Carbon emissions and human development in India

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I was being gloomy in a meeting the other day about the dismal prospects for COP21 when someone said the outcome will depend on what David Cameron does.

That cannot be right in any tangible sense as our carbon emissions are so puny.  There is moral leadership to be provided or squandered, of course, but that's another issue.  I said I was keeping an eye on the Indian middle class.  How apt, then, to find a recent Economist piece on that very subject: India and the Environment: catching up with China.

Here's the issue:

"Given India’s size and population (1.3 billion), its emissions of carbon dioxide are in relative terms still tiny.  At 1.6 tonnes of carbon per person each year, they are roughly the same as China’s per-head emissions in 1980, when that country dived into economic reforms.  Now India’s prime minister ... has set India a target of expanding GDP by 8% a year.  If it comes close to meeting that target, emissions will soar, just as China’s have done. Today, Chinese emissions per head are four times those in India."

The development problems India faces are huge.  As the Economist summarises it:

"The country has more poor people than anywhere else in the world: 230m living on $1.90 a day or less – the World Bank’s definition of extreme poverty.  Almost half of rural households, or 250m-300m people, have no electricity."

India has refused (in advance of COP21) to promise to cap its emissions.  This understandable because, as the Economist notes, "to cap emissions would be to deny many Indians the chance to better their hard lives", adding that, for the poor "growth is essential", even though carbon comes with it.  After all, bettering hard lives is what development is all about; that is, as Amartya Sen said, giving people the chance to live lives they have reason to value.

So, how will all this play out?  How carbon intense will this development be?  India itself has promised (for the COP) that its carbon intensity (carbon emissions per $ of GDP) will fall by a third before 2030.  The Economist says that this depends on the policies that India adopts, and how well these are carried through, adding ...

"If there is reason to be optimistic, it is that the environment matters to Indians themselves.  Thirteen of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities are in the subcontinent.  Smoke from cooking with wood or dung in Indian homes may be responsible for 500,000 early deaths a year, mostly of women and children.  Climate change could do grave harm to India.  Some two-thirds of its agriculture depends on the monsoon, which may become less reliable as a result of global warming.  Some Himalayan glaciers are retreating, sending less water to rivers that feed hundreds of millions of people downstream.  A quarter of Indians live near coasts that are vulnerable to sea-level rises.  Many countries suffer one or more of these problems. Few have all of them. So while Indians need growth, they cannot ignore the consequences of it."

The article is worth reading for its clear setting out of the utter complexity of this carbon v development issue – something being played out in a lot of countries – including economically developed ones such as the UK.  Anyone who thinks any of this is amenable to simple solutions is clearly simple-minded and/or ill-informed, and I hope that articles such as this are being read and used by those involved in the global learning business to help their students see more clearly into the fog of issues.


Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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