How an Environmental Activist Became a Pioneer for Climate Justice in India

Reducing India’s emissions will take more than science—it will take a new paradigm of de-colonialism, says Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain has been working for climate justice with the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment since 1982. Centre for Science and Environment

Sunita Narain, 56, is perhaps India's most well-known environmental activist. The director of a small but influential Delhi-based NGO called the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), she has been included on Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People; last year, Leonardo DiCaprio chose to interview her for his climate change-themed documentary Before the Flood.

One sunny day last January, I flew with Narain to Jaipur, India to attend the local literature festival. She had been invited to release her organization’s report on the state of India’s environment and deliver an accompanying talk. The title she had chosen for that talk—“De-globalization and new pathways for a sustainable growth in the age of climate change”—said a lot about how Narain views India’s role in the climate change crisis.

Like other Indian public intellectuals and politicians, Narain maintains that Western countries and their fossil fuel-based economies are at fault for creating the current climate crisis, and that process of globalization has done little but further inequality within the country. To avoid repeating past mistakes, she believes India should develop its own growth pattern rather than merely imitating that of wealthier nations.

Narain ascended the stage at the literature festival and began. “What we need today as a nation is a new paradigm of growth—whenever and however it happens,” she told the audience. “This doesn’t mean we have to stop developing. Just we have to do it differently.” A naturally gifted orator, with a high-pitched voice and a flair for clarity, she gathered energy as she spoke. “We cannot afford to do what China and America did: have decades of 8 percent GDP growth, then do a cleanup act later,” she went on.

Her topic was a sensitive one. In India, breakneck development is colliding with the dire effects of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, and putting the country in an awkward position. For a large developing country like India, climate change is a non-zero sum game. As the national economy keeps growing, so do carbon emissions contributing to global warming.

The question is: Can the country develop without spoiling its future—and possibly that of the Earth?

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According to long term data gathered by the India Meteorological Department, a dramatic increase in temperatures has already occurred throughout the country. In 2015, an unprecedented heat wave claimed the lives of over 2,300 people. Temperatures are projected to rise between 1.7°C and 2°C by 2030, and extreme weather phenomena like the 2015 heat wave are expected to become more intense, longer and more frequent.

Over the last three decades, India’s economy has grown relentlessly, becoming the sixth-largest in the world in 2016. Since 2014, the Indian economy has also been the world's fastest-growing major economy, with an average growth of over 7 percent annually. Yet 20 percent of the overall population still live below the poverty level. Most of them rely entirely upon agriculture for their livelihood, and a large part of their activities takes place on rain-fed, flood-prone areas with an extreme degree of sensitivity to climate change.

Nevertheless, India is playing its part in worsening the climate crisis. Despite a very low rate of per capita emissions, the country is now the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, and its annual emissions have almost tripled between 1990 and 2014. The international community expects that the country should help limit climate change to a degree commensurate with its emissions.

But it’s a touchy issue. Although in recent years India has abandoned its traditional reactionary approach and started playing a soaring central role in international climate talks, a mix of a rock-solid sense of national sovereignty, historical factors and geographical elements makes the path very hard. Many Indians feel that matter-of-fact imperatives such as economic development and basic poverty reduction should come first and fear that tackling climate change would divert too many resources away from them.

“The poorest people,” Narain argues, “are in the worst position to address emissions that contribute to climate change, as they are the most vulnerable to its effects.”

How an Environmental Activist Became a Pioneer for Climate Justice in India
New Delhi recently overtook Beijing as the world’s smoggiest city. Danita Delimont Creative / Alamy

A native of New Delhi, Narain has been cautioning her city—and, broadly speaking, her country—about the dangers linked to high air pollution levels for years. In 1999, CSE issued an advertisement. It read: "Roll down the window of your bullet-proof car, Mr. Prime Minister. The security threat is not the gun, it is the air of Delhi." At the time, the city was just beginning to display the first warning signs resulting from intense urbanization, density of cars and rapid industrialization.

“In India today the air is so deadly that we don’t even have the right to breathe,” Narain told me, sitting in her office at CSE headquarters, a complex consisting of two back-to-back, multi-story, and environmentally-friendly buildings located in southeast Delhi. It was two days before the literary festival, and we were meeting for the first time. Wrapped up in a jaunty black kurta, she welcomed me with a cup of masala chai.

For years, smog-ridden Beijing, often dubbed 'Greyjing' for its sickly air quality and thick blanket of smog, held the sad record of being the world's most polluted city. However, New Delhi has recently managed to pull ahead of China’s capital. Last October, a thick, yellow haze enveloped India’s capital for days. The mist was so intense that, on some mornings, it seemed possible to grab it.

At times, in parts of the city, the level of PM 2.5 particles—the fine particles linked to higher rates of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and respiratory disease—surpassed the level of 999. That's on a scale where rates over 300 are graded as “hazardous.” Meanwhile, emissions of greenhouse gases were sky-high. Some sensors on the measurement devices even stopped working.

“A decade ago, you had to explain the word ‘smog’,” Narain says. “Now you don’t; everyone knows what it is. It’s right there for you to see.”

When asked about her path to environmental activism, Narain says she doesn’t believe that any one life experience led her to commit herself to the environment. Nor was her upbringing a significant contribution. "No one is an environmentalist by birth," she said, "It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you."

The eldest of four sisters, Narain was raised almost single-handedly by her mother. Her father, a freedom fighter, died when she was eight. Owing to the handicrafts export business he had started soon after India's independence in 1947, which would be eventually taken over by her mother, Narain had what she calls a “cushy background.”

In 1979, while she was still a high school student, she joined Kalpavriksh, a Delhi-based activist student’s group campaigning to prevent outside logging companies from cutting down forests in the Delhi's Ridge Forest. That experience set her on a new trajectory. “I realized the crux weren’t the trees, but the rights of people over those trees,” she told me. In 1983, after graduating from Delhi University, she joined CSE, which had recently been founded by the late Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal and was one of India’s first environmental NGOs.

Narain puts much trust in knowledge-based activism. In order to get the message to the public, she blends an unwavering faith on hard data and scientific methods of research with a Gandhian approach to environmentalism, which she maintains to be, at root, an issue of equality and rights—of access to natural resources, and freedom from health-endangering pollution, rather than a matter of land conservation and protection of endangered species per se. Narain frequently cites the Chipko movement—a group of anti-logging peasants in Indian Himalaya that featured a young Vandana Shiva—as one of her greatest inspirations.

“That movement explained to the people of India that it was not poverty, but rather extractive and exploitative economies that were the biggest polluters,” she wrote later.

How an Environmental Activist Became a Pioneer for Climate Justice in India
Sunita Narain and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Before the Flood. Centre for Science and Environment

* * *

Narain first came across climate change in the late 1980s, while she was researching for practices to restore barren lands in rural India. A link between changing climate and the burning of fossil fuels was well established scientifically at this time, but the debate would not move into the public political sphere for a decade. As with her earlier experience with Kalpavriksh, it occurred to Narain that the problem she was working on would be not nearly as important as solving the basic problem of managing climate as if it were a local forest.

“It didn’t much matter how well we understood the issue if we weren’t to take that both were common property resources to share and manage globally,” she told me.

Recently, countries around the world including the U.S. have been dealing with the increasingly loud arguments of climate change deniers. Yet Narain says this is not a major point of concern in her country. Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made conflicting statements about the status of climate, he has more than once highlighted the country’s commitment to slowing down the process.

In India, the challenges are different. Firstly, many Indian adults have never heard of climate change. According to a 2015 study published by Nature Climate Change, about 40 percent of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change, with this rate rising to more than 65 percent in India.

Most importantly, even though Narain acknowledges the challenge that climate change denial presents, she contends that ideological biases towards developing countries are “at least as dangerous.” In 1991, the Washington-based think tank World Resource Institute listed country emissions in the form of a scientific index, asserting that India was one of the world’s largest emitters, both due to methane emissions from cattle farming and agriculture and deforestation.

The findings of the study convinced Maneka Gandhi, at the time India’s Environment Minister, to issue a directive to state local governments to reduce agricultural and cattle-based emissions.

In response, Narain, along with Anil Agarwal, wrote an essay aimed at refuting the conclusions of that study, branding them as “an excellent example of environmental colonialism.” The essay, emblematically titled Fighting Global Warming in an Unequal World, is considered by many to be the first to lead to the notion of equity emerging as a key driving norm in climate diplomacy.

Narain argued that the report “erased the past,” ignoring greenhouse gases’ lifetime in the atmosphere and glossing over historical responsibilities of developed nations. Not all emissions are the same, she pointed out. In the case of India—a country in which millions of extremely poor people have livelihoods that depend solely on their ability to tap the environment, from subsistence paddy cultivation to animal rearing—it was necessary to draw a distinction. Those emissions weren’t, and couldn’t, be ethically equivalent to emissions from cars and industrial activities, she argued.

* * *

From her perspective, those people were simply “too poor to be green.” With most of their time spent struggling to make ends meet, how could they be concerned with something as preeminent as the environment? In one of the essay’s key passages, she wrote: “Can we really equate the carbon dioxide contributions of gas guzzling automobiles in Europe and North America or, for that matter, anywhere in the Third World with the methane emissions of draught cattle and rice fields of subsistence farmers in West Bengal or Thailand? Do these people not have a right to live?”

One way out of that climate blame game, she asserted, was the per-capita allocation principle, where all individuals in the world are allocated equal access to the atmosphere. “India and China today account for more than one-third of the world’s population. The question to be asked is whether we are consuming one-third of the world’s resources or contributing one-third of the muck and dirt in the atmosphere or the oceans,” she wrote.

Historically the share of cumulative emissions of developing countries is nowhere near that of the developed ones. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, U.S. and Europe altogether were responsible for over 50 percent of emissions from 1850 to 2011, whereas countries like China, India, Brazil and Mexico accounted for about 16 percent.

Of course, there are several ways to tally up the national responsibility for climate change, and none tells the full story on its own. For instance, you can include historical emissions, or just current emissions (Narain argues against the latter). You can include or exclude the carbon footprint of human consumption, including imported goods, as well as the effects of extracting fossil fuels and deforestation. Today, as the climate crisis intensifies, Narain stresses the importance of considering both historical and per-capita emissions.

In November 2015, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris, whose purpose was to reach a legally binding agreement to hold the global rise in temperatures, Narain stated: “The question is not whether you agree with 1, 5 or 2 degrees. It is how will you share the remaining carbon budget between the past and the future.” She insists that rich nations, which she refers to ironically as “The Umbrella Group,” must reduce their emissions to create "development space" for the emerging countries.

In a 2015 report titled Capitan America, which sifts through the 2013 U.S. Climate Action Plan laid out by Obama’s administration, she wrote: “There is a stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere built up over centuries in the process of creating wealth of nations. It is a natural debt these countries owe to the planet. The principle has to be: they must reduce so that we can grow.”

Narain has a penchant for David-and-Goliath fights, and sometimes her absolutism led to frictions, even within the league of developing countries. The most persistent objection is that India is no longer part of that circle. Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi climate researcher and Narain’s long-time friend, says that “the issue of equity in climate negotiations is an old-fashioned idea in a world where the dichotomy of the rich and poor countries has vanished.”

“India is a polluter, a rich country whose government is hiding behind the poor to avoid cutting emissions,” he stated.

* * *

Every developing country must balance two sometimes conflicting principles: exploitation of natural resources and economic growth. India’s balance of the two, however, is of paramount relevance to the rest of the world, given the country’s sheer size.

Today, energy access for India is as much a challenge as climate change. By UN official forecasts, India will add some 400 million people to its already huge population by 2050. This comes on top of an ongoing crisis: the World Bank estimates that around 300 million people in India still have no access to electricity, while over 800 million households still use dung-based fuel and carbon-emitting biomass for cooking purposes. Another quarter-billion people get uneven power, finding it accessible for as much as three or four hours a day.

The paucity of power impacts urban and rural areas equally, hindering efforts to expand the country’s manufacturing sector and raise living standards. Therein lies India’s energy quandary: To improve standards of living and increase the economy, the country seems to have the only viable option of heavily relying on fossil fuels such as coal, of which it has one of the world’s largest reservoir.

Soon after taking office in 2014, Prime Minister Modi launched the “Power for All” project, a plan to deliver electricity to all Indian houses by 2019. As part of the strategy, he pledged to bring the national renewable energy capacity up within five years. Modi has won herself a name for overseeing the construction of Asia’s biggest solar park while he was chief minister of the western state Gujarat, but his plot, however ambitious it may be, is extremely challenging, not least because no country has ever boosted its renewable-energy infrastructure at the rate he envisages.

Shortly after announcing he would seek to widen the country’s solar power output, Modi and his government embarked upon the world’s boldest capacity-building plan to generate low-carbon power. At present, the bulk of the electricity demand in India is met by aging, coal-fired plants, whose overall shape is in a dismal state. To meet its promises, the Indian government has planned to double the use of domestic coal by 2019 and build 455 new coal-fired electric power plants—more than any other nation.

According to a report by the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental agency, India will become second to only China in terms of coal production and also the largest importer of coal before 2020. Though this may sound a bit contradictory, actually it isn’t. Given its colonial past, India has developed a sturdy resistance to having domestic priorities compromised, especially by industrialized countries.

Personally, Narain is in no doubt as to the need to reduce global emissions. Yet she admits that India’s will inevitably grow over the next years. “India has—at least on paper—the world’s largest middle class,” she continues. “But in the country this term has a meaning very different to its usage in the west. Among the richest 10 percent, for example, a third live in households which have no refrigerators. If you ask people with that level of access to energy to cut corners—that’s a very big ask.”

According to Narain, the most critical issue is access to energy for the country’s poorest. “The vast majority of the poor in India simply can’t pay for energy. Where there is poverty, and you can’t pay for power, what electric company is going to go there and supply the power? Even if you are going to generate it, who is going to buy it, who is going to sell it, who is going to pay for it? That’s to me the major point,” she says. “From this perspective, India couldn’t do without coal.”

Realism of this kind typifies not only Narain’s view but also other parts of Indian debate over the environment and energy, where the notions that the country has the “right to growth” and that responsibility for reducing global emissions should be carried mostly by the west are conventional wisdom. Paradoxically, the enormity of the task ahead, added to the fact that the country’s modernization process is still at an early stage, is somehow an upside.

Yet whatever the impacts of India’s decisions will be, we already know whose rights Sunita Narain will stand up for: those of the weakest, and most defenseless.

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