18 May 2009: The Indian Congress and climate

The Congress Party has won India’s general election, so will be in power for a further five years – and it looks like its position will more be more secure than during the previous five. This is significant because, arguably, it is crucial for India to now have a strong government as it is impossible to understate India’s importance as far as climate change is concerned.

You can see this by looking at some simple figures. India’s economy has grown by over 8% a year over the last decade and is expected to recover more quickly from the global recession than most other economies. Its energy demands have increased at less than half this rate, but, nevertheless, there is a major and growing gap between energy supply and demand. India is both the third-largest consumer and third-largest producer of coal in the world and 70% of its electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants. In addition, it is currently building the world’s largest gas power station (generating 3.5Gw of power). Electric vehicles, which Indian industry is promoting strongly, will also substantially increase demand for electricity. Therefore, the rapid expansion of low-carbon electricity is crucial to India.

The Congress manifesto promised significant action:

“Climate change has now emerged as a serious challenge for the world community. India too has begun to feel its impact in different ways. The Congress-led UPA government has already unveiled a National Action Plan for Climate Change. It is an acknowledgment of our responsibility to take credible actions within the overall framework of meeting the development aspirations of our people for higher economic growth and a higher standard of living. This action plan will be implemented in letter and spirit.”

This June 2008 Action Plan commits the Indian government to:

  • Ensuring that India’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions do not exceed those of developed countries.
  • Producing 1Gw of solar photovoltaic panels a year.
  • Installing 1Gw of solar thermal.
  • Closing down inefficient coal-fired power stations.
  • Expanding forest cover from 23% to 33% of India’s territory.
  • Protecting forest cover in the Himalayas, where there are glaciers that are a major source of India’s water supply.
  • Strengthening the enforcement of vehicle fuel economy standards and using pricing measures to encourage the purchase of efficient vehicles.

India has extensive renewable resources. However, almost all its renewable installed capacity consists of large hydro plants, which have caused serious loss of homes and agricultural land. And 80% of Indians are not connected to the electricity grid, so on-site renewables like solar and wind should be rapidly installed. The micro-credit approach has been successful in India – a similar approach to micro-renewables is now needed.

Congress’ statement that “India has begun to feel [the] impact of climate change” is a dramatic understatement. Monsoons in central India have become more intense over the last 50 years. Droughts are another increasing problem – India has 16% of the global population, but only 4% of its freshwater resources. Up to two million Indians are affected by malaria each year and climate change enables this disease to spread more quickly and easily.

India is already spending over 2% of its GDP on adaptation to climate change and, without rapid and radical reductions in global emissions, it will soon have to spend a great deal more. With a new government, India has a chance to make a difference over climate change. We hope it does and wish it luck.

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