India beat famine once – now it needs to tackle climate change

New Delhi need only go back 60 years for inspiration on how it handled its previous existential crisis

A villager walks through the cracked bottom of a dried-out pond on a hot summer day at Bandai village in Pali district, Rajasthan, last week. AFP
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Three powerful forces rippled across South Asia this spring, touching the lives of billions.

The first was a heat wave in northern India and Pakistan that was so severe that birds are dropping from the sky from heat stroke. The second was Cyclone Asani, which hurtled across the Bay of Bengal towards eastern India and Bangladesh, bringing on shore the threat of rain and huge flood damage. The third was a painful hike in oil and gas prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that thanks to expensive subsidies is draining government coffers instead of household budgets.

Although reported as separate events, they are best understood as three facets of the same problem: the acceleration of climate change fuelled by South Asia’s increasingly carbon-hungry economies. And while governments are adopting ambitious climate action goals, events are moving much too quickly for policy making and implementation.

A case in point is the commitment Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made at last year's UN Climate Change Conference to achieve "net-zero" greenhouse gas emissions. Mr Modi received praise for breaking with decades of government policy. Unfortunately, though, the chosen target date of 2070 is literally 20 years past the 2050 threshold identified by scientific consensus as the tipping point for catastrophic change.

South Asia as a whole has a vested interest in making the energy transition sooner than later

India matters on the global climate stage because it is now the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, and its share of global totals may even increase as its economy continues to grow. Indeed, successive governments have focused on delivering economic growth by expanding manufacturing, which requires ever larger quantities of affordable energy. Although there is a meaningful push towards wind and solar energy, as well as an increased use of electric vehicles, renewables are largely intended to replace oil and gas, which are largely imported and therefore expensive and insecure.

However, the bulk of power generation, which produces three times as much greenhouse gases as transportation, will continue to come from coal. Emissions-wise, coal is the most dangerous of all fossil fuels, but because it is domestically produced it is also the cheapest of all. In fact, it appears that New Delhi's plan is to expand its use until it becomes uneconomical – hence the 2070 date.

As recent events suggest, huge swathes of the Indian subcontinent might simply be unlivable by then, creating cascading conditions too overwhelming for future governments to cope with. South Asia is already more vulnerable to the human impact of climate change than almost any other place in the world. It is one of the most water-stressed regions globally, and especially vulnerable to mass displacement from rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal. As a result, global institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund rank that part of the world at the very top for climate risks.

South Asia as a whole has a vested interest in making the energy transition sooner than later, a motive that transcends the question of western pressures and hypocrisy. Decarbonising the economy is about far more than looking "responsible" in international forums. It is about acting while there is still time to avert widespread food insecurity, damage to private and public property and political instability.

All this may sound unprecedented, perhaps even overwhelming, but the region faced an existential challenge in the 1950s and 60s. An exploding population and repeated crop failures offered the prospect of ever-worsening hunger. But instead of falling prey to famines and a permanent dependence on American food aid, the region rapidly expanded grain production from the mid-1960s onwards. This was thanks to an agri-technology partnership between a range of institutions in the US on the one hand and the governments of India and Pakistan on the other.

The region benefited immensely from the so-called Green Revolution – and now it is time for another, only on a bigger and broader scale.

The possibility of a repeat certainly exists. South Asia, and India in particular, has the capital, the talent and the entrepreneurial energy that is simply raring to go and capable of building new ventures either on its own or in technical and financial partnerships with counterparts in the US and EU. The only thing missing is urgency of the sort governments showed in the 1960s.

The Green Revolution played a significant part in helping South Asian countries transform themselves from low-income economies into middle-income ones. Investing in new technologies instead of holding on to polluting old ones could provide a similar boost. But that promise of "green growth" only holds if governments commit to change sooner rather than later. If they wait too long, the only opportunities left will be minimising losses rather than making gains.

It should be remembered that despite international collaboration, the Green Revolution strengthened both India and Pakistan’s sovereignty through food security. Although the US provided improved seed varieties and the requisite training, the processes involved were soon indigenised, allowing both countries to press on irrespective of the ebbs and flows in their relations with Washington in the subsequent years.

Today, South Asia cannot count on sustained American leadership to save it from a climate catastrophe. The US elected Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 in part because of the grassroots appeal of his climate denialism. Mr Trump, or someone with his worldview, could win the presidency in 2024. Concerns about such a possibility should provide governments in the subcontinent the motivation to lock in collaborations with the US while the political atmosphere in Washington is still favourable.

The interplay between ocean, atmosphere, ecology, technology, economy and politics may seem too much for the general public to grasp, but this is where South Asia’s everyday institutions need to step up. From newspapers to television, schools and universities, the climate question needs to move from the periphery to the centre of the national conversations, alongside more household topics such as economic growth and national unity.

After all, without timely climate action, it is unclear if the survival or let alone growth of nation states will remain possible.

Published: May 24, 2022, 4:00 AM