India, along with other countries of the world, has embarked on a historic process that could determine how different the climate of the earth will be from what we know today. The 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), welcomed over 150 heads of states and governments on 30 November even as 183 of the 195 nations in the world submitted their commitments to combat climate change.
India’s first engagement with the environment at an international level was in 1972. Speaking at the first global conference on human environment at Stockholm in Sweden, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi outlined the fear of developing countries that climate change was an issue bought up to sidetrack their need to alleviate poverty and pursue development.
“There are grave misgivings that the discussion on ecology may be designed to distract attention from the problems of war and poverty,” she said. Bespeaking the fear of developing countries like India, she voiced a thought that would punctuate the climate change debate: are changes in climate of any relevance to those who cannot even afford a decent meal? “We do not wish to degrade the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people… are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” she asked.
For a nation that had prioritised poverty over environment, the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s gave new fodder for thought. India was no longer immune to impacts on the environment. It was in the same decade that the concept of global warming was introduced. The greenhouse gases emitted by human activity were seen as increasing the temperature of the earth. These factors formed the impetus for a growing national debate over addressing the change in climate.
India accordingly became a signatory of the UNFCCC on 10 June 1992 and ratified it on 1 November 1993. From the beginning the country emphasised on Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and the Respective Capacities (RC) principle contained in the UNFCCC, recognising that the responsibility of climate change largely lies with those who have contributed massively to it. “It has been the consistent policy of India that though the world collectively caused the phenomenon, the nations that have contributed most must take more responsibility,” says Arunabha Ghosh,CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a think tank on climate change. This includes an understanding of the capability of each nation to contribute towards combating climate change, their historical emissions, per capita emissions and economic strength.In accordance with this stand, in 1997, India adopted the Kyoto protocol that imposed legally binding cuts in emissions.
This ‘differentiated responsibility’ stance of India was challenged by the developed world when its economy began emerging as one among the largest in the world. India however maintained that high economic growth was imperative for it to eradicate poverty. At the same time, the country did not dither from keeping climate policy proposals like the 2007 Singh Convergence Principle on the table. This principle stated that India’s per capita carbon emissions should never be higher than those of industrialised countries.
In 2008, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also announced the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) which outlined the various policies and programmes addressing adaptation (measures to reduce the consequences of change in climate) and mitigation. The plan included eight ‘national missions’ running upto the year 2017.