India should present a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change, says special adviser to UN chief

India – and all of the world – needs to shift from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) to low-carbon energy, such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear energy.

Rashme Sehgal February 17, 2018 17:29:43 IST
India should present a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change, says special adviser to UN chief

Prof Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also a special adviser to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on the Sustainable Development Goals to help remove poverty, hunger and disease. A leading economist, he is also director of the of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and co-editor of the World Happiness Report apart from having authored several best-selling books.

He was in the capital to attend the World Sustainable Development Summit organised by TERI.

Q. You have been quoted as saying that the air pollution levels in Delhi are very poor and that Delhi has become an unlivable city.

A. By various objective measures of the World Health Organisation, such as PM 2.5 and PM 10, Delhi has amongst the worst air pollution in the world. Acute episodes such as the "Great Smog" of November 2017 are shocking and dangerous. The experts tell us, with greater and greater evidence each year, that air pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities causes massive disease burdens such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, long-term reductions of children's cognitive functioning, and massive premature death.

Q. What is the way out for the 20 million inhabitants living in this city?

A. Most importantly, India – and all of the world – needs to shift from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) to low-carbon energy, such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear energy; from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles; and from unsustainable farm practices such as burning crop residues to sustainable farm practices.

Q. What do you believe is the comprehensive action plan that the government should implement right away?

A. The Indian government should present a comprehensive plan at various time horizons – short term (one year), five years, 10 years, and 20 years – supported by India's leading experts and in consultation with independent experts from abroad. There are no immediate answers to solve the crisis once and for all. The key is a technologically and economically sound approach implemented systematically and transparently over roughly 20 years, and drawing on the best minds and technologies.  I am not an expert in the nitty-gritty solutions that are appropriate for Delhi, but the general direction is clear: decarbonisation of electricity generation and industrial production, electric vehicles and electricity-based public transportation, crackdowns on industrial polluters, and sustainable agriculture, including to end the burning of post-harvest residues.

India should present a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change says special adviser to UN chief

Representational image. AP

Q. Should we follow the Beijing model in curbing air pollution? This included implementing an odd-even scheme for cars and strict licensing policy for new cars in the city.

A. Again, I can't give an off-the-cuff prescription. The key is a sound and transparent plan, worked out for time scales from the urgent short run and including the long term (20 years). The right prescriptions depend on the main sources of pollution, the technological alternatives in the short term and long term, the economics of the alternatives, and the administrative ease of implementation.

Q. Are you satisfied with the way India is tackling its problem of afforestation?

A. In general, I believe that the government needs a more detailed and publicly accessible plan of action for all aspects of Sustainable Development Goals, including afforestation.  The main environmental SDGs include SDG 11 (urban sustainability), Goal 12 (reducing wastes and industrial pollutants), Goal 13 (climate change mitigation and adaptation), Goal 14 (sustainable coastal waters and marine ecosystems), and Goal 15 (terrestrial ecosystems). Achieving these goals is hard work and requires deep study and long-term implementation. These are challenges both for line ministries and NITI Aayog as a coordinator of long-term, cross-ministry planning. This work should be in collaboration with India's leading universities and civil society. Good answers require mobilising technological knowledge, to be applied at the scales of 1-20 years. Good, rigorous, expert-based planning is key. So too is a way to depoliticise the decision-making, so that it's not subject to the whims and vagaries of partisan politics.

Q. How vulnerable is India to climate change?

A. India is hugely vulnerable, one of the most vulnerable countries in the entire world. Every one of India's ecosystems, from the high Himalayas to the coastlines, to the hot and dry interior, is hugely vulnerable. India should be in the world forefront to demand responsible policies from the US, Europe, China, Russia, and the Middle East. India should tell Donald Trump, point blank, that the US cannot withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and that if it tries to do so, the US will be completely isolated diplomatically, legally, and economically. If the world continues with business as usual, India will pay a frightful cost for ecological disasters mainly caused by others. Of course, in order to lead in this way globally, India also needs to lead in its own decarbonisation as well. So far, India does not have a long-term (2050) plan to decarbonise the energy system. Studies do show, however, that India, and indeed South Asia, could move feasibly to 100 perfect zero-carbon energy.

Q. India is fast approaching a major water crisis. Do you think the policy of interlinking of rivers that the government has embarked upon will help solve this crisis?

A. The river-interlinking is risky. There is some logic: Water storage, flood control, hydroelectric power, more irrigation. Yet, the project is hugely controversial because there is no consensus among ecologists, engineers, hydrologists, and agronomists. Large-scale measures like the river-linking are inherently risky for obvious reasons. There are also important alternatives or at least complementary policies: Sustainable farming techniques, greater efficiency in water pricing and use, shifting crop varieties and regions of production. My own expertise focuses mainly on how societies can get good answers to these complex challenges, through more systematic study, expert deliberation, depoliticised decision-making, and long-term planning. The government should reflect on one question. Why has there been debate for 40 years over this scheme but no consensus? Is there a way to make the decision-making process more robust, transparent, non-political, and expert-based?

Q. President Trump has pulled out of the Paris Agreement. What kind of signal has this sent out to the world community?

A. I believe that in the end, the US will stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump's decision to pull out was based mainly on the wishes of the coal, oil, and gas lobbies, who determine the policy agenda of the Republican Party through their large campaign contributions. The US political system is one of large-scale corruption, with billions of corporate dollars now flowing through Washington politics. In the US, much of this mega-corruption is legal because of bad decisions by the Supreme Court, but it is deep corruption nonetheless.

Q. You had come here as part of the rural mission when I interviewed you in 2009. What is your response to the present government cutting down further on the budgetary health allocations making medical treatment extremely expensive for the poor?

A. In the new budget, the government has announced two very important new health programs. The first is a major scale-up of primary health care via 1.5 lakh health and wellness centres. The second is hospital insurance to cover 10 crore households (500 million people). Details are still to come, and there are important questions regarding their financing, but these two initiatives are potentially massive positive breakthroughs for Indian healthcare. If well designed, the health and wellness centres can provide low-cost and high-performance healthcare, supported by new smart technologies. The hospital insurance has to be carefully designed so as not to give too much bargaining power to private hospital systems. A private, overpriced, profit-driven healthcare system like in the United States would be very detrimental for India. In the US, the powerful healthcare lobby pushes up hospital and drug prices and profits and management salaries at the expense of public health, especially for the poor.

Q. The present government plans to use rivers as inland waterways. This will involve major dredging of rivers. Given that ours, unlike the west, are largely monsoon rivers, do you think these plans required more detailed environment impact assessments?

A. India's physical environment, I have been emphasising, is already highly stressed. The rivers are already heavily polluted, often vastly over-utilised, and highly vulnerable to climate change.  These problems cannot be solved piecemeal, as I've been emphasising in the previous answers. The government predicts a future for India in booming agriculture, but sadly the risk of agricultural collapse is also real, if the mega-environmental challenges – climate, water, pollution, land use, and biodiversity – are not attended to with the highest expertise, honesty, transparency, and foresight.

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