Climate: The US needs to do more – and India needs to, too

Shortly after the IPCC published the first installment of its AR6 report, The Wire Science produced a short video explaining the report’s salient points. It swiftly met with some backlash from some scientists, who were miffed that the video spoke about India reducing its carbon dioxide emissions without emphasising that the US and many European nations needed to commit to greater reductions than others.

I’m wary that repeatedly stressing that point could lead to a mindset that if the US, the UK, Germany, etc. don’t reduce their emissions, India has a free-pass to not reduce its emissions either. From a bird’s eye view, this ‘free pass’ might seem like a distant possibility considering, according to Climate Action Tracker, India is on course to do its bit to keep the world’s average surface temperature increase below 2º C over pre-industrial levels – the Paris Agreement line. However, there are two issues here that should dispel this sense of satiation.

First, climate change will affect India more than it will affect most other countries, and what India needs to do to stave off the worst of these effects is not something Climate Action Tracker or any other global monitor measures. Second, ‘they are not doing it, so we won’t either’ is a not-so-distant possibility because it has already turned up in some narratives – but especially ones concerned with getting people out of poverty.

The latter, we are told, is a carbon-intensive exercise, but we must also consider how and to whom the benefits of such development accrue, considering arguments that India should be allowed to emit some more carbon dioxide for some more time typically emerge when a hydrocarbon extraction project in Tamil Nadu, a transshipment project in Nicobar, an iron-ore mine in Goa, a railway line in Maharashtra, an oil pipeline or sand-mine in Assam, a solar-power plant in Rajasthan or a diamond-mine in Bundelkhand is at stake.

As M. Rajshekhar has written in Seminar, one big difference between the UPA I/II and the BJP I/II governments is that the former was corrupt and sought profits, while the latter is corrupt and seeks rent. Under the BJP, Adani, Reliance, Essar and a few other corporate groups have benefited inordinately to the exclusion of most others, as a result oligopolising a swathe of the country’s natural resources, including forests, mountains, water bodies and non-agricultural land. This is not sustainable development and can’t possibly lead to it either.

In this sense, Rajshekhar wrote for CarbonCopy, “the country’s inability to lift its people out of poverty shouldn’t become an unlimited pass to pump greenhouse gases into the air.” That is, if eliminating poverty is taking the form of allowing Adani, Reliance, Essar, etc. to pad their bottom lines by building roads, airports and railway tracks (often to the rejection of all ecological wisdom), then the emissions resulting from these activities don’t deserve to be excused. And considering the incumbent government has made a habit of accelerating and approving such projects, the added pressure of having to cut emissions is a good thing.

On the first count, that climate change will affect India more than most: climate policy expert Kapil Subramanian broke down the IPCC report’s predictions in three different emissions scenarios for the South Asia region, and found that “the 1º C difference in warming in South Asia between the SSP 2-4.5 and the SSP 1-2.6 scenarios is more than worth fighting for.” (This is the difference between global mean surface temperature rise of 1.8º C and 2.7º C.)

As examples, he discusses projected weather patterns – which we ought to consider as conservative ‘estimates’ – over India corresponding to the scenarios: more days of extreme heat, more flood-causing rainfall and longer summer monsoons, and extreme events that happened once a year likely happening 4-6 times a year. Climate Action Tracker or any other similar entities that take a big-picture view of India’s actions are blind to these considerations, to which India alone can, and must, respond.

So while emphasising that the US and some European countries should do more at every turn is important in some fora, we don’t have to do it at every turn all the time. Instead, we need to flip our own demands, bearing in mind that ‘cutting emissions’ – i.e. mitigation – isn’t the full picture. India needs to cut its own emissions, irrespective of how much the US, the EU, etc. are cutting, while transitioning to sustainable development (long fricking shot but we must demand it), and, on a related note, make its adaptation policies better and more just.

The US needs to do more; India needs to do more as well.