India is Covering Up its Public Health Crisis with Claims to the Historical Responsibility of Developed Countries
The COP21 negotiations establishing an international framework agreement to mitigate climate change recently closed in Paris, and heads of state around the globe are heralding the finished agreement. U.S. President Obama called it “ambitious” and Indian Prime Minister Modi has claimed that “climate justice has won” with an agreement that has “no winners or losers”. Yet the issues are more complex. Activists critiquing the agreement have rightly pointed out that the plan does not go far enough, and Sunita Narain, Director of the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi points out that the agreement erases the historical responsibility that the United States and Europe must assume for having overwhelmingly contributed to climate change up to now. If the U.S. and Europe took this responsibility seriously, they would be the largest investors in carbon mitigating technologies and in supporting developing countries to reduce carbon emissions.
While we agree with Narain’s criticism of the agreement and her insistence on the historical responsibility of countries in North America and the EU, this is not sufficient as a rationale for India’s own unsustainable plans for development, which include significant expansion of coal-burning power plants in the immediate future. And although Prime Minister Modi’s declaration that “climate change is a major global challenge that was not of India’s making” is historically accurate, it does not justify ignoring India’s potential to lead the world in sustainable development.
India, the largest of the developing countries, has the potential to be a leader in the mitigation of climate change−by virtue of its natural abundance of solar, geothermal, wind, oceanic and other sources of alternative energy. India also has enormous human capabilities, which include not only its many engineers and its many (mostly English-speaking) students in technical programs, but also its many working-class people with traditions of making things work by endlessly tinkering and ingeniously adapting available materials to meet many crucial needs. With such potential, India does not need to take the path that the U.S., Europe, and, now, China have taken towards social and economic development.
If the US, the EU and the larger developing countries, including India, want to save the planet and eliminate poverty, then the approaches that guided 20th century development and energy use need to be fundamentally discarded. They were disastrous for the environment as well as for human health.
Indian cities are already suffocating from smog and airborne pollution. Levels of the most dangerous particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, are as much as 33 times higher in Indian cities than the highest level deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization. Childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases are skyrocketing as a result of urban emissions, but not everyone is suffering equally. The poorest Indians and those whose work leaves them outdoors throughout the day suffer respiratory diseases at rates far higher than the upper- middle-class and wealthy. Not only do working Indians suffer, but also their children−who are potential future workers in new industries. And this does not only apply to the urban poor. Even in many rural areas, the winds bring in smog and pollution that can affect those future workers as children, and increase asthma and other respiratory diseases. Treating these diseases is far more costly than avoiding them in the first place. A decade or more of coal-powered development would inevitably produce a new generation of young people with compromised health, who would be a burden on the health-care system and unable to contribute effectively to the country’s needs.
The public health expense of caring for a population suffering from the health complications of unsustainable development will nullify any economic benefits of a sustainable path to development. A recent report by the World Bank argues that the poor worldwide will be the most affected by climate change; the World Bank expects that global rates of malaria will increase by 5% alongside a rise in global temperatures of 2-3 degrees Celsius. Water scarcity will increase as well. For economic development to eliminate poverty and its consequences, it must go forward hand-in-hand with the phasing out of the human causes of global warming. It is depressing that this even needs to be said, but too often policy makers only look only at short-term financial consequences and not even 5-10-year projected costs, let alone longer-term costs. In the present case, we are looking at an unprecedented disaster for people today and in the next 2 or 3 decades.
The main priority now must be to respond to the emergency of climate change by developing alternative sources of energy on a massive scale and encouraging all investment to phase out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. This means that there are no excuses that can justify replicating the dangerous historical mistakes of the West.
The only globally viable approach to development is insisting that all new investment, either by national or foreign developers, make use exclusively of alternative and clean forms of energy. China is beginning to do this by asking Tesla to bring in electric cars, but it is still giving too much attention to fossil-based sources of energy. Even the US government and investors need to find ways to compensate countries for abandoning polluting energy sources, and to reward companies that jump ahead, and in places like India, to make use of its growing group of engineering graduates and scientists who can quickly begin to develop new products and approaches−especially if given challenges and offered rewards. While the ingredients are there, it might mean really shifting gears both in the schools and in industry, in order to do what will also be healthy for the poor as well as the middle classes and wealthy. It is also imperative to make use of, and further develop, recent advances in solar technology, such as light-sensitive nanoparticles, and especially advances in energy storage such as molten-salt storage, solar panels with built-in batteries, and solar highways (roads lined with solar panels).
Already some developing countries, such as Uruguay, are choosing to bypass the fossil-fuel-dependent industrialization and go straight for solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and other forms of sustainable energy. Though small, Uruguay relies on a mixture of energy resources including wind turbines, solar power, hydropower, and biomass. Taken together, renewable energy now makes up 95% of Uruguay’s energy mix–far beyond the global average of 12%, according to the Manchester Guardian. Despite the question of size, Uruguay’s example shows that countries can develop sustainability if the political will exists to do so. One important factor is a strong partnership between Uruguay’s public and private companies. Uruguay’s state-owned national electric company promotes renewable energy by auctioning power purchase agreements to private firms, according to a 2015 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organization.
Getting Uruguay’s clean energy policy off the ground was also dependent on multi-partisan support: started by the government in 2008, it was endorsed by all political parties in 2010, according to IRENA. Ramón Méndez, the country’s head of climate change policy, also notes that switching to clean energy has not resulted in higher consumer prices. Uruguay’s state utility guarantees fixed energy prices for 20 years, encouraging foreign companies like the German wind power firm Enercon to build plants.
Morocco currently draws 94-97% of its energy from fossil fuels, but that has not stopped its government from committing to drawing half of its energy from solar and wind sources by 2020. Morocco’s desert climate provides 3,000 hours of sunshine each year, and the government is planning to capture that potential by building 4 interlinked solar mega-plants.
Other countries, especially those with long coastlines, are even erecting floating solar panels on the water. All of this clearly needs massive funding−but probably less than what would be needed to first build coal and gas energy plants, only to junk them later and replace them with sustainable alternatives, which seems to be India’s current plan.
As we have noted, climate change and poverty alleviation are clearly related. The smog from coal, and even from oil and gas-based industries, affects the poor even more than the upper and upper-middle classes with their air-conditioned and well-ventilated homes and vehicles. Why is the Indian Government proposing to replicate the west’s mistakes? Newer forms and methods of using solar technology are becoming cheaper as we write and will become far cheaper over the next 5 years. India should be demanding, as China is now beginning to do, that investors provide alternative energy. Why is China inviting Tesla to start building electric cars in its country, and not India? In some ways it might be easier for India, with its English-speaking educated workers, to invite such people in to counter what exists, and to offer both training and new types of jobs for Indian workers.
Development that gives a preference to sustainability and environmentally responsible industries can create a society that offers healthier lives to all classes of people. If the coal and oil are left underground and new industries built that use alternative energy, and if India’s technological creativity can be mobilized in this cause, India can become an innovative new place with forward-looking industries. And the leaders who succeed in promoting such changes will deservedly go down in history as true benefactors of their people and their country.