India's pledge to hit Net Zero by 2070: 'We don't have time till then, climate change requires action now'
A middle-class Indian does have a carbon footprint that is just as big as that of a German or a French person. And the well-off wouldn’t like to reduce it any time soon, rues author Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh is among the best-known chroniclers of devastations and disasters caused by human greed and colonialism. His latest book ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ is described as a parable for a planet in crisis. National Herald caught up with him for a candid conversation on the disaster that awaits us.
We will publish the interview in parts. This is the first part wherein Ghosh underlines that a middle-class Indian does have a carbon footprint that is just as big as that of a German or a French person, and that Indian elites are using the poverty of their compatriots to excuse their own carbon footprint.
Ghosh also points towards questions being raised over the veracity of the Net Zero concept and the validity of and logic –or the lack of it-- behind India’s 2070 target. Excerpts:
Are governments serious about climate change after COP26 at Glasgow?
What we saw in this COP26 was a kind of political theatre really; there were so many contradictory things happening there. In the first place, three of the biggest players were not there. The very absence of the Presidents of China, Russia indicated to us that there's been a sort of devaluation, not just of climate negotiations but, I think, of international negotiations in general. That has in a large part connected with the increasing sort of rivalry and hostility between the United States and its allies, and China and Russia on the other.
So, in many ways, climate change really is a geopolitical problem. And you can't expect one aspect of international relations to proceed smoothly, while other aspects of it are getting more and more difficult. I think in general, you know, what we are really seeing is, and I am sorry to say this, an attempt to break down what used to be some kind of international order.
How do you look at the pledges made by PM Modi on behalf of India at COP26?
The pledge is that we're going to hit Net Zero in 2070. Look, I'm not a policy wonk, but from what I can see from the responses of people who are informed about this kind of thing, it seems that the whole Net Zero concept is itself questionable. Britain has made commitments to becoming Net Zero in 2050 something, at the same time handing out licenses for more and more exploration of oil in the North Sea.
Similarly, Canada, on the one hand makes its Net Zero pledges and at the same time is constantly handing out licenses for fossil fuel exploration. India is one of the many countries that have refused to sign the anti-deforestation pledge. And India is also handing out lots of licenses for coal mines in the forests of central India. So, it's really hard to see. I mean these are almost like meaningless commitments.
India has promised to cut its emissions to Net Zero by 2070. Would you agree that we are missing a key goal of the COP26 summit to commit to reach that target by 2050?
The one plus thing about the 2070 pledge, rather than 2050 or whatever, is that it sounds at least a little more realistic. Honestly speaking, we don't have 50 years. We don't even have 40, 30, 20 or even 10 years. This is the crucial decade when all the changes need to be made. One can already see the sort of disastrous climate impacts that are unfolding all around us. By 2070, the world will be a flaming mess. If we want to go on at this rate till 2070, there'll be nothing to save.
Promises like these are completely meaningless. How do we even know that this process is going to be respected? It doesn't have any enforcement mechanisms. As we have seen with the Paris Agreement, the US signed and then left? So, what can you say?
Does the common man in India really understand the gravity of climate change?
There isn't a single ‘one’ common man. Rather, there are many different common men. Maybe they don't necessarily conceptualise these things in terms of climate change. And of course, all the impacts that we see cannot be attributed solely to climate change; impacts are also man-made in different ways.
For example, when in Mumbai and Chennai, you have a massive flooding event, climate change is one part of it in so far as there's greater precipitation now than there used to be. But there is also the fact that we've been building in our cities in such unsustainable ways that the impact of climate change has become greatly magnified, simply because we built structures over drainage channels. We have built up over riverbeds.
Often these problems are hugely exacerbated by other kinds of human impacts. The same is true for example, with, let's say, the farmers' protests. Agriculture in India has been very badly affected by falling water tables and by many other factors. However, if you ask those farmers, the last thing they will probably mention is climate change.
In reaching our goals, should India pay the price for excesses done by others?
I believe we have to think very seriously about climate justice. The world has to take that into account. And climate change is a problem which has to be considered within long spans of time. This is exactly what the West doesn't want. All they want to know is who are the biggest emitters today!
As a matter of fact, these greenhouse gases, which have a centuries long lifetime, have been put in the atmosphere since the 19th century. So obviously, the historic emissions too have to be taken into account. There is no way that we can have any kind of climate justice without taking historical emissions into account.
But that being said, let's also face the fact that middle class Indians have a carbon footprint, which is just as big as that of a German or a French person or someone else. In fact, often Indian elites are using the poverty of their compatriots to excuse their own carbon footprint. All they want is to keep expanding their carbon footprint at the expense of peasants or Adivasis.
Suppose India gets a break in terms of having to make emission cuts; how are poor Indians going to benefit from it? I very much doubt if they will benefit at all. I think what's actually going to happen is that our ultra-rich will just get to fly about a bit more in their private jets.
Since we are on the issue of India, what have we done right and what have we totally gotten wrong since 1947?
This is not just India, but I would say this is what started roundabout 1990. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a period that was led by the so-called Washington Consensus. And the Washington Consensus is essentially founded on the idea that the American lifestyle is the best possible lifestyle. People everywhere should adopt this kind of lifestyle where every household has two cars, several fridges and so on. Basically, what that means is a very high consumption, high emitting, high carbon footprint kind of lifestyle.
And the Indian middle classes have now completely adopted these things. Young Indians have adopted the same kinds of wasteful habits. It is very unfortunate.
Similarly, a lot of this lifestyle is fuelled by debt. Generally speaking, within Indian culture debt is regarded with great fear because of the long history of what the moneylenders unleashed. In some really important sense, what we used to think of as Indian culture, really no longer exists. Across the world, people have just adopted this form of culture that was promoted by the Washington Consensus, where everything is just up for grabs.
(To be continued…)