This year will deliver two distinct but deeply-related significant global agreements on climate change and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) preceded by a meeting of the heads of state on Financing for Development. This confluence is not a coincidence. It represents political recognition of scientific confidence that our current way of economic life is characterised by socially and environmentally unsustainable, and unacceptable, patterns at global as well as local levels. The scientific community has unequivocally pointed out that we are fast approaching critical thresholds in the earth system, increasing the risk of irreversible ecological damages, which will not only make a large number of people and communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but also undermine the partial achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Alarmed by the potential environmental catastrophe, some scientists of global repute constituting the Earth League have issued the Earth Statement, urging political leaders to take eight important decisions at the Paris climate conference to turn this challenge into an opportunity for a better future. The collective expectations from the global agreements on climate change and SDGs are twofold: ensuring better and equitable lives to global citizens, and protecting the earth from the risks and vulnerabilities due to climate change. It goes without saying that India too will need to play a constructive role during the negotiations in bringing about these critical decisions at Paris.
It is true that, contrary to common portrayal in the western media, India has already initiated ambitious plans to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases causing climate change. The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), in 2008, set specific targets balancing climate action with development imperatives. These targets are now being revisited and upscaled. Most significant of these is the aspirational goal of 175 GW of renewable energy and 10 GW of nuclear energy by 2022, coupled with the programme on Smart Cities. While these actions will have global mitigation benefits, India faces a difficult task ahead on adaptation at national level. With a large number of people, mostly poor, dependent on vulnerable economic sectors, particularly agriculture, and ecological zones, India is in urgent need of massive adaptation programmes. The incidents of extreme climate events in the last couple of years such as the Phailin Cyclone in 2013 emphasise the need for a large-scale campaign on capacity building, both in terms of raising awareness of people as well as building infrastructure for early warning, evacuation and resettlement.
India is rapidly urbanising. Building climate-resilient urban infrastructure, therefore, is India’s priority in the process of transition from rural- and agriculture-dependent population to an industry- and service-centric urban India. This transition should not only reduce current vulnerabilities to climate change but also minimise the risks that urban habitats are likely to face. For example, turning coastal villages into coastal towns and coastal towns into coastal cities should imply access to, besides economic opportunities, better climate information services, evacuation and rebuilding capacities and so on. Since much of the physical infrastructure is yet to be built in its different climatic zones, India is poised to be a laboratory of sustainable development for the world. India’s growth story, from now on, should ensure that it is not in conflict with safeguarding carbon sinks and vital ecosystems.
India cannot become a successful laboratory of sustainable development unless the world provides suitable conditions. India has made it clear that it is determined to take actions beyond its capabilities if necessary additional international support is made available. What should the international community, together with India, guarantee in the Paris Agreement then? The first and foremost requirement is that the global commitment to limit global warming to below 2-degree Celsius must be respected, which by no means implies absence of climate change induced vulnerabilities. The current path heads towards 4 to 6-degree Celsius warming by 2100 with unmanageable environmental challenges.
This would undermine even the boldest attempts India can make at achieving SDGs. Staying within the global carbon budget of 1,000 gigatonnes carbon-dioxide, therefore, is absolutely critical. An aggressive decarbonisation of global economy aiming at zero-carbon society around 2050 has to begin immediately. In addition, global cooperation to bring about unprecedented technological advances through targeted research, development, demonstration and diffusion of technologies with largest mitigation and adaptation benefits is an urgent requirement.
This will have to be an essential component of a global strategy to reduce vulnerability and build resilience. Of course, adaptation will require additional efforts including addressing compensation for loss and damages.
In guaranteeing such an outcome in Paris, the international community must provide room for manoeuvring for India in the available carbon budget. Equitable sharing of carbon budget along with mobilising additional climate finance for developing countries is critical for creating the room for manoeuvring that will enable India to become the laboratory of sustainable development. Rich countries must, therefore, take lead in decarbonising their economies and provide assistance to other countries, particularly India, in their quest for building climate-resilient economies and embarking upon a future of opportunities.
Leena Srivastava is acting director general, Manish Kumar Shrivastava is fellow, TERI. Views are personal