COP26: India’s Grandstanding, Poor Implementing

narendra modi

Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

In one of the most ambitious targets by a developing country to combat climate change, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday announced that India will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070. The announcement, made at the UN-led COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, will push the developed world to enhance climate finance for the 2021-2030 period. India’s five-point climate action plan, which PM Narendra Modi described as “panchamrit (five values)”, is set to give a firm push to India’s plans for increasing renewable energy, and switching to electricity and hydrogen fuels for transport.

Net zero basically refers to the balance between the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted and the quantity removed from the air. A country is said to have reached net zero when the quantity of greenhouse gases it adds to the atmosphere is equal to the quantity it manages to remove from the air - cancelling each other out.

However, India will continue to grow on fossil fuels for another 20 years, and only after that, its emissions will start to fall, show various studies done on the country’s energy basket. All this will also depend a lot on technology transfer from the western world and the installation of new green energy hubs in India, on which the policy is unclear as of now. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the just concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 26 almost prophetically said, “We want to do more to help developing countries accelerate the clean energy transition.” But the reality is that the Indian government is pushing to increase coal production to 1 billion tonnes.  There is unanimity among energy experts that India’s dependence on coal will have to be cut drastically in the next 10-15 years to achieve its net zero target, and the country will have to swiftly switch to cleaner fuels. 

LetIndiaBreathe, an environment communications collective, with network in 28 states, 8 union territories and some foreign nations, has been exposing the duality between promise and delivery of the current regime in India with regards to climate change urgencies. 

He also noted, “We need to include climate change policies in school syllabus.” Nothing can be truer than this. But, sadly, the Indian government has targeted young climate activists like Disha Ravi, Adivasis and even school Principals for raising awareness on environment if the state considers them too critical of the regime. Even the website of Let India Breathe and two others were blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India, a public sector firm, after the portals criticized the draft climate change policy of the government on scientific grounds. 

Modi also announced, “I had come with the concern for humanity.” In reality, adivasis, coastal communities, other vulnerable groups have been facing an increasing discrimination in the last 7 years, more than ever before. More projects are cleared which will take over the forests and coasts, the lifeline of climate stability. For example, the Tamil Nadu fishermen protesting against Kattupalli port expansion in Pulicat faced the ire of the State. Environmentalists claim that expansion of the port is illegal and prohibited under the Coastal Regulation of 2011 and 2019, with the fishermen raising voice noting, “The Sea belongs to the fishermen.”

Modi is right to say that the climate change is a big challenge for the agriculture sector throwing life and livelihood at the mercy of vagaries of nature. But, in reality, farmers from across India have voiced their concerns for a climate resilient systems and protesting for a year against corporate takeover of farmlands bringing in unforeseen changes in crop pattern and loss of soil arability and impacting climate negatively. Even projects like bullet train (this one now stalled) forcibly acquiring more and more farm land. The farm laws protest found echo during the PM’s Glasgow visit in this current trip. 

The PM is also right in saying at the COP26 conference that the traditional practices in cultivation and soil management must get appropriate attention in our policies. But in reality, Hidme Markam, an lady Adivasi climate and tribal rights activist of Chattisgarh, is still in jail and nomadic communities continue to be criminalized. Corporate ‘solutions’ to climate change get a government push, which obviously are targeted to profiteering from agriculture, nature, mining and forest products. 

PM Modi also raised the issue of railways of India targeting to become ‘net zero’ by 2030, which obviously sound great as India has the largest railways network of the world. But we are actually increasing the number of coal powered metros, killing forests and lakes for roads, using hydro, river fronts and waterways to kill the natural flow and quantum of water in the rivers. Privatization of the railways is in full swing which naturally will lack long-term climate change vision. 

The Prime Minister is bang on when he says that India has 17% of the world population but is responsible for only 5% of the emissions. That is because India is a poor nation and more than half the population is in subsistence level much below being a consumer who can emit harmful gases. Also, low emissions cannot be an excuse to be on the path to more emissions. India’s emission figures are low not because we have a conscious policy towards it, but because the emission levels of the developed nations are very high being based on a flawed profits-all capitalist systems and an overall system which consumes more than it conserves. The UN has estimated that India has suffered an average annual loss of USD 87 billion from extreme weather conditions, with floods, storms, cyclones, cold wavers, heat waves, blizzards etc being too frequent in this vast country. It is also important to look at what actually is the country doing to help the vulnerable communities that are living the climate crisis at this point of time. 

Modi is also very right to note that the lifestyle for environment protection has to be different instead of mindless and destructive consumption, even of things which are not actually needed. He rightly notes that mindful and deliberate utilization of resources is needed over mindless and conspicuous consumption. But in reality, the traditional artists and producers, people dependent on local jobs are slowly being cornered and gradually eliminated in India as we are moving towards a more globalized economy. It seems that the leader is gaslighting and grand-standing while from smart cities, to privatization of resources, to the rise in the wealth of crony capitalists, our economy has continued to go towards mindless consumption in the past 7 years. From 75% to 100% increase in wealth, the Ambanis and Adanis have gone for unprecedented rise in their wealth during the ongoing Corona pandemic, while 17 crores of people have lost jobs and India has recorded highest rate of joblessness since independence (loss of 45% jobs).

And, we continue to give extension to polluters, all thermal power plants should not get extension and keep choking our ecological future.  Undoubtedly, today around one fourth of India’s energy comes from renewable sources, but it needs to expand further and faster. Electrical Vehicles have also got a policy and shot in the arm, which at this point of time, more a propaganda than actual execution on ground.

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The author is Secretary of the Global Media Education Council, and till recently the Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University. 

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