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COP-26: How Can India Negotiate a Truce Between Climate Change and Development?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pooja Paswan
November 28, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the pledge—the first time India has set a net zero target by 2070—at the COP 26, Glasgow summit. The Prime Minister also announced that India will raise its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030 while meeting 50% of its energy demand through renewables. India has also committed to reducing 1 billion tons of projected emissions from now until 2030, and to achieving carbon intensity, reducing reduction by 45% at 2005 levels by 2030. India is the world’s fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the United States and the European Union. But its huge population means its emissions per capita are much lower than other major world economies. India emitted 1.9 tons of CO2 per head of population in 2019.

The Poverty-Climate Nexus

Poverty is commonly associated with low levels of income, but it is more accurately defined as the opposite of well-being. In the narrowest sense, well-being is equated with the satisfaction of material and psychological needs and wants, and is tantamount to being well-off, financially or materially.

Amartya Sen champions a more sophisticated perspective on poverty and well-being, which has gained widespread acceptance. In his view, the importance of a person’s freedom and capabilities is paramount. For Sen, well-being depends not simply on material conditions, but also on an individual’s ability to lead a meaningful life that he or she has chosen and has reason to value. Individuals are socially constituted creatures that have derived meaning and fulfillment from participation in society and are driven by complex motives beyond the satisfaction of material desires.

The Climate-Development Nexus

Climate and development challenges share several characteristic. They both require urgent actions while being long-term projects spanning several generations. Both call for response ranging from local to global levels, and demand actions by multiple stakeholders, including governments, the private sectors and civil society.

The Brutal Arithmetic of Climate Change

Any serious action on climate change confronts serious ethical issues of fairness and responsibility between people, nations and generations. There are two main injustices at stake. The first is that, because of delayed action by rich countries to curb their emissions, developing countries have been forced into a situation where they must commit to significant cuts in their own emission, even though they only contributed one-fifth of historical emissions between 1850 to 2002. Also, emissions are unequally distributed: the per capita energy-related carbon footprint is nearly 12 times higher in rich countries, and more than three times higher in middle-income countries, than in poor countries. This is what Lord Stern called, “The brutal arithmetic of climate change.” This is explained by the changing structure of the world economy and the growing contribution of big emerging economies (including Brazil, China and India).

The second injustice is that the impacts of climate change fall most heavily on those who contribute the least to global emissions: poor people. It is estimated that developing countries will bear approximately four-fifths of the cost of damages caused by a warming of 2 degree centigrade. Poor peoples’ natural trust funds—the fields, fisheries, forests and waterways on which they depend directly—will be increasingly at risk because of climate change.

Making Cities Sustainable, Livable and Resilient

Cities are one of the decisive arenas in the drive to protect the climate and eradicate poverty. Given the rapid rate and massive scale of urbanization, successfully tackling climate change and development challenges in cities is crucial. Cities generate 80% of the world’s GDP and account for a similar share of global emission of greenhouse gases. They are engines of growth, hubs of innovation and provide the best available means to absorb growing pools of labor as the global population grows.

Since cities are difficult to reshape once they are built, it is imperative that climate risks, environmental concerns and social concerns are integrated into urban development plans at the earliest possible stage. Repeating the mistakes of many sprawling cities in rich countries that are more suited for cars than people will create lock-in to a future of vulnerability, rising oil dependence, severe urban air pollution and rising greenhouse gas emissions for possibly hundreds of years to come.

Balancing Poverty and Climate Change

Poverty reduction and climate protection are interdependent challenges that share common characteristics, such as the notions of equity, social justice and sustainability, to provide common moral justification. Core principles are guiding both. Understanding vulnerability context is key to understanding how climate hazards translate into development impacts. Because development and climate outcomes are causally linked and co-determined by development choices and pathways, development and climate change challenges cannot be effectively tackled in isolation. Instead, integrative responses that are sensitive to development needs, and development efforts that are informed by climate-awareness are required.

Author: Pooja Paswan is currently enrolled at the John.F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. She has Ph. D in Public Administration and specializes in Public Policy. She was recipient of the ASPA 2019 Founders Fellow. She has worked extensively in the area of development administration and policy. She can be reached at https://jmi.academia.edu/PoojaPaswan and [email protected]. Twitter @poojapaswan

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