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India and climate change: our record, role and responsibility

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In the lead up to the forming of a global climate deal later this year, Ela Bhatt urges India to consider the link between poverty and climate change, and to make a strong national commitment to a cleaner, greener future. Published in The Huffington Post and Prabhat Khabar.

“India has an opportunity to show both integrity and vision.”

Climate change does not respect national borders. No country, whether rich or poor, developed or developing, can escape the impact of climate change on its land and its people. Nations, like people, are bound to each other on this Earth, and the actions of one have consequences on the well-being of others. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all interdependent.

Clean air, clean water, and the rich soil that produces our food and fuel are essential to sustaining life on Earth. Nature's bounty, if shared collectively and equitably between all life forms, can ensure our survival on Earth for millennia to come.

But humankind's use, and abuse, of the Earth's natural resources has put our planet in peril. Our intemperate use of fossil fuels to support modern human activity has had a significant impact on the planet and on its climate. The greenhouse gases emitted have been linked by scientists to rising temperatures, changing weather patterns and natural disasters like floods, droughts and cyclones across the globe. Their impact on people and the environment is severe and devastating. It is high time we took measures to restore balance on this Earth.

In December 2015 a major UN summit will take place in Paris, where delegates from every nation will come together to agree on how the world will face the issue of climate change and, as part of that effort, reduce carbon emissions to safe levels over the coming decades.

In the lead-up to the summit, each country must announce its "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions," or INDCs – each country's own action plan for climate change.

The Indian government is expected to announce its INDC in June. Our immediate neighbours, like China, Bangladesh and the Maldives, and distant neighbors in Europe, Brazil and the United States, will all be watching for the nature and extent of India's commitment to combat climate change.

A pledge by all nations to reduce carbon emissions is an important first step. The question of what is equitable, given the past, present and the future energy needs of developing nations vis-à-vis developed nations is a valid one. Yet we cannot allow it to dominate the climate change dialogue. We cannot lose sight of the bigger issue, which is "What is equitable for Planet Earth? Who will protect the interests of Mother Earth?"

The EU pledged a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. The U.S. announced that it is aiming for a 26 to 28 per cent reduction below its 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2025. China says it aims to reach a peak in its emissions by 2030 – and hopefully earlier – and reduce them thereafter. India too must show its resolve as a responsible member of the world community.

Yet mere pledges and promises to reduce destructive practices will not lead us toward a healthier planet. (Remember our pledges for the Millennium Development Goals and our subsequent performance!) We need to take a closer look at how we use and misuse our Earth, and we need to reexamine our modes of production and consumption. Since our current road to progress is littered with environmental degradation, industrial pollution and human exploitation, it is time we revised our notions of growth and development.

After all, how is it progress if our agriculture uses precious aquifer water, pesticides and chemical fertilisers to produce a bumper crop of food but manages at the same time to pollute rivers, destroy soils and introduce carcinogens in the body?

Whether they live in developing countries or developed countries, the poor and the vulnerable bear the brunt of climate change and environmental degradation. Droughts and floods in recent years have wreaked havoc in the lives of the poor. Changing monsoon patterns have affected our crops and our livelihoods, leading to mass migrations towards cities. Growing urbanisation has led to a breakdown in infrastructure, if there was one to begin with, and a proliferation of slums. There are major tears in the social fabric of our country. The effects of climate change are far-reaching indeed.

It is unfortunate that the world, particularly India, has not come together on the issue of poverty as it has on climate change. The two are interlinked. Therefore, I would urge India to keep in mind two questions when formulating the country's INDCs. Do our INDCs reflect our commitment to reduce carbon emissions with a view toward reducing poverty? Will our commitment to increasing the economic prosperity of our country also increase its ecological prosperity?

India has an opportunity to show both integrity and vision. We must first affirm our commitment to promoting non-polluting renewable energy, monitoring industrial excesses, reducing and recycling waste, cleaning our rivers and bodies of water, embracing sustainable agriculture practices, increasing biodiversity, regenerating forests, and forging partnerships with the people to improve their living and working conditions without degrading the environment.

If we can do this, at the Paris climate summit in December ours will be the strong voice of reason and the soft voice of hope.

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