Climate Change in India and the State’s Response

  • June 7, 2019

The naïve, uncritical and often absolute belief in state as the ultimate expression of authority, is symptomatic of the all-pervasive capitalistic real we live in. A cursory look at some facts about India’s increasing vulnerability to global warming and the Indian state’s response to the same shows that the state can get away with anything if it is strong, loud and visible. Writes Soumitra Ghosh.



Global Warming and India: a quick factcheck


According to the Second Biennial Update Report submitted by Government of India (GoI) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2018 (GoI 2018), the country is becoming hotter as the maximum (day) temperatures rise. Also, the annual mean temperature rises, because of a sharp rise in the minimum temperatures. Other independent studies confirm that India is experiencing heat wave conditions and the numbers of heat wave and severe heat wave days per summer season are increasing all over the country. Surface air temperatures have been observed to have ‘dramatically’ increased even in the high mountain regions.


India’s monsoon cycle has been disrupted: analysis of data from Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) reveals an increase in the frequency of dry days in most parts of the country. Also, while the frequency of light and light to moderate rainy days has decreased, very heavy to extremely heavy rainfall events have increased; there is a threefold increase in extreme rainfall events over central India during the period 1950–2015, mainly because of sudden surges of additional moisture in the air.


Disruption of the monsoon cycle leads simultaneously to more frequent as well as intense droughts and floods. Though extreme rain events have increased, the mean monsoon rainfall has declined by 10% -30% in central Indian regions where about 60% of the agriculture is rain-fed.  Consequently, the area and intensity of droughts in India increase—more droughts of longer periods are now also happening in regions of India known for good rains, such as—parts of the North East, Jharkhand since 2000, Kerala until the recent floods of 2018. This situation can only worsen in future: lengthier drought periods in the fertile Gangetic plains, the forested central Indian highlands, the Himalayan region and generally the arid western India are poised to, affect water availability, and thus all water-dependent agriculture. The Central Water Commission of India predicts that the country will reach a state of ‘water-stress’ before 2025 when the availability falls to below 1000m3 per capita.


Floods too keep on recurring, causing loss of life and extensive damage. The floods in recent years in the states of Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Kerala made damages worth US$79.5 billion during the period 1998-2017. Once again, this situation could only worsen: all the four major geo-ecological regions in India—the Himalayas, Western Ghats, coastal areas and North East—are likely to experience more floods.


People in India are dying from climate-change related natural disasters such as droughts, floods, rainstorms, cyclones (India experienced 431 major natural disasters during the 1980-2010 period), which are now generically called extreme weather events or EWEs. According to a report prepared by Germanwatch, an independent development organization, in the 20-year period between 1998 and 2017, India lost, on an average, 3,660 people every year, with a total of 73,212 casualties.


Going by the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the already vulnerable population  of India would suffer more from natural disasters, leading to greater poverty, food, health and livelihood insecurity in the near future. More natural disasters in mountain areas would mean more frequent landslides and glacier lake outburst floods, and this could have devastating effects on biodiversity. Rising sea levels pose serious threats to several regions of coastal India. Also, the severity of tropical storms will increase. According to a recent World Bank Report, states in the central, northern, and northwestern parts of India would prove most vulnerable to changes in weather.


Climate Change in India and the state’s response


How does India respond to the threat of climate change so far? When we talk about India here, we don’t usually talk about the large majority of Indian people whom the climate change impacts hit the worst: the coastal and other riverine fishing communities, the rural poor such as agricultural workers, landless, small and marginal peasants, the tribals, the forest communities and the mountain people, the urban poor such as the increasing number of migrants, slum-dwellers, unorganized sector workers and the elderly, children and women. Climate change doesn’t make India’s noveau riche vulnerable; instead it provides them new opportunities to grow richer. Rich corporations of India and their growing white-collar entourage benefit from India’s responses to climate change. When we talk of India’s response, we talk of Indian state, which serves the interest of the rich. The other India, where the greater part of the country’s population lives, has started to respond in an altogether different way. We will come to that later.


Response 1: Sticking to Coal

So far, India’s primary response to climate change, apart from renaming its Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoEF) as Ministry of Forests, Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and being more visible and vocal at various international climate summits and conferences, has consisted of burning more coal. The Coal Ministry proudly states that the production of coal in India has been raised from a level of about 70 Million Tonnes (MT) in early 1970’s to 676.48 (provisional figures) MT in 2017-18. Coal India, the biggest and state-owned coal producer In India, has produced 527.7 MT in the April 18-February 19 period, registering a 6.6 percent growth from last year (495.1). The government sees nothing wrong with this: calling ‘Indian coal’ a ‘unique eco-friendly fuel source to domestic energy market for the next century and beyond’, it declares that ‘coal will continue to occupy centre-stage of India’s energy scenario’.  Though most of the coal mines are state-owned, private sector participation in thermal power production is growing. The private sector contributes 87000.30MW, or 39.02% of the total power generated.


In October 2015, immediately before the Paris Climate Summit, India came out with its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC. This ‘voluntary’ pledge for emission reduction claimed that India intends “to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33%-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels”. In other words, the volume of emissions would be about one-third less for every unit of GDP. But even going by conservative estimates of expected GDP growth over the period 2005-2030, this formula would very likely increase India’s emissions. Also, measuring a country’s emissions intensity relative to its GDP or per capita would never work in case of a huge and diverse country such as India, where social and economic inequalities have only grown in the last few decades.


Understandably, India’s carbon emissions spiral upwards: according to data given by the Indian Government to UNFCCC, India’s total annual green house gas (GHG) emissions have increased from 2,136.8 Mt (metric tonnes) of CO2e in 2010 to 2,607.5 Mt in 2014. (The unit ‘‘CO2e’’ represents an amount of a GHG whose atmospheric impact has been standardized to that of one unit mass of carbon dioxide (CO2 ), based on the global warming potential (GWP) of the gas.) Given India’s obstinate insistence on continuing with coal as its ‘primary energy source’ and the fact that Indian government is opening newer coal blocks all over the country in a tearing hurry, these figures would go up substantially in near future. India still has a huge and as yet untapped coal reserve of about 301.56 billion tons. It is also important to remember that around 92.09% of coal production of India (in 2014-15) was from open-cast mines.


Response 2: The illusion of mitigation

Despite official hyperboles regarding growth of renewable energy, climate change mitigation in India remains largely a chimera—it has so far consisted of the by now thoroughly discredited clean development mechanism (CDM) and other homegrown varieties of carbon trading such as renewable energy trading (RET) and perform, achieve and trade (PAT), besides the usual ‘energy labelling programme for appliances’, ‘energy conservation building code’, ‘promotion of energy saving devices’ like CFLs and ‘energy audits of large industrial consumers’, all of which supplant possible actual actions to reduce carbon emissions with rhetoric and dubious mathematics. In India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) adopted in 2009, nearly all these measures were thrown in liberally, without bothering to explain regulation and enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the NAPCC claimed that “India has in place a detailed policy, regulatory, and legislative structure that relates strongly to GHG mit­igation”.


India’s INDC stated that it would have “about 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030”. The government sources keep on presenting similar figures in all official data since: as of 28 February 2019 India reportedly has more than 36% of its total 350162.48MW installed capacity from ‘non fossil-fuel sources’, which includes large hydropower as well as nuclear plants. Going by installed capacity figures, the renewables’ share is more than 21%. ‘Installed capacity’ figures are deceptive though—actual generation can be a lot different. For instance, during April 2018-February 2019, only 9.27% of India’s total power generation came from renewables such as wind, biomass, solar and small hydro. Generation figures vary from month to month as well; according to another, unofficial source, the share of renewables was as low as 6.4% in October 2018.


Because both renewable power production and energy efficiency in industries have been made carbon-tradable through market instruments such as renewable energy certificates (RECers) and PAT, the scenario becomes even more murky and opaque. Though the Indian government has created elaborate institutional mechanisms such as an Energy Efficiency Bureau and set up new power exchanges to facilitate trade, there is no data in public domain as to the identity of either the sellers (designated generators) or the buyers (designated consumers), and exactly how much money Indian corporations mint by selling their emission reduction capabilities or increased energy efficiency.


Rapid growth in terms of both installed capacity and actual generation in wind and solar power production in India has other, socio-environmental, concerns. Moderately large to large wind and solar projects require plenty of land, which in India cannot be obtained without encroaching upon community lands and village commons. Also, big private sector corporations with long track records of environmental and human rights abuses have collared the larger share of the renewables; for instance, the Adani group of companies, which owns coal mines and gigantic thermal power plants in India and elsewhere, is also the biggest producer of solar power in India. Similarly, Suzlon, the self-proclaimed ‘world leader’ in wind power generation either owns or leases out–to other big corporate such as the Tata–most of the wind energy projects in India. Both Suzlon and Adani run strings of CDM projects, and have been accused of widespread fraud, land-grab and coercion.


Response 3: Forests as ‘net’ sinks

India’s third response to climate change is to declare its forests as ‘net carbon sinks’: In its last official submission to UNFCCC, India claims that its emissions figures of 2,607,488 Gg (gigagram) of CO2e of greenhouse gases (GHGs) for 2014 “were without Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF)”. The “LULUCF sector” remained a net sink”, and considering emissions and removals from the LULUCF sector, net national emissions were 2,306,295 Gg of CO2e”(GoI 2018). In other words, India’s forests and trees outside forests have together ‘removed’ 301192.69 Gg of CO2 of GHGs, about 12% of India’s estimated emissions, from the atmosphere. These figures somewhat correspond to the figures for India’s emissions growth (roughly 18 percent) in the 2010-2014 period. The claim that India’s forests and tree cover act “as a major sink of CO2” has been pretty consistent over the years; an earlier official document states that “the annual CO2 removals by India’s forest and tree cover” neutralizes “11.25 % of India’s total GHG emissions”, which is “equivalent to offsetting 100% emissions from all energy in residential and transport sectors; or 40% of total emissions from the agriculture sector”.


It would be good to reiterate that scholars as well as activists kept on questioning the empirical as well as methodological foundations of the carbon storage data—the actual change in India’s forest cover, the carbon storage capacity of India’s forests as well as trees outside forests and estimates of emissions from deforestation. Trying to establish its case for India’s-forests-as-sinks, India has fudged the data by tweaking even the methodology of carbon accounting. Environmental movement groups in India have time and again pointed out the lies inherent in India’s forest carbon estimates and claims. Ignoring all objections and protests, the Indian state went ahead with its agenda of commoditising India’s forests, which became more prominent during the last five years’ rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2014 the Draft National REDD Plus Policy(it has since then been finalized) was announced, followed by the 2015 Guidelines for handing over ‘degraded’ forests to private players mainly for raising plantations, Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act of 2016, Draft National Forest Policy in 2018 and finally, the Draft Amendments to Indian Forest Act 2019. All of these constitute the policy architecture for enclosing, monetising and selling the still vast Indian forest commons.


Neoliberal policy reforms enacted or proposed in last five years of the BJP Government’s rule seek to undo democratic reforms initiated during the tenure of the previous United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government; for instance the landmark 2006 Forest Rights Act(FRA) and Amendments to the Wild Life Protection Act 2006. Both these legislations, in particular the FRA, together with the earlier National Forest Policy of 1988 and PESA (Panchayat Extension Act to the Scheduled Areas), sought to provide a kind of policy framework that brought welcome reliefs for the beleaguered Indian forest communities and marked significant departures from the hitherto followed colonial model of forest management based on coercion and extraction. The FRA seeks to supplant the infamous forest raj—feudal-colonial rule of forest bureaucracy—with decentralised and localised control and governance, and in the long term, better-looked-after and cared-for bio-diverse forests in place of a bricolage made of ‘logging’ coupes, largely monoculture commercial plantations and so-called human free conservation areas, all of which relentlessly displace forests and their human and non-human inhabitants. No wonder that the state was loath to implement the law; forest officers of all ranks, corporate-owned big media and big conservation NGOs kept on opposing it from day one. Inversely, new movements in opposition to extractive industries and state stranglehold over forests increasingly started to mobilise around the implementation of FRA, despite lack of political articulation and inchoate organisational formations. The new movements picked up older legacies and threads, albeit, but also turned state laws such as FRA and PESA into sites of new struggles.



The author Soumitra Ghosh is a social and environmental activist.



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  • comments
    By: Chandra Vikash on June 7, 2019

    Valuable information and concerns. Thinking aloud why are we even depending upon GOI or any of the nation-states to avert climate breakdown knowing so well that they are part of the problem and continue to remain so till Armageddon.

    Here is what I would like to propose to overcome this challenge as I share from a conversation with climate activists Janine O’Keefe and Prince George regarding the latest pledge from United Nations and how it falls way short of what is needed to avert Climate Breakdown
    Janine OKeeffe: No mention of a safe pathway under 1.5C!
    No deep adaptation work, via citizen assemblies!
    Bound to fail our climate again!
    We have no more time for this lack of deep solutions advertising!
    With reference to:
    CV: Deep changes cannot come from the current structure of nation-states. We have little recourse but to call for devolution of nation-states to smaller localised abundant and circular economy communities that each must commit to be carbon neutral in 12 months and 20% net absorption of carbon year on year till 2050.

    This can only come from sustained civil obedience movement and to mobilise the 3.5% critical mass of people to bring about the necessary changes.

    Prince George: Wouldn’t it be too much to ask for to divide nation-states in order to act on climate crisis? Would it be possible considering the ramped up nationalistic fervor prevailing in many countries including the US which is among the biggest contributor to climate change? I would rather support increased civil disobedience movements which pressurize the governments to act on climate emergency with utmost priority as in a war like situation. As citizens, we hold the real power to get things done. For that more mobilization of the public is needed.

    CV: Thank you for your practical concern. At this moment of reckoning though we must rise to occasion to be impractical in order to gear up for the impossible.

    I just saw your article linking climate breakdown to superstorms. So I can’t be preaching to the converted. ☺

    If you noticed I have called for devolution and not division. The devolution of power to localised autonomous communities is distinctly possible today, simply because the global social media today has already overpowered nation-states as the information aggregator with better capabilities to take faster and prompt decisions and feedback. Nation-states are just a powerful as kings were in the era before. Their time has come and gone. Long live the king!

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