Category Archives: Public Policy & the Environment

Breaking Down the Climate Talks

logo-COPThe Paris Conference of Parties (COP), long viewed as the vehicle for crafting the next phase of global climate responses, both shed light on complications surrounding the history of climate change negotiations, as well as unpack a new landmark agreement to tackle climate change and reduce greenhouse gases.

History of Climate Negotiations

The international political response to climate change began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the ‘Rio Convention’ included the adoption of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC).   The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994.  This convention set the framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

One of the main principles of climate negotiations is that countries have common but differentiated responsibilities when it comes to climate change, depending on their wealth in particular. The agreement establishes an obligation for industrialized countries to fund climate finance for poor countries, while developing countries are invited to contribute on a voluntary basis.  As regards transparency, a stronger system for tracking commitments, which allows developing countries a certain amount of flexibility, has also been set up in order to keep track of everyone’s efforts .

The main objective of the annual COP was and remain to review the Convention’s implementation. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and significant meetings since then have included COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, COP11 where the Montreal Action Plan was produced, COP15 in Copenhagen where an agreement to success Kyoto Protocol was unfortunately not realized and COP17 in Durban where the Green Climate Fund was created.

The COP Climate Deal, So Far

The Paris agreement marks a major change in direction.  In terms of global responsibilities, it confirms the global target of keeping the rise in temperature below 2°C.   Scientists believe that a greater increase in temperature would be very dangerous.  However, the agreement also establishes, for the first time, that we should be aiming for 1.5°C, to protect island states, which are the most threatened by the rise in sea levels.

By 12 December 2015, 186 countries had published their action plan; each of these plans sets out the way in which they intend to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The UN body that deals with climate change (the UNFCCC*) published an evaluation of these contributions on 1 November 2015. This study showed that despite the unprecedented mobilization shown by States, at this rate global warming would still be between 2.7°C and 3°C, i.e. above the threshold set by scientists.

Secondly, the agreement addresses climate finance.  The agreement acknowledges that $100 billion (in loans and donations) will need to be raised each year from 2020 to finance projects that enable countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change (rise in sea level, droughts, etc.) or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement specifies that this amount should increase. Some developing countries will also be able to become donors, on a voluntary basis, to help the poorest countries. This is a first. The agreement schedules an initial meeting in 2025, where further quantified commitments will be made regarding assistance to the poorest countries.

The agreement will be open for signing by the countries on 22 April in New York. The agreement can only enter into force once it has been ratified by 55 countries, representing at least 55% of emissions.  This of course, would be the real turning point.

Why Forest Policy Matters

Every dimension of forest-related decision-making, including rights of local communities, conversion of forests to non-forest uses and setting aside forests for wildlife conservation, has become the subject of intense scrutiny, debate and change.   Most notably, the involvement of multiple actors, from local communities to the Supreme Court, has shifted the discourse from forest management to forest governance.

Forest Management

The reality is that India’s forests are witnessing a battle between the competing paradigms of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the 2006 Forest Rights Act.  British-era regulations sought to gain control over forests via the forest department, to enable the colonial state to meet its needs for timber and revenue in the project of empire-building. The 2006 law looked to rectify the ‘historical injustice’ of treating India’s forest-dwelling communities as encroachers in landscapes they have lived in for generations, and to recognize their traditional usage rights through forest right titles (Choudhury, 2015)

Essar Energy, a fully integrated oil and gas company, is positioned to capitalize on India’s rapidly growing energy demand.   The company has strong presence across the hydrocarbon value chain from exploration, and assets worth US$12 billion across the power and oil and gas industries (Essar, 2015).

According to Sushil Maroo, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, “One has to balance ecological concerns with India’s need for commodities and economic development.”  Essar Energy serves retail customers in India through a modern, country-wide network of 2,000 operational and under-construction retail fuel outlets.  “One way is for the government to look at the country as a whole, and say where mining can or cannot take place. Another way would be reforestation,” he continued (see Choudhury, 2015).

Forest Governance

There is no simple or broadly accepted definition of “governance,” even though the term is widely used across many disciplines.  Good governance is often associated with principles such as transparency, participation, and accountability.  In the context of international development, the notion of good governance is commonly seen as a critical foundation for achieving positive social, environmental, and economic outcomes.  Conversely, weak governance is often blamed for poor development outcomes, such as poverty and unsustainable levels of natural resource depletion.  In the context of forests, a lack of transparency and accountability is often associated with problems such as illegal logging and corruption.  Similarly, a lack of open and inclusive decision-making often contributes to the marginalization and impoverishment of forest-dependent communities and indigenous peoples.

Taken together, since decisions about forests are shaped by a wide range of public and private actors, forest governance necessarily has to do with the process of how decisions are made about forests, as opposed to focusing exclusively on what decisions are made or the outcomes of those decisions (WRI, 2013).

Why Forest Policy Matters

The forest sector in India is currently going through never before seen change.  For example, India needs coal but coal mining and subsequent usages of coal has adverse impact on climate which may risk various forest types.  Therefore forests are highly sensitive to climate change, and this has been shown by observations from the past, experimental studies and simulation models.

“Clear and secure rights to forest land are a critical enabling condition for promoting resource management decisions that value social and environmental dimensions of forests alongside economic interests.”               – Wold Resource Institute, 2013

Perhaps now, more than ever, forest policy matters.  Central to the discourse are substantive questions on forest rights, responsibilities, regulatory structures, transparency and accountability, in other words practical questions about policy and governance.

For more discussions on Environment, Forest and Rural India, follow Chitrangada Choudhury @

Will India Play Constructive Role in Climate Talks?

IPCC Climate Change 2015 Synthesis ReportThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Fifth Assessment in 2014, summarizing the work of thousands of scientists across the world.  The message was, in the panel’s own words, “unequivocal”.   Climate change will exacerbate poverty in most developing countries.  This is due to a complex range of factors, but particularly food price increases.  It notes that, in the years since its previous report in 2007, there have been rapid food price increases, following climate extremes in key producing systems.

A similar picture emerges on health.  A study, by The Lancet and University College London, stated that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.  Climate change influences disease patterns, food, water, sanitation, extreme events, shelter and human settlements, which in turn affect health outcomes. Infant mortality is closely linked to under nutrition and food insecurity, both affected by climate change.

Reducing carbon emissions will help to mitigate these effects; meanwhile, there are economic, health and social opportunities in low carbon development pathways.   Decentralized low carbon energy, for example, such as solar and wind, can provide electricity for the 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans who currently have no access.  Growth in off grid solar has given 2.5 million households in Kenya access to energy.

Paris 2015 COP21 CMP11The Paris Summit in December 2015 provides a crucial opportunity for India to lead, aligning development goals with action on climate change, and given the discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals.   196 countries will meet to sign a new climate change agreement, which needs to acknowledge the importance of climate change mitigation to development and the necessity of finance, both to adapt to climate change and to invest in low carbon economic pathways.  But how likely is it that it will be meaningful and make a difference to climate action on the ground?

Is Bioenergy a Bad Idea?

WRI14_WorkingPaper_4c_WRRIX_012815.pdf_A new study published by the World Resource Institute (WRI) has sparked new debates about bioenergy.  The Report titled, “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land,” show that any dedicated use of land or growing bioenergy inherently comes at the cost of not using that land for growing food or animal feed, or for storing carbon.  Particularly concerning, experts say “Bioenergy, energy derived from any fuel that comes from biomass, is an inefficient use of land to generate energy,” (Searchinger and Heimlich, 2015).  Here’s the problem: India’s growth is driving just this type of energy consumption.

India’s Economy is Expected to Grow

According to the World Bank, India’s economy is expected to grow by about 5.6 percent in Indian fiscal year (IFY) 2014/15 (April-March), an increase over the sub-five percent levels in the previous year.  This would be the strongest among major developing economies between 2013 and 2016.  Importantly, India’s growth, which drives energy consumption across all major sectors, would make India the fourth largest energy consumer, following the United States, China, and Russia (GAIN Report, 2014).

India’s Biofuel Policy 

The Government of India (GOI) approved India’s National Biofuel Policy in 2009.   The policy encourages use of renewable fuel as an alternative to petroleum and proposes to supplement India’s fuel supply with a 20 percent biofuel (i.e. bioethanol and biodiesel) mandate by end of 12th Five-Year Plan (2017).

The salient features of the policy, include: strengthening India’s energy security; farming degraded soils or wastelands not otherwise suited to agriculture; providing financial incentives for feed stocks, conversion processes, production units and innovation; advancing biofuels technologies in the marketplace; and, meeting the energy needs of India’s vast rural population by stimulating rural development and creating employment opportunities and addressing global concerns about containment of carbon emissions through use of environment friendly biofuels (GAIN Report, 2014).

Implications for Domestic Energy Base

Man hauling Sugar Cane in Chandigarh Punjab. Photo taken by Sophia N. Johnson 9 October 2008

First, biofuels are an alternative energy option due to the availability of feedstock crops. Since the sugar industry is one of India’s largest industries, sugar cane and its processing byproduct are widely available for bioethanol production (Chand, Kumar et. al., 2008).

Second, while India’s domestic energy base is substantial, India continues to import significant amounts of energy resources.  In IFY 2006/07, imports of fossil fuels grew at a rate of seven percent, which outpaced consumption growth by three percent.  However, in last three fiscal years, higher petroleum prices led to demand contraction (GAIN Report, 2014).  Currently, coal and oil constitute 66 percent of India’s total primary energy consumption basket.  Natural gas maintains a seven-percent share of the basket, and renewables such as wind, geothermal, solar, hydroelectricity, and waste account for 25 percent of India’s total energy.  Nuclear accounts for a one-percent share.

Third, the biofuel industry could have significant impacts on the health, education, and productivity of the rural poor population in India.  Some anticipate that the biofuel industry will create new jobs for the poorest communities in India because biofuel production requires mostly unskilled labor, which is widely available in rural areas (Chand, Kumar et. al., 2008).

Finally, the poor are unlikely to reap any benefits or additional income from the biofuels industry.  Biofuel production has the potential to cause harm to the rural and urban poor.  The Indian government cited that there were over 30 million hectares of wasteland available for jatropha production around the nation.  The question seems to be, whether biofuels widen or narrow the inequality gap?

India Must Carefully Consider Strategic Response to U.S. – China Climate Accord

 Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama seen here during a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing announced pledges to reduce greenhouse gases on November 12. Photo source Huang Jingwen Xinhua LandovThe new targets for carbon emissions reductions agreed on by the United States and China at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, is important for understanding the risks and strategic responses to global climate change (GCC).

President Barack Obama announced the United States commitment to emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005 (double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020).  President Xi Jinping pledged to boost the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to around 20 percent by 2030.  Other plans include one initiative that aims to reduce pollution by cities, and another that encourages trade in “green goods” and environmentally clean technology.

A key component of the GCC’s political strategy has been to engage in a public debate over the science of climate change (Levy and Rothenberg, 2002).   Organizational scholars conceptualize that responsiveness to institutional pressures as a strategic choice (Goodstein, 1994), are based on assumptions and forecasts that arise within an institutional environment.   In particular – causes, constituents, content, control, and context – are considered forces motivating strategic responsiveness to institutional pressures.

The Climate Accord expresses with greater certainty the fact that aggregate economic losses accelerate with increasing temperature, though global economic impacts from climate change are currently difficult to estimate.   Now, there will be strong pressure on India, Brazil and other large developing countries to make a move.  The government of India must carefully consider its strategic response, as whether to follow the principles of this deal, or take the climate talks in a new direction.

Widows of Vrindavan begin Diwali Celebrations on Yamuna Banks

Widows, who have been abandoned by their families, light sparklers after offering prayers on the banks of the river Yamuna as part of Diwali celebrations in VrindavanThe widows of Vrindavan lit hundreds of earthen lamps at the banks of Yamuna as they began their three-day Diwali celebrations through which they intend to spread awareness about the need for the river’s cleanliness.

India’s burgeoning towns and cities are littered with garbage, the result of massive urban migration, poor civic planning and inadequate waste disposal systems, and rivers and lakes are polluted with sewage and industrial effluents.

Less than a third of India’s 1.2 billion people have access to sanitation and more than 186,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, according to the charity WaterAid.

The resulting diseases and deaths cause major economic losses, and a World Bank report in 2006 estimated that India was losing 6.4 percent of GDP annually because of poor access to sanitation.

Photo source: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood.

The Increasing Complexity of Class Conflict and Caste Cleavages

Caste remains a focal point for political mobilization in India.  But recent research also suggest that class and caste politics is being modified in new and unexpected forms.

First, political cleavages are being reflected in new policy demands such as the demand for reservation by subgroups (Jayal and Mehta, 2011).  While some agriculturalists call for a second green revolution to meet the ever-increasing demand for food, others remain skeptical of the technology and its consequences.  The chemical fertilizers that helped increase crop yields also killed important vitamin A-rich weeds; also, the geographic distribution of emerging agricultural research remains disproportionate.

The Green Revolution helped India move from being a massive food importer, heavily dependent on aid, to a food exporter.  Reaching self-sufficiency in food had huge political implications.  Now the prospect of re-revolutionizing with bio-crops, for example, would mean strengthening employment and food security for tribal population and farmers in some states.

Second, class is complex interacting with new forms of identity including caste and gender.  The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recently issued a notice to Punjab Government after the Commission took suo motu cognisance of a media report that 105 families belonging to Scheduled Castes have been facing social boycott by upper caste people in Baopur village of Moonak Sub-Division of Sangrur district since May 15.

Reportedly, they are facing this situation since they decided to cultivate 26 acres of Panchayat land reserved for the Scheduled Castes.  Earlier, this land was being cultivated by the upper caste people who allegedly used to get it on contract through auction in the names of Dalits.  The Commission has observed that the contents of the press report, if true, raise a serious issue of violation of human rights of Dalits.

It’s possible a solution may be found in restructuring legal regimes that govern property, labor and natural resources to make them hospitable to new forms of identity.  Major economic transformation and the emerging middle class, notwithstanding its uneven rates of political participation has increased the complexity of class composition.  While caste will remain important, there is a possibility of several new and shifting coalitions emerging (Jayal and Mehta, 2011).

Climate Change, and the Disciplining of States

india-climate-change-2010-1-24-12-11-17 Associate PressIt seems evident India’s high vulnerability and exposure to climate change will slow its economic growth, impact health and development, make poverty reduction more difficult.

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates India is already one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world and many of its 1.2 billion people live in areas to floods, cyclones, and droughts.

Though the report doesn’t have country-specific predictions, its region-wise findings brought out conclusions for states .

Aromar Revi, lead author of one of the chapters of this report, said the impacts of climate change would be felt severely in Indo-Gangetic plains, affecting poor people in the entire region.  “The areas which are facing frequent floods these days may face drought like situation in the distant or near future.  We cannot ignore the changes which are taking place either in the Indus river basin or in Brahmputra river system over the longer period,” said Revi, explaining the implications of the report in Delhi.

Villagers walk through a flooded road at Ibrahimpatnam in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh India. Mahesh Kumar Associated PressThe responsibility now lies in the hands of the Modi administration to begin organizing responsibility, by endowing states with certain fundamental rights, powers, duties (their sovereign rights), establishing norms of conduct (Aalberts and Werner, 2008) for addressing climate change.   In this way, it becomes possible to discipline states, mitigate risks, and address direct and indirect impacts of climate change on human security.


Innovation, Technology and Competitive Growth

India’s rapidly expanding economy demands innovation and power-generation technology.  The first wind turbine developed and engineered specifically for India’s low wind speed conditions, allows greater energy capture and improved project economics.

GE-Wind-Energy-Turbine. Credit Carsten E. CC BY SA 3.0The result, India is rapidly increasing its power generation using renewable energy.  Renewables now constitute over 5 percent of India’s energy mix by production and 12 percent by installed capacity.

The cost of wind power in particular is now close to grid parity and advancement in technology is making its generation more predictable.

India is poised to deliver high-efficiency output and even more competitive growth.