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Q&A: Why India Needs To Worry About Smog

Q&A: Why India Needs To Worry About Smog
Blanket of smoke and dust over New Delhi
File - AP Photo

A brisk power walk in the morning, breathing in the fresh dewy air, is definitely the preferred exercise for the average middle-class Indian. Whilst exercise may be good for the body, how good is breathing in the air of one of the most polluted cities in the world? A World Health Organisation report released last year named 13 Indian cities among 20 of the most polluted cities in the world. Delhi obviously topped the list of most polluted Indian cities.

Although climate change is often regarded as a western, developed world problem, India, Asia's third largest economy is not exempt from its effects. In fact, it has become a massive concern for the Indian government, businesses and citizens alike, as it should be.

Rising temperature levels, melting icecaps and disappearing forests have all set the alarm bells ringing and continue to do so as the United Nations prepares to hold its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris from 30 November, 2015, to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C

Here are six questions that answer everything you need to know about this debate so far.

What is COP21?

The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties is a crucial conference being held in Paris from November 30 to December 11, where member countries of the United Nations will be present to talk about environmental issues. The conference is likely to attract over 50,000 participants from over 190 countries, including delegates from governments, intergovernmental agencies, civil societies and UN agencies. The main aim of this meeting of the world diplomats is to create a new legally binding, universal agreement between all participating countries to limit the global warming to below 2 degree centigrade to what it was prior to the industrial revolution. This will be the first time in two decades that such a task is being attempted. The challenging chore on this year's agenda includes pushing private businesses to get involved in sustainable development initiatives and to develop low carbon, clean energy alternatives.

Why is "climate change" a hot topic?

Scientists have globally conceded that human actions are responsible for the rising greenhouse gasses (GHGs), responsible for global warming, in the atmosphere. These global climatic changes are having an adverse effect on natural resources, global food security, spread of infectious diseases and resulting in more extreme climates. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has further argued that the Syrian migrant crisis has been aggravated due to the devastating drought that hit the country. Thus, if steps are not taken to control these adverse changes, more migration of global populations is likely, leading to a host of problems including endangering food security.

Why did talks in the past fail?

Whilst all countries agree that climate change is an important topic that needs addressing, they all disagree on the way it should be done. The last global attempt of a similar scale, to combat the world's pollution crisis, was adopted in Kyoto in 1997, and put into action in 2005. The concept of 'equity' had been used to divide the burden of this climatic responsibility. The financial responsibility for developing the appropriate technology fell with the developed countries, which was to be used by the developing countries. Despite the US producing 33% of world's GHGs, the Bush administration refused to implement the previous deal due to the economic and competitive costs. Canada effectively withdrew from the protocol in 2012. As of 2015, only 36 countries have accepted the Doha amendment (follow up from Kyoto), while 144 countries were required to accept it, to put the document into action.

Where does India stand in this debate?

For the Paris conference in December, India has drawn up a cost sheet of 2.5 trillion US dollars to reduce its GHG emissions. It is unclear how much of this humungous amount India plans to draw from foreign direct investments. The first draft agreement produced for the Paris conference has upset Indian negotiators. The main issues presented by India have remained unaddressed, and the report is found to be in favour of the developed nations. There is no mention of the annual sum of 100 billion USD by 2020 as promised by the developed countries. Despite the developed nations being held responsible for the crux of the problem, developing countries like India and China have been asked to contribute to the finance pool.

How does India intend to contribute to the global efforts to reduce the carbon emissions?

On 1 October, India presented its intended plan of action for COP21. The policy framework includes a three part approach as a solution. The first part being mitigation strategies. These include promotion of clean renewable energies, the smart cities mission and the 'Swachh Bharat Mission' amongst others. The second approach is adaptation strategies with a focus on rural India including a revisit of agricultural and irrigation practices. The third approach is introduction of climate finance policies involving a transfer of subsidies from fossil fuels like coal to renewable energy, and financing projects to clean Indian rivers.

Is India's action plan logical?

It is a question with arguments on both sides of the coin. While Indian environmental activists seem to think that this is a logical plan, many others feel that not enough has been done to deploy or develop existing renewable energy technology. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy's 'Result Framework document 2014-15', shows that India has the capacity to produce 46,217 million watts of renewable energy for the year 2015-16. Yet only 15% of the total energy produced in India is from renewable sources. In India, 304 million people live without access to any form of electricity, having to use inefficient sources to cook (International Energy Agency, 2014). The figures clearly show that India's total potential to produce and use renewable energy is not being fully tapped.

The questions that need to be answered in retrospect are: Why is India shouldering the responsibility of the West when its own cities including Delhi, Patna, Gwalior and Raipur top the list of the most polluted cities in the world? Is the Indian government doing enough to thwart the rising pollution problem? The government alone is not the only major player in this debate. We as global citizens need to be an active part of the solution, rather than playing the victim of the industrialised West.

The world has a long way to go before it can come to grips with the challenges of tackling global climatic issues. The US may be shrugging off its responsibility for now, but it must consider the implications of its actions.

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