Sustainable futures? Election time in the world’s biggest democracy

For the 16th time in its history the world’s largest democracy is going to the polls. Social cohesion, economic growth and the fight against corruption dominate the headlines but what about the implications for the environment? This article was also posted online by Asian Global Impact at

It has been called ‘jaw-droppingly enormous’ (Washington Post) and the ‘greatest show on earth’ (The Economist). As far as the exercise of the democratic process is concerned, this is no hyperbole. By sheer numbers, India’s 16th general election lords it over the democratic world – an electorate of over 800 million (compare the US’ 200 million in 2012) are choosing from an estimated 15,000 candidates at nearly a million polling stations over the course of five weeks. At the national level, two giant coalitions – the United Progressive Alliance (starring the incumbent Congress Party) and the National Democratic Alliance (dominated by the socially conservative Bharatiya Janata Party) slug it out, joined by a fresh new voice in politics, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, or Party of the Common Man.

Big, chunky issues – the economy, corruption, employment, secularism – are under debate, and for many, climate change and sustainable development are way down the list of concerns. While this is understandable, it is also true that India’s cities are polluted, its roads congested and its waterways filthy conduits of disease. Alongside its rise to global prominence the country has become the world’s third biggest carbon emitter but this is rarely mentioned. Here I take a look at the three biggest contestants – the BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party – in an attempt to understand this neglected issue.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

With origins in Hindu nationalism, the BJP rose to prominence in the 1980s and has so far produced one Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004). Chosen candidate Narendra Modi, a self-described Hindu nationalist and current Chief Minister of Gujarat, has only recently shaken off over years of boycotts by the US and UK following his alleged failure to curb anti-Muslim violence in his state in 2002. Now, with a superstar status and widely tipped to be India’s next PM, “NaMo” is equally famousfor the economic growth model he pioneered in Gujarat – a business-friendly small government which welcomes multi-nationals with a warm neo-liberal handshake and reduced taxes – dubbed “Modinomics”.

Some suggest that a Modinomic government would be bad news for the environment – a recent Hindustan Times article described the prospect as a “development disaster” with growth coming at the expense of air quality, water security and rural livelihoods. Others point to the BJP’s investment in renewable energy, especially in Gujarat, as evidence that Modi’s red-tape-slashing dynamism is just what India needs.

The party’s manifesto lists “Inclusive and Sustainable Development” within their Ek Bharat – Shrestha Bharat (“One India, Best India”) pledge. A more detailed reading reveals a focus on energy security by maximising the potential of coal and oil as well as cleaner fuel sources. It is stated that the “BJP considers energy efficiency and conservation crucial to energy security” and that climate change mitigation will be taken seriously, although according to environmental activist Rishi Aggarwal this means “absolutely nothing” if the track record of the BJP in its existing power bases is anything to go by.

Surprisingly little is made of Modi’s 2010 book, Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response To Challenges Of Climate Change. Granted, it has not had the impact of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth but kudos nevertheless to Modi for writing on the subject. Predictably, the book seems to have been met with a mix of sycophancy and derision, and has been accused of simply showcasing pet projects – some of dubious environmental benefit such as the ecologically controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam – rather than presenting a coherent argument.

The verdict? A Modi-led government may create the right conditions for the renewables sector to flourish but this gung-ho approach could also result in energy-intensive, ecologically-detrimental and perhaps socially-inequitable development.

Indian National Congress

Congress has dominated Indian politics since Independence with seven Prime Ministers including the incumbent Manmohan Singh as well as three members of India’s premiere political dynasty – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. The current party chairperson is Rajiv’s widow, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi while the candidate for PM is his son Rahul.

Traditionally left of centre and pro-poor, many view the party as weakened by bureaucracy and corruption today. Where the environment is concerned they have some form, having created the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Jairam Ramesh who led the latter from 2009-2011 was noted for his assertive style which included delaying some major construction projects, speaking out against fuel-guzzling cars and, controversially, suggesting at the Cancun climate talks that India might be open to committing to binding emissions cuts.

That said, an expert I spoke to who asked not to be named described Congress’ recent record on the environment as “abysmal”, pointing to the “emasculation” of the MoEF, now headed by Veerappa Moily who also just happens to be the Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas. Manmohan Singh has made it clear that he feels rich nations are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and should therefore shoulder the main burden of climate change mitigation. Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, has stressed the need for women’s voices to be heard in the climate change debate, while her son Rahul is not noted for his public pronouncements on the subject.

Like the BJP, Congress’ manifesto prioritises economic growth and there is promise of regulatory reform including around the issue of environmental clearances for new development projects. The Environment section – more detailed than the BJP’s – pledges to continue implementing the National Action Plan on Climate Change and to introduce a system of “Green National Accounts” whereby the costs of environmental degradation will be reflected in India’s national accounts. While the latter is a laudable aspiration it is not entirely clear how this information will actually be used.

Meanwhile, despite criticism from the BJP that Congress is using environmental clearance regulations to control big business, the evidence on the ground – new airports and coal power stations approved under Congress’ watch – suggests that there is little to choose between the two parties in the way they let economic growth trump environmental protection.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)

The newest kid on India’s political block, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party launched in late 2012 following activist Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to step into politics. Having quit his job as a civil servant in 2006, Kejriwal set up an NGO to promote transparency in government and has since made corruption claims against high profile establishment figures including Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law. By late 2013 his AAP took control of Delhi’s legislative assembly, only to resign after 49 days after its failure to pass a bill to appoint an independent body to monitor political corruption. Undeterred, Kejriwal is now running head-to-head against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

As might be expected, the AAP manifesto has a strong focus on managing corruption, arguing that true swaraj (self-rule) will not be achieved until India is ruled by its people not by self-interested bureaucrats. There is also an emphasis on decentralisation of power and, as Kejriwal put it in an interview with AGI late last year, a “bottom to top approach” where village and town councils are given untied funds every year. Where the environment is concerned, it is interesting to note that Economy and Ecology are linked in a single section although a large part of the section is devoted (perhaps understandably) to the rural economy. The single “Environment and Natural Resources Policy” does not mention climate change explicitly but stresses the role of local communities in managing natural resources with the support of a reformed Ministry of Environment and Forests. It also calls for a phased shift towards renewable energy (locally-owned, of course) and a priority focus on local water resource management.

Kejriwal has a history with water – as Chief Minister of Delhi he successfully delivered on a promise of 700 litres per day of free water for Delhi householdswith punitive costs for those exceeding this limit. He later announced reductions in electricity tariffs across Delhi and additional bill waivers as a reward for those who had, under his encouragement, refused to pay their electricity bills in 2012-13 in protest over price hikes. This headline-grabbing approach to fuel poverty might spell a golden opportunity to raise awareness of sustainable resource management but Rishi Aggarwal is sceptical, warning that in the fight for votes the AAP can only promote populist policies which may not be in the best interests of sustainable development. Far more effective, he argues in his recent publication The Futility of Aam Aadmi Party versus the Promise of Active Citizenship, would be for individuals to engage with issues at the grassroots level rather than waiting for the elusive dream of political reform.

Sustainable futures?

Let’s not beat about the bush. Modi’s book notwithstanding, India has no Green Messiah among its mainstream politicians. Climate change and sustainable growth are not big ticket issues in this election and it is not hard to sympathise with the view that India has many more pressing concerns. Congress appears to have a (marginally) better track record than the others, but recent performance has hardly been inspiring and Rahul Gandhi has not indicated any great passion for the subject. BJP’s Narendra Modi, generally tipped as the next PM, has a can-do approach to development including renewable energy projects in Gujarat, but there is a risk that his enthusiasm for growth will run roughshod over environmental concerns. And the AAP? Who knows what Arvind Kejriwal’s drive for decentralisation and affordable fuel could mean for the bigger picture of India’s sustainable growth? Definitely a space worth watching. In the meantime, important as the next government could be, equally if not more important are the private and not-for-profit sectors and, above all, India’s billion plus population. If a meaningful approach to climate change and sustainable development is to be achieved, India needs active, engaged citizens more than ever.

Powering China: keeping the lights on in the world’s biggest country and why it matters to you

Poised on the brink of superpowerdom, questions around China’s energy use matter to all of us. How much is needed and where will it come from? I explored these ideas in this article which was first published in Asian Global Impact (Issue 07: May/June 2013).

Few countries are as confusing to the non-specialist as China.  Unlike neighbouring giant India, the People’s Republic does not seem to wear its soul on its sleeve. Its politics, save the odd spectacular scandal, sit obscurely behind rows of soberly-suited individuals with motives hard for outsiders to fathom, while learning its language has been described in a previous AGI issue as like running a marathon.

Perhaps most confusing of all is China’s position with regard to climate change and sustainable energy. With over a quarter of global carbon emissions to its name, and at least five years of topping charts as the world’s highest emitter (currently followed by the US and India), China’s potential threat to humankind can hardly be ignored. Meanwhile, nearly a third of the world’s existing coal-fired power stations are in China, as are a similar proportion of the 1,200 or so in planning and it is easy to paint China as the big bad wolf.

Easy but lazy. As the world’s most populous country, should its carbon footprint really surprise us? And as a rapidly industrialising economy with over 100 million still living below the international poverty line can we simply condemn it? In any case, when it comes to per capita emissions, China only weighs in at about 70th place, well behind the Gulf states, the US and most of Europe.  China is also a world leader in renewable energy production and manufacture and meets nearly 10% of its overall energy demand from non-fossil fuels. Encouraging though this may be, it is not unalloyed good news: the biggest chunk of this power comes from hydroelectric plants such as the notorious Three Gorges Dam which has required the relocation of over a million people and is associated with landslides and loss of habitats.

The confusion extends to the political sphere. Those who condemn China’s approach to the environment as uniformly disastrous might be disconcerted to discover that its 2007 National Action Plan on Climate Change was the first of its kind in developing world. The plan sets out ambitions to increase renewable energy and nuclear power while improving the efficiency of coal-fired power stations. At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, China announced a “carbon intensity reduction target” which means a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output – in this case a 40-45% reduction by 2020 compared to 2005 levels (compare India’s simultaneously-announced target of 24%). Judging by performance to date, it seems plausible that the target will be achieved by continuing the drive to improve energy efficiency while increasing the proportion of energy demand supplied from renewable sources.

But reducing carbon intensity is not the same as reducing overall carbon emissions: intensity is simply measured in relation to the overall economy, so if the economy grows faster than carbon intensity reduces, overall emissions will increase. Indeed, analysts predict that China’s GDP will triple in the 2005-2020 period meaning that a 45% reduction in carbon intensity will still result in a 65% increase in total emissions.  To date, there have been few signs, if any, that China would be prepared to commit to a legally binding emissions reduction target. In fact, outgoing premier Wen Jibao has repeatedly pointed out that China’s commitment to addressing climate change will need to be balanced against its commitment to economic development and has reminded the industrialised West of its historical responsibility for current global greenhouse gas levels.

What impact China’s new administration will have remains to be seen, but there are already signs of an aggressive boom in hydropower projects such as the Nu River Dam, which Wen Jibao had previously suspended in the face of widespread opposition. His successor, Li Kequiang, announced his support for the solar industry late last year, although it is unclear how this sits with Mr Wen’s earlier statement that China would put an end to the “blind expansion” in this industry and focus more on nuclear power, hydropower and shale gas (in addition to the ubiquitous coal), none of which could be described as entirely uncontroversial.

Maybe, just maybe, our hope must ultimately rest with China’s greatest asset and liability combined – its 1.3 billion strong population.  Unlike in India, environmental activism is not a prominent feature of Chinese public life, although the government policy of wen wei (maintaining stability at all costs, usually by quashing dissent) has occasionally played in protesters’ favour when carrots are judged more effective than sticks. Recent public protests have resulted in the suspension of a new coal plant in Haimen, near Shanghai; the scrapping of a proposed waste water pipeline in nearby Qidong; and the relocation of a chemical plant in Dalian in the north. While it is hard to gauge whether these acts of nimbyism will simply see the same infrastructure imposed on other, less vocal communities, they nevertheless provide a faint but much-needed glow of hope that people power may have a place in Chinese politics.

Amongst all the confusion, perhaps only one thing can be said with any clarity: whatever course China takes in the coming decades – carbon intensity, carbon reduction, energy efficiency, hydropower – it is going to be of the utmost importance to all of us.