The significance of India ratifying the Paris climate deal on 2 October hits home when we keep in mind that Gandhi’s thoughts on sustainable development were so much ahead of contemporary times. Gandhi, during his time, believed that modern economy was "propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy". Further, that this unbridled predatory materialism came at the cost of bleeding the environment dry and exhausting finite natural resources. Crucially, Gandhi’s commitment to an "economy of permanence" predated the modern awareness of dangers posed by unsustainable models of development. He propagated his thoughts decades before climate change came to be treated as a serious subject of discourse, and of national and international concern.
However, Gandhi’s own party — the Congress — which ruled India for the major part of the post-independence era, found more virtue in Jawaharlal Nehru’s model of high growth-powered development than in Gandhi’s ecological economism. Paradoxically, it was left to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to partially reinstate Gandhi’s economic philosophy. He has linked Gandhi’s till-now neglected, if not forgotten, thoughts on ecology to the Paris climate deal that was signed in December 2015.
It is another matter of course, that a separate discussion may be required on the Paris deal itself, which many leading environmentalists have described as inadequate. In a column in the Business Standard in December 2015, this is what the leading environmentalist Sunita Narain wrote about the deal: "… read the fine print, and it becomes clear that poorer countries have lost big time. This battle is to save the world from catastrophic climate change impacts so that rich industrialised countries do their fair share to reduce emissions and the emerging world gets its right to development and support to develop differently."
Narain did concede that the effort to cap global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees Celsius is definitely a move in the positive direction. But with a caveat. She argued that if the world wished to cap temperatures then it also has to lower greenhouse emissions: "The Paris agreement fails in this totally." Targets have not been set for developed nations to move towards more aggressive emission cuts.
"What is even worse is that Paris cements climate apartheid — so that the historical responsibility of the developed world of creating the problem of emissions is erased. Worse, the burden of future transition moves to the still developing world," Narain argued, critiquing the agreement. The pact will come into effect following its ratification by at least 55 countries, accounting for 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
While Narain’s too-little too-late argument does carry weight, India’s ratification of the Paris deal would appear to signify (if only on paper for the time being,) its apparent intent to take seriously the phenomenon of global warming and its catastrophic consequences already manifesting themselves in multiple ways. Not just that, the government will have to factor in the concerns of climate change in the process of initiating or amending economic and environmental policies. In fact, if India is serious about implementing the Paris deal, the government would have to completely rethink its conventional approach to development. As we have already seen, investors of all stripes — national as well as foreign — tend to frown upon environmental regulations and their strict enforcement.
If it is serious about tackling the challenges posed by climate change, then the government, in the coming days and months, will have to send all stakeholders an uncompromising message: business cannot go on as usual. Such an approach is not likely to go down well with various developmental sectors, particularly the burgeoning real estate industry. But there are no soft options left.
He propagated his thoughts decades before climate change came to be treated as a serious subject of discourse, and of national and international concern
It may be worthwhile in this context to recall what author Amitav Ghosh said in an interview to Elizabeth Kuruvilla in LiveMint in July 2016. When asked how we can address the concerns of climate change as laid out in his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh replied, "We can’t in any way address this issue until we address the causes of it. Which is the economic model we’re now pursuing, a model that is solely oriented towards perpetual growth. That is the first issue that we have to confront."
He further argued that "we can’t carry on living as though everybody can expand their carbon footprint or their energy footprint. If you don’t acknowledge that how can you even begin to have a serious conversation about this? And that is exactly what this document is about. It is about perpetual growth. It’s just trying to find the different means of perpetual growth."
Therefore, while the symbolic power of ratifying the Paris accord on 2 October is undeniably powerful, it will all come to naught if the requisite follow through is missing. And there doesn’t seem to be much cause of optimism on that front.