Sunita Narain is one of the most prominent activists and thought leaders on environmental issues today. As the Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an influential not-for-profit public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi, she has won numerous Indian and global awards, including the Padma Shri and the World Water Prize, for her pathbreaking vision and work. In an exclusive interview with Rajiv Tikoo, she not only highlights India's environmental challenges, but also flags the direction the country should take to pursue a sustainable development path. Excerpts from the interview:

December 4, 2014

Sunita Narain

While the Bhopal tragedy is still awaiting a closure, what has India learnt from the tragedy, if anything, and done to avert such accidents in the present or future?

Sunita Narain: Post-Bhopal we saw relevant legislation coming up; however compliance has been an issue. The Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986 was the first major piece of legislation after the Bhopal tragedy. Amendments were made to Factories Act in 1987. By 1989, the country got the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules. And in 1991, the Public Liability Insurance Act was enacted to provide immediate relief to persons affected by accidents while handling hazardous substances.

While we have managed to avoid a disaster like Bhopal, but mini-Bhopals continue to happen. Industrial accidents are frequent and leave thousands injured per year; many are unreported. There is a growing problem of contamination of land and water. Thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste is lying across several sites in the country.

There is a need to improve the tools for compliance and enforcement. Penalties need to be increased and processes made transparent. Participation of local people in governance needs to be increased. This could be done through transparent public hearings and more public data dissemination. We also need to have systems to establish corporate liability.

While we are far from getting right our broader act on the environment, what do you think of India's response – direction and pace -- in fighting climate change?

Sunita Narain: It is evident from the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that climate change will impact the world severely and the risks are intensifying. This is expected to put the lives of the world’s poor at stake. India is especially vulnerable since it houses 33% of the world’s poorest people.

India, according to a report published by UK-based global risks advisory firm Maplecroft, is the country which is 13th most vulnerable country to climate change out of 194 countries of the world. India has faced many floods, droughts, cyclones, heat and cold waves in the past and they form part of the natural climatic landscape of the country where depending on the region, communities have adapted to such events to varying degrees. Climate change will slow down economic growth and make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security and “prolong existing and create new poverty traps”.

India formulated the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in June 2008, which identified eight missions and outlined the existing and future policies and programmes addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation in India.

The most recent review of the progress made under the eight National Missions of the NAPCC by the newly reconstituted Executive Committee on Climate Change (ECCC) on shows that more efforts need to be taken for effective implementation of the missions.

Progress on other initiatives envisaged under the NAPCC – Greenhouse Gas (GHG) mitigation in power generation; other renewable energy technologies (RET) programmes; disaster management links; protection of coastal areas; health sector; and creating capacity at different levels of the government on climate change – has been slow to date and the Executive Committee has suggested that relevant ministries prepare a work programme on these initiatives at the earliest under the coordination of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC).

Other areas of concern under the NAPCC have been the lack of progress in allocation of sub-targets within the existing earmarking of 3% for solar projects and implementation of Sustainable Habitat standards by the States. The lack of adequate funding has been flagged as the major challenge in this regard, while recommendations include having new missions in the field of wind energy, health, waste to energy conversion and coastal management.

The question is whether India is prepared to face the climate change challenge and develop resilience. The answer is no. if we keep moving at the current pace then it will be very difficult to face the challenges due to climate change. India cannot afford to not act on climate change.

How do you see India's climate change position evolving over the next one year, particularly with respect to Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)?

Sunita Narain: It’s a must for the Indian government to put forth its position on how to incorporate equity in the allocation of carbon budget. The principle of equity must be inherent in any mechanism that deals with a global problem such as climate change. Since 1990, CSE has said that since atmosphere is a global common, we all need to share this space equitably. Today we are in this position because not only the developed countries did not reduce their emissions in pursuit of relentless industrialisation, but the rest of the countries in the world also increased their 'survival' emissions. The need of the hour for all countries is to have a low carbon growth plan.

Now, the way ahead is for India to lay down its emission targets or emission intensity targets but in consonance with its capacity and bearing in mind the benchmark set by developed countries -- such actions are the keystone of the common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities (CBDR-RC). Everything else is cheap talk.

In India, different states seem to be on different pages on fighting climate change. For example, states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are leading in renewables like solar. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have more climate-friendly policies from a mitigation perspective. And so on....what can be done to promote sharing and learning among various states?

Sunita Narain: We fully agree that different states are on different pages, when it comes to fighting climate change. All the states have been asked by the central government to prepare their State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCCs). However, 22 states have submitted the SAPCs as of November 2014, which have been uploaded at the MoEF & CC website. The action plans for several large states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are yet to be finalised. The ECCC in its recent meeting urged the completion of the remaining SAPCCs to be expedited and also recommended launching of a new Central Sponsored Scheme (CSS), if required, for implementing some of their priority projects. However, even where the SAPCCs have been completed and approved, States still face significant and multiple challenges in implementation. The challenges to the implementation of the State Action Plans and the rising costs of adaptation suggest an urgent need to review the government strategy on addressing climate change adaptation and mitigation.  To date there is no specific national programme on adaptation. For the first time in 2014, a National Fund for Climate Change Adaptation was announced, but much remains to be understood on what the focus of this fund will be and how it is going to be operationalised.

Various states need to come on the same platform, especially those sates which have similar climate change concerns. For example, when it comes to climate change adaptation, states like Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh have similar concerns. Frequent interactions among states need to be promoted by states and the central government. As of now, state specific climate research and evidence building including time series data mechanisms are absent in many states, and very little documenting of community voices and perceptions of climate change and its impacts has been carried out. Many states do not yet have detailed climate vulnerability analyses available at the state level (both in general and for various sectors). Overall it seems that SAPCCs of various states have various gaps, which need to be addressed.

Finally, how hopeful are you that there would be a desirable climate change draft document in Lima for arriving at the much needed agreement in Paris in 2015?

Sunita Narain: At Peru it is expected that parties will announce their emission reduction targets, emission intensity targets or even targets covering specific sectors like energy and forestry. Nations have been asked to prepare their Intended NDCs (INDCs) by March 2015. The Kyoto Protocol was designed to be top-down binding treaty. Current discourse revolves around a ‘bottom-up’, rather than ‘top-down’; of a ‘Framework of Various Approaches’ (FVA) within which ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) can be measured, reported and aggregated into a globally consistent action plan; and, of ‘New Market Mechanisms' (NMMs).

But the major emitters seem to be caving pathetically to the oil, gas and coal lobby – the US and China who announced a deal recently -- stated that the US will reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Now this is a very neat manipulation of numbers because when you unpack and analyse the statement you will find that the US will reduce its emissions by less than 3% by 2020 and by 12-14% by 2025 compared to the 1990 levels. China, on its part, will peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and then start reducing it. It has also agreed to raise the share of non-fossil fuels to 20% of its primary energy mix by 2030. It has not, however, announced any specific emissions targets.

What is happening now is that despite the facts given in the Emission Gap Report, which says the current pledges are insufficient to keep us on this side of the 2 degree guardrail, and the 5th IPCC Report, countries are trying to haggle with the scientific facts. Pledges are just not ambitious enough. This is not a problem for which we can patiently wait knowing we will prevail in the next century. The 2 degree tipping point; and the diminishing carbon budget and the tussle over its allocation will make it too late. It remains to be seen if and how big ticket issues like climate finance, adaptation, forestry and technology transfer can be tackled. Unless the developed nations take a lead in these efforts, possibly of any concrete outcome remains bleak.

- OneWorld Foundation India

Themes: Environment