Is India hiding behind the poor?

A new report from Greenpeace on climate injustice

Feature story - November 12, 2007
BANGALORE, India — There is now little doubt that climate change will hit the poor hardest, particularly in Africa and Asia. Being unable to afford any better, poor people are forced to settle in areas that are highly vulnerable to the affects of climate change.

While the people of the Sundarbans have very low carbon footprints they will feel the affects of climate change more than most with rising sea levels and the increasing intensity of storms threatening the islands.

Poor farmers can only afford land in regions that are prone to drought, while poor settlements in rural and urban areas are close to rivers and creeks exposing their shelters and farmland to floods. With climate change leading to further decreases in already scarce resources like arable land and water, poor populations are going to be pushed further to, or even over, the edge.

But controversy in international politics continues to rage over what role developing countries, including India, should play in reducing greenhouses gases and the mitigation of climate change when they are not the ones who created the problem.

It is this very issue that some wealthy nations have used to try to discredit international agreements in the past and forestall action. But the next round of negotiations for the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, covering the period after 2012 will start next month in Bali and governments will need to decide who must commit to drastic emission cuts to save the world from climate change.

So far the Indian government has maintained that our average per capita CO2 emissions are low compared to that of Europe and the US and for this reason India should be excluded from emissions reductions in order to drive development through the continued use of fossil fuels.

While India has a right to demand a 'common but differentiated' responsibility at an international level, there is the urgent need to look within India at the widely different levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the different socio-economic groups.

If developed nations need to cut their CO2 emissions not only to prevent climate change but also to give space to the developing world to catch up, without pushing the global temperatures over the tipping point, the same is true within India.

We've recently conducted a study looking at household electricity use and transport across seven different income ranges and discovered that a relatively small, wealthy class (1% of the population) is hidden by the 823 million poor of the country who keep overall per capita emissions below 2 tonnes of CO2 a year.

While the richest income class in this study, earning more than 30,000 rupees a month, produce slightly less than the global average CO2 emissions of 5 tonnes, this amount already exceeds the sustainable global average CO2 emissions of 2.5 tonnes per capita that needs to be reached to limit global warming below 2 degrees centigrade.

The carbon divide

India faces two sharply contradictory realities. On the one hand there is a rapidly growing rich consumer class which has made the country the 12th largest luxury market in the world. On the other hand India is home to more than 800 million poor people who are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The richest consumer classes produce 4.5 times more CO2 than the poorest class, and almost 3 times more than the average.

By far the most pronounced increase in electricity consumption and thus CO2 emissions from the lower income groups to higher income groups is in the use of small electronic devices that make living more comfortable for those who can afford it. They range from DVD players to kitchen equipment and from mobile phones to computers. None of these products account for a really significant share of the CO2 emissions, but together they add up to 49% of the overall household emissions of the >30k income class.

With increasing income, consumption changes from only essentials like food and clothing to a variety of life style goods including electronics. Even with an increase in efficiency of all these products, the constant addition of new goods that consume electricity would drive the life style of the >30k class over the limits of sustainability.

An even greater difference in emissions between classes occurs in transportation with the richest income class emitting 7.1 times more than the poorest class. This is due to an increase in two wheelers, the use of cars starting at an income of more than 10,000 rupees a month and an increase in air travel for people earning more than 30,000 rupees a month.

If the upper and the middle class do not manage to check their CO2 emissions, they will not only contribute to global warming, but will also deny hundreds of millions of poor Indians access to development.

Glow of hope

So does India need to stay poor and should the burgeoning middle class stop consumption and abandon the new found upward mobility? Not necessarily.

The evidence shows that there is reason to be optimistic. For instance a far sharper increase of CO2 emissions from lighting between the lower and the higher income classes has been mitigated by the use of more efficient lighting systems like tube lights and compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs). These are not currently accessible for the poor because of their relatively high price. Therefore CO2 emissions from lighting only increases by a factor of 1.6 from the below 3000 rupee to the 5000 -- 8000 rupee income class and then stabilizes.

The considerably low rate of increase in CO2 emissions from household lighting clearly shows that the lifestyle induced increase in electricity consumption is buffered by the use of more efficient appliances.

The use of inefficient lighting is responsible for 126 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year (7% of India's overall emissions). Making CFLs, tubelights and other efficient lighting systems accessible to the poor by massive price reduction and prohibiting the sale of inefficient lights like incandescent bulbs, could cut these emissions by 95 million tonnes - that's a 5% reduction of overall annual emissions.

Ensuring a sustainable and successful economy

And there are even greater efficiencies and improvements that can be made in our production of energy - that is if India decarbonised it's development.

Coal produces more carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour than other fossil fuels. The efficiency of our coal power plants is very low (only 30%) and the quality of coal is poor. For the year 2003 the World Resource Institute ranked India as the country with the 14th worst Carbon Intensity of Electricity production in the world. Worse than China which ranks 24, Bangladesh which ranks 44, and Pakistan.

But the high carbon intensity of energy production is not by accident, it is a deliberate decision of the government. And plans for the next two Five Year Plans show us that the Indian government is planning a major expansion of power generation through the construction of coal power plants which will make the country the third worst climate polluter on Earth.

It is now accepted by scientists and economists that increasing CO2 emissions due to economic development will destroy the foundation of millions of livelihoods on the planet. In order to build social justice in the country, India not only has to put pressure on the developed world to cut their CO2 emissions, it also needs to do its share to mitigate climate change.

What is needed is higher efficiency, Combined Heat and Power generation (CHP), transforming the otherwise wasted heat into cold air for air-conditioning and most importantly the switch from fossil to renewable energies like wind, solar and biomass.  With the decarbonisation of energy production, the use of electricity in households will automatically become more climate friendly.

But the potential to decarbonise the economy and India's consumption, does not stop with power generation. We need to adopt minimum efficiency standards for all products. As India faces up to a potential future of dangerous climate change, inefficient products should be considered hazardous and, like toxic substances, prohibited.

Last but not least, the rich income classes need to acknowledge that their wealth and freedom to consume, adds to the increasing crisis and poverty of the poor. Lifestyles with excessive carbon emissions are similar to a smoker smoking in a room: they not only affect the smoker, but others around as well.

Help us stop climate change

Banning incandescent bulbs would cut India's overall emissions by 5%. Support our campaign to Ban the Bulb by signing our petition. Already 244,850 have signed up on our way to a million signatures.

For more information

You can download our full report about climate injustice: "Hiding behind the poor" here.

For a more detailed analysis of how Indian power generation could be decarbonised download the study "Energy [R]evolution, a Sustainable India Energy Outlook"