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Impacting India

November 9, 2010

Along with China, India is Asia's fastest-growing economy. The downside is the impact this has on the environment. But the country is taking meausres on climate protection - even more than some industrialized nations.

People building makeshift homes in the Ganges Delta
In May 2009, Cyclone Aila forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homesImage: AP

In May 2009, cyclone Aila swept through the Ganges Delta. Tidal waves flooded a number of islands, devastating homes and farmland and claiming 300 lives. 200,000 people became climate refugees, and were forced to abandon their homes.

Tropical cyclones are not uncommon in the world's largest delta. But to many, Aila served a grim reminder of climate change, with Greenpeace maintaining the destruction caused was in consonance with the predictions made by scientists, who had warned that storms would become more frequent and more damaging due to climate change.

Aila also served as a reminder that the Ganges Delta is one of Asia's climate hotspots, vulnerable to some of the worst manifestations of climate change. Here, the effects of global warming are well underway – while in Europe and North America, they are still only the subject of conferences and media debates.

Unique threat

The challenges faced by people living on the Ganges Delta include the threat of rising sea levels caused mostly by subsidence in the region and partly by climate change. If this continues, the result will be mass displacement. Higher temperatures related to climate change could also bring about more severe flooding of the delta, because of increased melting of snow and glaciers in the Himalayas.

Women up to their knees in water next to submerged homes
Only a fraction of those displaced by Aila had access to food and drinking waterImage: DW

According to the experts, if climate change continues unchecked, the consequences for India will be devastating. According to US economist William Cline from the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, India's crop yield could drop by two thirds by 2080 as a result of global warming. The institute's statistics show that India is more at threat than any other region on the planet.

It's not as though India is one of the planet's biggest polluters. The climate footprint of the seventh largest country in the world is commensurate with the size of its population - which is over 1 billion. Its carbon emissions are considerably lower than those of the US and China.

This is due largely to the country's widespread poverty. But as the Indian economy gathers pace, the fear is that environmental issues will be sidelined. Demand for energy is rising as the middle-class buys more cars, TVs and better housing. Much of that energy comes from coal oil and gas, the main sources for planet-warming carbon dioxide. But the country's politicians are aware of the need for a low-carbon growth path.

Learning from others' mistakes

"We need to put electricity into people's homes and do it cleanly," said India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh last year - stressing that rich and poor nations inevitably have different approaches to tackling climate change."You in the West need to live with only one car rather than three. For you it's about luxury. For us it is about survival."

India is especially active in the field of renewable energies, explains Martin Kaiser, director of International Climate Policy at Greenpeace Germany.

"India was quick to recognize that renewables could become a major growth market within its own economy, and got in on the act very early," he says. "It was a good move, because when an emerging economy invests in these technologies and contributes to their widespread use, they appear significantly more credible than the leading industrialized nations, who might just be keen to make money from them. They become role models for other developing nations."

An man installing a wind turbine
Wind energy is popular in many developing nationsImage: GTZ / Jörg Böthling

Today, India ranks 5th in the world with a total wind power capacity of 10,925 MW, or 3 percent of all electricity produced in the country. Experts predict that by 2030, wind power will be supplying 15 percent of India's energy needs.

India is at pains to avoid the mistakes made by the industrialized nations. Large companies are now legally bound to hire energy managers, whose primary task is to ensure energy-efficient production, and are responsible for implement energy-saving measures. They also report on the companies' carbon footprint to India's licensing authorities.

Even the poverty-stricken population living on the Ganges Delta contributes to the fight against climate change by using solar energy.

Mini solar units provide enough energy for a couple of energy-saving lamps and a radio or TV, and 50 percent of the 4.5 million people who live in the Sundarbans in the lower part of the delta own one, according to Geetanjali Solar Enterprise, an Indian manufacturer of solar products and equipment. That's a much higher percentage of the population than in the major European cities and the US.

Author: Martin Schrader (jp)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn