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
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
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?
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
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
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,
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