Climate change is a very real threat. It will have major implications for every country and region in the world, but South Asia is particularly vulnerable. To appropriately address the challenges there, the world will have to confront four misconceptions about climate change in South Asia. With world leaders convening in Paris to hash out a new agreement on climate change, now is the right time to do it.
Bangladesh is uniquely vulnerable
Bangladesh, a low-lying, flood-prone nation is frequently described as one of the most climate vulnerable nations in South Asia—and in the world. In reality, however, several other South Asian states are just as, if not more, pressed.
Take Pakistan. Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index, which measures the impacts of weather-related disasters (in terms of death tolls and financial losses), has ranked Pakistan as one of the world’s ten most-impacted countries in recent years. A 2015 UN study, which had a similar conclusion, pointed to the country’s perfect storm of geographic, demographic, and climatic conditions—an arid climate, large coastal populations, and a strong dependence on glaciers for drinking water. Experts estimate that about a quarter of Pakistan’s land area and half its population of nearly 200 million are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters.
Then there’s India, which according to the World Health Organization, is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities—including New Delhi, the world’s most polluted city. India’s climate risks are particularly acute because, as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the coastal regions are densely populated and the economy depends heavily on agriculture. The Center for Global Development’s Climate Vulnerability Index estimates that by 2050, nearly 40 million people in India could die from rising sea levels. It also projects that higher temperatures could bring down agricultural productivity by 40 percent come 2080.
In short, all of South Asia is dangerously climate vulnerable. The coastal states of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are threatened by rising sea levels and flooding. Landlocked Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal face rising temperatures, drought, and glacial melt. And the tiny yet densely populated island state of Maldives—the lowest-lying country in the world—faces the very real prospect of complete submersion in the not-too-distant future.
Pakistan doesn’t care about climate change
Pakistan’s government, consumed by immediate challenges such as terrorism and political survival, has a reputation for giving little priority to climate change. Pakistan’s national power policy says little about renewable energy and doesn’t mention climate change at all. Of the 40 federal ministries or divisions awarded funds from Pakistan’s Public Sector Development Program in the 2015-16 annual budget, the Ministry of Climate Change received just 0.016 percent of the total allotment.
Islamabad’s actions leading up to the Paris conference only spurred more criticism. The country produced the shortest INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, a document outlining climate change goals) of any nation. It was reportedly submitted after the deadline and was laced with errors.
Despite all this, Pakistan’s track record on climate change mitigation is actually quite respectable. The country launched a National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) in 2013, with an implementing framework—an outline of specific steps and explicit timeframes—published several months later. Pakistan has provided incentives to producers (through the provision of generous tariffs) and to consumers (though subsidies and other discounts) to use renewable energy. In one province, officials have promised to provide solar power to nearly 6,000 off-grid households—while footing 90 percent of the bill.
Most impressively, in September, a high court in the city of Lahore ordered the Pakistani government to do more to enforce the NCCP—and even established a new climate change commission to oversee the process. Environmental lawyers around the world were stunned by the ruling, which has few if any precedents anywhere in the world.
Few countries are bigger emitters than India
India generates quite a few emissions; according to the World Resources Institute, only three countries have higher total annual, emissions. However, in terms of per capita emissions, India is actually number ten in the world—after Brazil and Mexico, and significantly below the global average. The per capita distinction is no small matter, given that India is the world’s second-most populous country and will likely steal the top spot from China within the next decade. On the whole, according to World Bank data, South Asia’s emissions rate per capita is the lowest of any developing region in the world other than sub-Saharan Africa.
In recent months, conservationists and other experts—including Jairam Ramesh, a former Indian environment minister—have been particularly worried about the emissions that result from India’s prodigious coal consumption. The country has the fifth-largest coal reserves in the world and is the third-greatest consumer, with consumption expected to double by 2035. India’s coal is downright dirty, and its production is profoundly polluting. Reports abound of fires burning continuously in coal-mining areas. Not surprisingly, communities in coal-producing regions face health problems of epidemic proportions.
Still, India’s coal consumption shouldn’t be overstated. The country has consistently failed to reach the government’s production targets since 2007, with only a modest four percent growth. India’s coal production is inhibited by a variety of factors—an inefficient and corrupt coal sector; poor infrastructure; an insurgency in prime coal country; and a discouraging climate for potential foreign investors, thanks to heavy state regulation and unfavorable pricing policies. Indian coal is typically priced at an estimated 30 to 40 percent below market rates.
Say what you will about South Asia’s emissions contributions—from coal consumption in India to intensive deforestation in Pakistan (the highest rate in Asia) to the rampant use of heavily polluting biomass fuels across the region. At the end of the day, South Asia’s carbon footprint is light relative to other regions. That said, developed regions are increasingly embracing renewable energy sources even as scale and cost issues constrain South Asia from doing the same. This suggests that in due course, South Asia’s carbon footprint could more closely approximate that of the West.
India is actively blocking a climate deal
From the West’s perspective, India can be a problematic partner in international negotiations (witness New Delhi’s blocking of a WTO trade facilitation deal last year).
Some now contend that New Delhi could be a troublesome player in Paris. India has long suggested that economic growth should trump considerations of emissions reductions. This is a typical position for developing countries, although particularly consequential in India’s case, given its size and stature. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi skipped a key UN climate summit and, in a widely derided move, embraced yoga as a way to deal with climate change.
In a more recent and ominous development, the U.S. government circulated confidential notes to several countries, including India, outlining what would constitute a successful agreement in Paris. According to the Business Standard—an Indian newspaper that secured a copy of the note—the document features a number of provisions that won’t be received well by India’s delegation. One is the achievement of “climate neutrality”—a controversial term that India believes gives developed countries a license to keep polluting. Another is the expectation that developing countries will contribute to new international climate funds.
However, as noted by India analyst Raymond Vickery, India’s INDC for the Paris talks reveals a striking evolution in New Delhi’s position. Instead of articulating a rigid right-to-pollute stance, it lays out specific plans to attain a 33 to 35 percent reduction in emissions intensities per unit (emissions intensity, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s definition, is the ratio of carbon dioxide to a measure of economic output—it is not a measure of absolute emissions). It also plans to get approximately 40 percent of installed electric power capacity from non-fossil fuels by 2030.
By no means does this mean that New Delhi and Washington (and other Western nations) will operate in lock step in Paris. Still, it does suggest that South Asia’s biggest country and carbon emitter could be quite amenable to throwing its weight behind a deal in Paris. Given India’s importance to any meaningful deal, that would be very good news indeed.