07/19/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2014

Sustainable Development: An Agenda for India

Over the next 18 months, the world is set to witness three major international events that could be potentially game-changing in efforts aimed at addressing global warming. The first would be the UN Summit next September revolving around the post 2015 development agenda; the second would be centered on the climate negotiations, which are supposed to culminate in Paris in December 2015; and the third would be the meeting to explore a new agreement on finance for development, which will take place next July 2015 in Ethiopia. This "global climate fest" may well turn out to be the world's last chance to save the planet from climate change.

Where does India -- an emerging economy facing enormous growth and social development challenges -- fit in this roadmap?

This is a historic opportunity for India to take the lead in shaping the global sustainability agenda. Backed by a strong electoral mandate, the new Indian government has been actively rooting for clean technology and energy efficiency in its endeavor to pursue a low-carbon growth model. At several fora, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reported to have shared his vision for "sustainable economic growth without compromising on environmental safety." Within a month of coming to power, the government initiated a multi-sector debate on reinvigorating the sacred River Ganges, which is arguably one of India's most polluted water bodies.

The recently-unveiled federal budget also accords high priority to new and renewable energy. Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has proposed to set up mega solar power projects in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir with a fund of Rs. 500 crores. The government has also announced a scheme for solar power driven agricultural pump sets and water pumping stations, for which Jaitley earmarked a sum of Rs. 400 crores in the fiscal plan. In addition, implementation of the Green Energy Corridor Project is expected to be accelerated in this financial year to boost renewable energy across the country.

This churning stems from the growing socio-political realization in India on the need to take ecological challenges head on. Growing pollution levels (a 2014 WHO report ranked New Delhi as the world's worst city in terms of air pollution), water scarcity and energy crisis have been raising fetters across India. And justifiably so: after all, the country is particularly vulnerable to global ecological variations. In the last few years, many of its water bodies have dried up and groundwater levels have been depleting due to unplanned urbanization. There has been widespread damage to natural ecosystems and biodiversity; and land degradation and extreme weather events have severely impacted agriculture.

Combining economic development and environmental sustainability -- and fast -- is hence imperative for the new government, as it charts out a new development strategy in infrastructure, water, energy, agriculture and jobs.

The question is what India can do to bring about low-carbon development in its economic mix. The shift to renewables, although necessary, is tricky because it requires higher capital investments. To bear this cost burden, India would need to depend on foreign fund inflows and technology assistance, especially with wind, solar and natural gas utilization. Reducing the cost of wind and solar storage technologies with technical progress will be the most crucial step in India's journey towards following a low carbon strategy, claim experts.

At a recent media interaction in New Delhi, Economist Jeffrey Sachs said, "We cannot combine growth and climate safety using existing technology. The only choice is a massive shift of technology. Some of those technologies exist but are not deployed. India at a very small cost could be deploying more renewable energy technologies than it does at present. Hydropower from Nepal and the Himalayas can be channelized and used. Globally, I feel by 2030, new automobiles should be zero CO2 emitting vehicles. They should be electric, fuel cell, advances biofuels but not internal combustion engines of the traditional sort. That is only 16 years from now. The question is moving as aggressively as possible towards right technologies."

That India's energy costs are high is evident. The other pertinent problem is that of accessibility of affordable energy. The development of mini-power stations and mini grids is the single most important opportunity to explore and address rural and remote electrification. Models that allow mass scale development of such grids, without capital subsidy, but through feed-in tariffs, may be be considered.

Transportation efficiency and fuel economy standards in India also need serious attention, as many Indian cities -- including Tier-2 and Tier-3 town -- rapidly motorize and urbanize. It is essential to rethink a mobility system that allows and supports public transport. At present, efforts are focused towards trying to fit in public transport models within a cars-centric system in Indian cities, but not creating innovative mechanisms and models for public transport.

Indian leadership has made climate change planning a priority but this is an ideal time to move over rhetoric and deliver the goods. In the past few years, India has experienced multiple extreme weather events, including record-breaking heat, crippling drought, and devastating storms and floods. It is hence vital to understand, prepare for and respond to new risks that are emerging across a range of sectors. Building institutional capacity to address climate risks will be crucial to protect livelihoods and promote sustainable development. For instance, capacity building in water continues to be huge issue for India. There is a significant skills shortage in the field, and high demand to recruit people for the water industry. Collaborative training programs may be an answer to deal with this problem.

Undeniably, greater investment is the cornerstone for sustainable growth. It is clear that for India, moving ahead with resilience will require substantial capital. Indeed, the price tag for both sudden-onset and slow-onset climate events will be large, but resiliency measures that aim to protect coasts, water resource, agriculture, and other areas can lower the cost burden. As Sachs puts it, "Our development is about consumption. We don't think about the future, we don't invest towards social returns. The market signals are wrong about this. Our politicians' time horizons are wrong about this. It turns out this is all very consequential. We can't even make consumption growth anymore."

Raising these issues at the 2015 meetings, India should push for a set of global goals -- including reducing coal dependence; shifting to cleaner technologies; and increasing resource efficiency -- to be incorporated into national policies by all governments. This would be an effective way for governments to examine their carbon use arithmetic -- how much CO2 will be emitted over which periods of time, what can be done about that technologically, and what would be a fair and adequate way to reach a global agreement to keep within that carbon budget.

The message is clear: Sustainable development will not be easy. Yet, it is an unavoidable responsibility that is achievable with better planning, stronger policies, and effective execution. Governments can no longer look at the issue from a narrow, short-term perspective. To avoid destabilization of the planet, the inclusion of the sustainable development agenda in public and private policy spheres is not only unavoidable, but inescapable.


(Samarth Pathak is a Program Officer at the Ananta Aspen Centre, a New Delhi-based institution working on international relations, domestic policy and values-based leadership. A former journalist, his experience encompasses news reporting and policy research on issues pertaining to politics, foreign policy and human rights. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Views expressed are personal.)