Javadekar in the India Pavilion at the COP21 Climate Change conference in Le Bourget, outside Paris on Monday. (PTI)

4. Reward good behavior

As India’s urban and rural landscape start to change, people will react in different ways – some supporting the changes, others actively opposing them. The field of behavioral economics focuses on how to gently “nudge” people to change their habits to achieve the right outcomes, and we need to harness the most creative psychologists to understand how to change the mindset of the nation. Simple ways to reduce overcrowding, better traffic management and cooperating as a society can be driven either by our common humanity, or through subtle cues. I am confident that the world’s experts will jump at the chance to try and make an impact on our nation, complicated as it is.

5. Become resilient

While the Paris talks were in progress, a disaster was unfolding in our fourth most populated city. Severe flooding led to a few hundred deaths, and brought things to a standstill for almost a month. As we analyze what happened, let us focus on how to proactively mitigate the impact – the next time might be even worse. Indians are known for being resilient, but that is “by force, not choice” (as Naseeruddin Shah’s character in “A Wednesday” explains). People have to know that their government will pull out all the stops to help them in a time of need. Resiliency also needs to be built into any new development – building an airport runway in a flood zone is bad engineering.

6. Keep the population in check

Lastly, and by far the most challenging task, will be to manage population growth. Four decades ago, the erstwhile government launched a truly disastrous attempt at doing this and paid a hefty price. Since then, rising incomes and greater awareness have brought down the birth rate significantly – but it is still the equivalent of adding one Australia every year. Every single addition increases the denominator that is dividing the pie that we all have to share – and while we cite this demographic dividend as a strength, it will cease to be one in the face of polluted air, fattening foods and dangerous roads. Even his holiness the Pope skirted this issue in his encyclical, but at some level, we have to acknowledge that, unlike animals, humans have control over the proliferation of our species.

The PM has already thrown out a bold challenge of “Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan”. What we are about to embark on is orders of magnitude more challenging – it is not about simply putting waste into a bin and not on the road, but challenging an entire development paradigm to focus on sustainability and long term benefits. If we succeed, and for everyone’s sake I hope we do, it will literally be like a breath of fresh air for the nation.

The author works in the energy industry and tweets as @Oilcoholic.

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