FIVE YEARS AGO, there was some speculation as to whether Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, was a climate-change sceptic. He had made a remark that indicated he was unconvinced about the phenomenon. “Climate has not changed,” he said, in September 2014, during a televised address to a group of schoolchildren. “We have changed. Our habits have changed. Our habits have got spoiled. Due to that, we have destroyed our entire environment.” In a remark made to a group of students at Sacred Heart University around the same time, he displayed total incomprehension of the matter: “The reality is this that in our family, some people are old ... They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.”
These statements contradict Modi’s imperative to readers of his 2011 book, Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response to Challenges of Climate Change, in which he references Al Gore, the environmentalist and former vice-president of the United States, who has been vocal about the need for urgent action to save the planet in his 2007 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It is also entirely at odds with some of his other public statements, such as his declaration at the World Economic Forum, last year in Davos, that climate change constitutes the “greatest threat to the survival and human civilization as we know it.” This apparent contradiction is reflected in the disparity between statement and action when it comes to his government’s measures to protect the environment. For example, his acknowledgement that climate change is our greatest existential threat does not align with the present government’s lack of urgency around decarbonising India’s transportation sector or its energy grid. It has created no institutional structures designed to specifically tackle such a grave existential threat. His government has even failed to properly allocate earmarked funds toward environmental initiatives.
Previous governments were resistant to setting targets for limiting emissions, citing development priorities. The Modi administration at least signed on to the much lauded Paris Agreement in 2015, which aimed to get countries to voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to limit global warming so that it does not rise more than 1.5 degree Celsius above what we call the pre-industrial baseline, or the average global temperature in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, when the mass burning of fossil fuels began to change the atmosphere. In addition, under Modi, India ratified the International Solar Alliance, an agreement intended to nurture cooperation among “solar rich” tropical countries in developing and deploying solar power infrastructure. Such measures that the Modi government intends to undertake are helpful but not substantial. While India’s carbon emissions are expected to rise for some years, far more aggressive steps need to be taken to alter the emissions trajectory that India is currently on.
At the moment, India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. While per capita emissions are below the global average, India’s large human and livestock populations produce over seven percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. And as both population and per-capita electricity use rise, the country’s emissions are expected to keep growing. Despite the government’s willingness to engage internationally on climate change, there seems an unwillingness to adopt aggressive carbon-reduction targets. The prevailing orthodoxy seems to be that more carbon emissions are required to catch up to the development of the West. India, the argument goes, needs to first meet its development goals, as laid out on the website of the ministry of forestry, environment and climate change: