Hands off India’s carbon emissions!

Hillary Clinton’s pressure on India to shrink its ‘carbon footprint’ is little more than eco-imperialism.

Sadhvi Sharma

Topics Science & Tech

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Last week, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, completed a five-day official visit to India. She charmed the Indian media. She visited Bombay’s famous Taj Hotel, the site of recent terrorist attacks, and met and hugged some women at a cooperative credit venture, before wrapping up her visit in the capital, New Delhi.

In-between all the smiling and handshaking before flashing cameras, and all the talk of the need for cooperation and mutual understanding between the US and India, Clinton also urged India to reduce its carbon emissions. But India’s minister for the environment, Jairam Ramesh, was having none of it. Ramesh said India’s need to develop should come before any reduction in carbon emissions, which is just so: Westerners have no business lecturing Indians on their ‘carbon footprint’. Ramesh asserted that India would not agree to legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Five months ahead of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, where environment ministers and officials from around the world will meet to thrash out a global deal on climate change, the Obama administration is keen to get India to agree to limit its emissions. With the Indian economy growing at a rate of around eight per cent a year, India is the fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. But the economic boom has lifted a growing portion of India’s population out of poverty. It is hard to see how such a positive trend could continue if India was pressured to reduce its carbon emissions, which would ultimately amount to putting a halt to ambitious development plans.

A primary aim of Clinton’s visit to India was to broker India’s ‘cooperation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions’. It was clear she meant business when, on arrival, she headed straight to the ITC Green Centre, an eco-friendly office complex in Gurgaon, outside New Delhi. There, she spoke about climate change, an issue ‘close to my heart’ (1).

In her speech, Clinton pointed out that India’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to grow by about 50 per cent between now and 2030, and claimed that curbing emissions would not dampen India’s economic growth. Praising India for its efforts to fight climate change, she marvelled at the eco-efficient ITC building, calling it a monument of the future, a symbolic statement to show the world the green way forward. Add to this Clinton’s rhetoric about international cooperation and a global framework to save the world, and it all sounded like perfect green idealism.

But behind these visions of a world with diminished greenhouse gas emissions, there lurks a serious concern with India’s growth. The fact that many more Indians today are able to fly more, drive more and consume more is disconcerting for greens both in the West and here in India, who romanticise about low-carbon lifestyles.

In the West, the impulse to achieve economic growth, material development and more comfortable lifestyles has now been replaced with the impulse to cut back and slow down. Human activities – from driving and shopping to large-scale industry and manufacturing — are under scrutiny, their worth or usefulness evaluated not in their own terms but according to the level of greenhouse gases they emit. Greens admonish us for taking too many flights, using too much electricity, taking too many showers, driving the wrong kinds of vehicles, buying the wrong kind of fruit and vegetables, and so on.

It is not the concern with climate change per se that drives environmentalist rhetoric, but a widespread unease with modernity. So the prospect of Indians and others around the world aspiring to the standards of living reached in the West is particularly alarming. As one green website explicitly states: ‘If the driving force behind apocalyptic Indo-Chinese emissions scenarios is aspiration to Western lifestyles, then the surest solution is to modify them. Climate change is not the root problem; it is just one of several critical environmental symptoms attributable to unsustainable lifestyles.’ (2)

It is not the impulse to solve climate change but to rein in growth that underpins the environmentalist demand to ‘slow down’. To those worried about carbon footprints, the industrial revolution and any development that followed is a blot on civilisation. And we in the developing world must be saved from our ignorant desires to emulate any of the material development achieved in the West. As Clinton warned in Bombay: ‘[The United States], along with other developed countries, have contributed significantly to the problem that we face with climate change… we are hoping that a great country like India will not make the same mistakes.’ (3)

In other words, Clinton’s advice is that Indians should not aspire to the rapacious lifestyles of Western economies. Apparently our greatness lies instead in our ability to make do and mend, to embrace eco-limits and avoid ‘over-consumption’.

It is too bad that environmentalists today are trying to deny Indians the chance to repeat the ‘mistakes’ that have led Westerners to enjoy longer, healthier lives, more leisure time and less drudgery, convenient systems of transport and communication, advanced technology and scientific breakthroughs. It is such ‘mistakes’ that poor countries need to make, and want to make.

Rising levels of consumption, and the greenhouse gas emissions that accompany them, are one sure measure of human activity and energy production and development. The annual rise in India’s industrial output has accelerated from six per cent per year to 10 per cent per year in the past decade. The government plans to build 12,000km of highways in this financial year alone. The satellite city of New Bombay will soon have its own airport, and an elevated metro rail is on the cards, too.

It is a good thing that, today, more Indians can take a quick and relatively cheap flight to destinations across the country and overseas. It is brilliant that more people have the opportunity to drive on our expanding network of roads. But with the World Bank estimating more than half a billion people in India still live under the ‘global poverty line’ of $1.25 per day, it is clear that development has not gone far enough. We need more, not less, investment in industry and energy production.

It is true that neither Clinton nor anyone else is overtly denying India’s right to develop and to lift large swathes of its population out of poverty. But we are urged to develop differently. ‘There is a way to eradicate poverty and develop sustainably that will lower significantly the carbon footprint of the energy that is produced and consumed to fuel that growth’, said Clinton.

The environmentalist fantasy of a sustainable life, however, is essentially anti-growth. The idea of sustainable development is a disingenuous way of redefining development to mean having less of it. In the context of the rural developing world, adopting ‘sustainable lifestyles’ amounts to subsistence farming as opposed to productive, mechanised farming, and hand pumps, boreholes and rope wells as opposed to piped water networks or large-scale irrigation and drainage systems.

Fossil fuels are essential to India’s development, but as it grows it will also wean itself away from fossil-fuel dependency. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has a vision of changing ‘the destinies of people around the world’, not by collecting compost in our backyards, but by pooling ‘our scientific, technical and managerial talents, with sufficient financial resources’ (4). India is also looking to lead in nuclear technology, aiming to supply 25 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050. India has made the most rapid growth in adoption of genetically modified crops: GM aubergine and rice are set to enter markets in less than three years, but the greens are vehemently opposed to this development, even though it could potentially make crops climate-proof and achieve greater food self-sufficiency (5).

At the root of climate-change politics is an attempt to monitor how we live our lives and to curb our consumption. That environmentalists in the West want to demand limits to growth in the developing world is nothing but eco-imperialism. We in India need more prosperity and greater wealth creation to ensure more freedom, better lives and real technological solutions to the practical challenges of climate change.

Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.

Previously on spiked

Sadhvi Sharma revealed one mad scheme to reduce India’s population and argued that poverty is not a lifestyle choice. Brendan O’Neill said Al Gore is an enviro-tyrant. Rob Lyons explained why the UN climate change talks in Bali ended in stalemate. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and India.

(1) Climate change: Hillary shares green thoughts with India, the Hindu, 19 July

(2) See OneWorld’s Climate change guide.

(3) Clinton: US Has Made Mistake By Contributing Significantly To Global Warming, Real Clear Politics, 18 July 2009

(4) See the PM’s speech on release of Climate Change Action Plan” on the Prime Minister of India website, 30 June 2009.

(5) See Bt brinjal: No outstanding bio-safety issues, the Hindu, 17 July 2009; and GM crops can meet India’s food, biofuel needs, Reuters, 25 February 2008

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Topics Science & Tech


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