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FEATURE: The Challenge of a Low Carbon Economy

Sunita Narian is the Director of the Center for Science and Environment, based in New Delhi, India. The CSE is a public interest research and advocacy organization that lobbies for development that is sustainable and equitable

For us living in South Asia, climate change is real; it is already dangerous and heading towards catastrophe. We need emission reductions urgently and drastically. South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions where the poor are the victims of the emissions of the rich. To make matters worse, the North wants to shift the burden of mitigation – cutting emissions – onto us. They do not want to take tough domestic action. That is why they are looking for ‘offsets’ – planting trees etc in others’ lands and selling the dream of silver bullets like Carbon Capture and Storage.

India must (and is) reducing emissions in its own interest but in the negotiations we should not compromise our position. We must reassert the principle of equity. At home, it is in India’s benefit to act and the government has established 8 missions on climate change as part of their national action plan. The first is the solar mission and it is ambitious. The plan is to increase solar power up to 1100 MW by 2013 and they are investing US$ 20 billion for 25 years. The second mission is on enhanced energy efficiency and we have the “Perform, Achieve and Trade Scheme” (PAT) for major Indian industries and the programme to install Compact Fluorescent Lamps in households across the country, replacing incandescent bulbs. The third mission is on Sustainable Urban Development. The government plans to improve public transport in 10 cities and set guidelines for sustainable habitat standards for conditions under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

The fourth mission is the National Water Mission, which will compile data on water in the public domain and focus attention on groundwater augmentation and water use efficiency. The fifth is the Green India Mission under which there will be 10 million ha of increased forest cover (still under preparation). The sixth mission in on Sustainable Agriculture, which includes water use efficiency, water harvesting and improved soil management. The seventh is the Himalayan Mission and the last one is the Strategic Knowledge Mission.

The challenges for us in India are: Can we reduce emissions substantially when the world has not been able to do so? What does low carbon growth mean? What will it cost? And can we afford it without a global deal to pay for our transition? The transition will certainly cost us and India will be investing in the low-hanging fruit. The country is already making big efforts to reduce emissions since the cost of energy is so high. But this is not enough and in the current growth paradigm the technology emission reduction trajectory is stagnant. We need changes in the way we do business.

Take the power sector we are heavily dependent on coal (67.8 %). Given our 8% growth rate, under a low carbon strategy (which means more installed large and small hydro-power plants, wind farms and solar panels) we can bring down our dependency on coal based power plants to around 57.7%. If we stick to the business as usual scenario it will go up to 69.5% dependency on coal. The cumulative emissions that are avoided by opting for low carbon over business as usual are 3.4 billion MT CO2.

However, by 2020, we will exhaust all ‘low hanging’ options as well as high-end commercialised technologies. These are the implications: there is a need for revolutionary technology, its development and deployment, which will in turn require drastic emission reduction targets in industrialised countries. We need to ensure that equity remains the basis of negotiations.

Future politics should be to build agreements based on limits. We need to assert the need to share growth between nations and within nations. We need to build on tough emission reduction targets and a tough compliance mechanism. We need new drivers for change in a new world.

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