The government’s National Action Plan on Climate Change is less a detailed policy document than a statement of broad principles. And this is the way it should be. At its core, the policy is about handling carbon emissions. Handling carbon emissions is about setting patterns of energy consumption. (Livestock emit plenty of carbon but slaughtering holy cows is not a policy option.)
When a country has eight per cent economic growth, when half of its population is still in the process of getting access to electricity and when it is experiencing a revival of its once dead manufacturing sector, energy use is bound to rise. But curbing carbon emissions inevitably dampens energy consumption — and undermines economic growth, mass electrification and industrial development. This is because energy is still very much a fossil fuel and carbon-heavy business. Other than nuclear, all renewable energy forms are either experimental or uneconomic. They may be the future, but they cannot drive present-day growth.
The plan recognises that there’s a tradeoff between carbon emissions and economic growth that India has to be careful about accepting. There is also an acceptance that India has a responsibility to try and mitigate climate change — but not at the cost of poverty alleviation.
The plan lays out a fairly comprehensive set of anti-carbon policies, ranging from forestation to waste management. There are a few weaknesses as well: there is no mention of two India-specific carbon burdens: subsidised diesel and the 250 million tonnes of firewood and dung burnt by the poorest. Diplomacy also gets no mention.
The plan will face brickbats because of such lacunae. By refusing to accept carbon emission limits, India can expect denunciation from the West for failing to make the necessary ‘sacrifice’ for global good. It will be attacked by homegrown environmentalists who have absorbed the catastrophic discourse that grips green circles. And losing the rhetorical battle will open India to the threat of trade sanctions and worse by the West.
The plan understands India must grow, but on a low-carbon path. More important, it accepts that much of India’s population lives in poverty and that the country cannot afford closing options that could bring its tangible disaster to an end.