‘Climate Change Adaptation Should Be India’s Priority, Not Mitigation’

Surya Prakash Sethi was India’s principal adviser (electricity and energy) and principal climate negotiator at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He spoke to Snigdhendu Bhattacharya about India’s renewable energy policy and climate change priorities. Excerpts:

SB Do you think India’s pledge to generate 50% of its energy from non-fossil fuels by 2030 is realistic?

Sethi: It doesn’t matter what India has promised. India accounts for only 7% of global emissions. The problem is 100% of global emissions. If we think of net zero in the global context, what is India’s contribution? India alone would not change much by emphasizing the energy transition in the global context.

SB What will make the real difference?

Sethi: The real difference is that the top 20% of consumers around the world who overconsume cut their consumption by 85%. Otherwise the whole fight against global warming would lead nowhere. Global warming is happening because part of the population is consuming too much.

SB Do you mean the difference in energy consumption?

Sethi: Just as an example, the carbon footprint of the average American is 42 times the carbon footprint of the average Indian, even though our population is four times that of the American population. So they consume 170 times more than the average Indian.

SB So the responsibility for mitigating the problem lies more with the developed nations?

Sethi: Eighty-one percent of global warming is due to actions taken by OECD countries in the past. Therefore, 81% of the responsibility for containing the crisis should lie with them. The total population of all OECD countries is smaller than the population of India. Imagine the inequality.

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SB: Were India’s climate talks in 2015 and 2021 inappropriate?

Sethi: I would not comment on right or wrong. The fact remains that the bottom 50% of the world is responsible for almost negligible global warming. But the Paris Agreement requires everyone to do their part. However, this contribution is not specified. However, mitigation is not the only climate action that is required. Mitigation is one of the five required climate action. Adaptation is a very important climate protection measure. People unrelated to global warming suffer the most. But everyone always talks about reduction.

SB: What are the other aspects of climate protection?

Sethi: The five aspects are mitigation, adaptation, financing, technology transfer and capacity building. These actions cannot be handled by mitigations alone. But we hardly heard anything about adaptation in Glasgow. Someone has to fund these actions. The Framework Convention requires that the developed world, which has the appropriate financing capacities, should finance global climate protection measures. Have you heard about your financial obligations? Even the commitments made were never fulfilled.

SB: Are you suggesting that adaptation is a higher priority for India than mitigation?

Sethi: Customization should be our only priority. Our emissions will not go down. It will rise. With 18% of the world’s population, our emission is less than 7% of the global share. Our per capita consumption is only a third of the global average. China’s per capita consumption is 1.4 times the global average. If we try to adapt, we will need more energy, which means more emissions. Our historical responsibility is negligible. OECD countries should focus on mitigation while our demands should increase. Our emissions are rising, their emissions are falling – that’s the way it should be.

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SB: So developed countries are not doing enough?

Sethi: I’m not saying that alone. Civil society in the West says the same thing. Around 250 civil society organizations in the West have written a paper on fair burden sharing. It requires the US to cut its emissions by 195% below 2005 levels by 2030. It requires the European Union to cut its emissions by 150% below 1990 levels by 2030. Neither of them is on the right path.

SB: What adjustments does India need?

Sethi: First of all skills. When 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture and agricultural production suffers from climate change, they will need new skills. The process of competence development does not happen by itself. The government needs to educate people. India ranks 151st out of 160 countries in the hunger index. There is massive malnutrition. You lack access to power. India needs to improve the basic parameters to have a healthier population. We must raise the standard of human housing. Floods, landslides are increasing. Even large metropolitan areas are flooded and about a third of metropolitan populations live in slums. Imagine their condition when the cities are flooded. The magnitude of these problems would increase with global warming. India should prioritize increasing the adaptability of its people.

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SB: So India’s emissions will increase?

Sethi: If you provide everyone with a decent house to live in, emissions will increase because houses require cement and steel, each of which creates emissions. If you give everyone access to electricity – not just incoming cables, but people who actually use electricity for basic everyday needs – emissions will increase. But using electricity will increase their adaptability.

SB: What about the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels?

Sethi: We have to separate global and local problems. India will be affected by global warming no matter what we do. But there are large-scale environmental issues domestically, including air, water and soil quality issues, as well as water availability issues. In situ coal gasification can reduce some of the local environmental impacts of coal mining. For this, however, the boiler efficiency must be improved.

SB: What role do you think coal will play in India’s future power generation program?

Sethi: India is so energy poor that it needs every energy source it can get. Renewable energies have their fair share of this role. Likewise, coal, oil and gas will continue to play a role. Even if you look at global projections, the share of renewable energy, including large hydropower, will still be around 26-27% of energy sources. The Energy Information Administration’s October 2021 forecast shows that 69% of global energy will still come from fossil fuels in 2050.

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