India’s Climate Change Challenge

India's Climate Change Challenge

Interview with Anjali Jaiswal
October 29, 2013

India is one of the world’s leading emitters of CO2 and, according to a recent study by Yale and Columbia, ranks 126 out of 132 countries on environmental performance—the lowest of any country in Asia. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has argued that India must make addressing climate change a national priority, and both industry and policy groups have ambitious plans for promoting environmental security while sustaining economic growth.

To better understand efforts to address the impacts of climate change in India, NBR spoke with Anjali Jaiswal, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Ms. Jaiswal’s work focuses on litigation to protect the environment and on NRDC’s India initiative aimed at fostering collaboration between the United States and India. In this interview, she highlights a range of environmental challenges facing India, identifies areas and opportunities for advancing policy momentum on climate action, and describes the significant role of the private sector in enabling U.S.-India cooperation.

Please describe the mission of NRDC and its work in India on climate change.

NRDC is an international environmental organization founded in 1970 that has an expert staff of scientists, policymakers, and attorneys working together to create solutions to the greatest environmental challenges today. Our work is supported by a staff of 400 and a base of 1.4 million members and online activists. In India, we work with local partners to fight climate change, develop clean energy solutions, and provide climate adaptation solutions.

One of our bigger achievements this year was the launch of the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, which is an early-warning and preparedness plan for a city of seven million people in western India. It is the first-ever heat action plan in South Asia and uses easy-to-implement solutions that save people’s lives—for example, utilizing communication outreach to help people stay hydrated and cool, as well as to train local health professionals. The plan was launched primarily through strong partnerships and local government leadership, and we have seen it implemented in Ahmedabad this season with good results.

NRDC’s work also focuses on clean energy. For example, we have promoted the economic case for energy efficiency and implementing new building codes with the goal to transform Indian cities. We are also working to harness the full potential of solar energy production in India, which is now comparable to California’s. Although India still has a long way to go, the initial success of these programs is the result of U.S.-India cooperation. The growth of the solar energy market, for example, is due to U.S. developers, financiers, and companies working with partners in India.

India faces many challenges with regard to climate change, such as serious droughts in one region and dangerous floods in another. Why is India particularly vulnerable to the diverse effects of climate change?

The reason India is so vulnerable is because it is a large country with many living in poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of government planning to deal with complex weather systems. Recently, a World Bank report emphasized how India will be subject to irregular monsoons, flooding, rising sea levels, and higher temperatures. The monsoon season is vital to the Indian economy because many Indians are agrarian. What happens to India’s monsoons will drastically affect the fate of the agricultural sector and the people dependent on it. Climate change is going to continue to create erratic extremes throughout the monsoon season. Preparation for weather irregularities brought by climate change is thus essential to protect the lives of the Indian people and the growth of the Indian economy.

What policies (if any) are in place or being developed that address the challenges of adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change on rural and impoverished areas?

In India, there are three main areas of policy activity that are focused on targeting, mitigating, and adapting to climate change. First of all, energy access is a priority for the Indian government, and Secretary of State John Kerry also underscored this issue on his June visit to India. Providing energy to 400 million people who do not have access to modern electricity is a necessity, making off-grid solutions such as solar energy key to reaching these populations and providing sustainable clean energy sources.

Secondly, India has adopted a national action plan on climate change, and many of its smaller states are developing state action plans that include components regarding climate change adaptation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has highlighted low-carbon development as a priority for India, and when NRDC released its heat action plan in the city of Ahmedabad, city offices from all over India asked us how they could develop similar plans and programs for their communities.

Lastly, state leaders are enacting local building codes that establish standards of energy efficiency within urban centers. We have been working with Andhra Pradesh in south India on the implementation of those codes. According to projections from McKinsey, 70% of the buildings that will exist in India by 2030 have yet to be built, so a huge opportunity exists.

Who will likely lead the charge for climate change initiatives?

When you look at the U.S.-India relationship, you see more active cooperation between business sectors than between the U.S. and Indian governments. When you look at energy-efficiency and green building solutions, you see U.S. companies partnering with Indian companies to construct more energy-efficient buildings. For example, the Confederation of Indian Industry’s building in Hyderabad was a joint partnership with American private and public entities to build the first green building outside the United States. American businesses are more and more interested in the Indian market and the opportunities it holds.

Business leaders are essential to progress in India, especially on climate change. Many Indian states are getting ready to implement energy-efficiency codes, which will require the help of business leaders. The growth in the solar energy market has likewise been a result of business stepping up and seeing the opportunities for growth in India; solar-energy generation, for example, has grown from 17.0 megawatts to 1.7 gigawatts this year. When it comes to adaptation and preparedness, one private company (GBK) that provides ambulance services in Ahmedabad, with which we coordinated in developing the heat action plan, has begun sending text alerts to communities it serves on heat preparedness.

During Secretary Kerry’s June visit to India for the fourth annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, he and his counterpart, India’s external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, prioritized climate change as a key area in bilateral cooperation. Vice President Joe Biden visited India in July, and he also highlighted the country’s susceptibility to climate change and the need to increase U.S.-India cooperation on climate issues. Why are climate issues being addressed now at these levels in the U.S.-India relationship? How can the United States most effectively assist India in addressing its climate challenges?

India is an emerging economic powerhouse and global leader. The United States has recognized this and has started strengthening its relationship with India, and climate change is a key part of this strategic partnership. The time for action is right now for a few reasons. First, not only have high-level government officials made recent trips to India, but we also see a business case emerging for clean energy, clean building, and more sustainable cities, as well as the global phase down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC)—short-lived climate forcers that have a much larger global-warming potential than CO2. Second, India will be having an election in 2014. The window to act is small but the opportunities are large, and we will see a lot of action in the lead-up to the election. Lastly, India and the United States have both suffered devastating floods recently, and those climate-related disasters drove home the importance of taking action. Prime Minister Singh and President Obama already have a good working relationship, and we have seen the U.S.-India relationship strengthening on climate change.

What roadblocks do you see, either down the road or currently, to increasing cooperation on climate change issues? Where has there been success in overcoming some of these challenges?

All these energy projects require participation from multiple stakeholders, with leaders from both business and government sectors coming together to put solutions into place. For renewable energy, affordable and available financing is key to enabling renewable energy to compete with fossil fuels. For climate change adaptation, establishing and implementing preparedness plans is a challenge even in the United States.

For example, NRDC just did a joint case study with our partners in India on energy efficiency in south Mumbai. Godrej & Boyce did a major retrofit of their Mumbai office building and found these efficient upgrades paid for themselves in less than five years. What the case study and this payback period unequivocally did was answer the question of whether energy efficiency pays. One of the partners in the project was the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India, and we disseminated our findings to developers across India.

Another case study of the economic benefits of clean energy that we developed with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water examines the impact of phasing out HFCs used in room and vehicle air conditioners, which are skyrocketing in India. Our study found that the alternatives both save energy and are better for the environment in terms of fighting climate change.

Producing these case studies, which show the business case for clean energy, really helps shift the market.

Does increased discussion between the United States and India on climate change indicate a larger “call to action” for India to spearhead similar discussions in the United Nations and other multilateral forums? What kind of role do you see India playing to address climate change with its neighbors?

India is a leader in South Asia. When development policies work in India, they serve as implementation models for other countries looking to establish similar policies. We have seen this happen with clean energy, solar market growth, green buildings, air conditioner efficiency, conversion of transportation fleets to compressed natural gas, construction of more sustainable cities, and climate adaptation and readiness. Scientists forecast that the world will see more of the sprawl that contributes to climate change, and India, as an incubator for these development programs, is essential for moving the rest of the world forward. Additionally, U.S.-India bilateral cooperation can be a model for larger, multilateral solutions. While the two countries have much in common, they are also different. It is thus essential to develop international solutions such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Montreal Protocol.

Is there anything you would like to add?

One interesting aspect about India is that it is not only a fast-growing economy but also an optimistic environment for businesses. Though it can sometimes be a challenging place to work, the opportunities are tremendous. There are a lot of drivers for clean energy, including the lack of electricity, blackouts, limited coal supply, the dirty and expensive diesel generation that is used, and the overall concerns about energy security and the effects of climate change. U.S. leaders can identify with these concerns about energy security and crisis response after Hurricane Sandy.

I think countries are increasingly recognizing the power and importance of action on the ground, as well as of bilateral cooperation to move action on the ground forward. If they don’t, we will see more of what the scientists are telling us: a warmer planet with more erratic weather, negative impacts on the world’s energy supply, and problems with how communities deal with climate change. That is why NRDC emphasizes that the time to act is now.

Anjali Jaiswal is a senior attorney and founder and director of the India Initiative on Climate Change and Clean Energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In that role, she collaborates with partners to advance energy efficiency in buildings and appliances, solar energy, and plans to protect communities in India from climate change impacts.

This interview was conducted by Sonia Luthra, Assistant Director for Outreach, and Clara Gillispie, Assistant Director of Trade, Economic, and Energy Affairs at NBR.