Greening India’s Environment: Challenges Faced and Prospects for Future Cooperation

As one of the countries most affected by climate change, India has prioritized its environmental policy agenda at both the domestic and international levels. What are the major environmental issues for India? To what extent will EU-India collaboration on sustainable development and connectivity lead to a greener circular economy?

The beginning of 2021 has been exceptionally challenging for India. In January, India’s capital city New Delhi was hit not only by a hailstorm, but also by the heaviest rainfall in 21 years, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Furthermore, the country was then plunged into a cold wave in the Northern regions. However, Central and South India have been particularly hot, so much so that January 2021 was the warmest in 62 years in terms of average recorded temperature. What is more, on the 7th of February 2021, a massive piece of a Himalayan glacier broke off in northern India, causing at least 26 deaths, with a further 170 people missing. In view of the increase in natural disasters in India, the national government raised awareness of global warming in various ways. For instance, in 2008, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change (PMCCC) published India’s first National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), outlining the government’s initiatives and strategies on climate change. 

Nevertheless, more than a decade after the release of the NAPCC, India is facing increasing extreme weather that has disastrous effects on humans, animals and the ecosystem. Thus, the effectiveness of Indian environmental policies should be assessed. As a starting point, the environmental situation in India will be examined. With this in mind, we will then look into the initiatives implemented on the domestic and international levels to remedy the situation. Lastly, EU-Indian cooperation on climate change, water and energy issues as well as their future prospects will be tackled. This paper suggests that for India, in order to combat climate change, a sustainable and feasible environmental action plan resides in finding the balance between environmental protection and economic development, notably in ensuring energy security. As an active developing country, India possesses significant potential to improve its environmental standing and move towards a “greener” economic model while cooperating with other regional and international partners. All that is needed now is to act upon it. 

Assessment of India’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

In the Germanwatch 2020 Global Climate Risk Index report, India is ranked fifth amongst the most affected countries by climate change. The Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences’ 2020 report estimates that the average temperature in India is expected to climb by 4.4°C before the end of the century, exacerbating concerns over rising sea levels. With a coastline of 7517km on which major Indian cities are located (namely Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai), this is especially worrying. These cities are already at risk of being submerged every year during monsoon season. While flooding and droughts become increasingly frequent in India, extreme weather conditions also spur worries about food security and energy supplies, since its population is expected to surpass China’s in 2027, becoming the world’s most populous country. Despite exceptional climatic conditions being perceived as “natural disasters”, human activity weighs heavily on the environment. As the third-largest global producer of carbon dioxide in 2020, the exploitation of fossil fuels, soaring levels of pollution from industries and Indian megacities all contribute to carbon emissions, leading to an acceleration of climate change. 

Indian Domestic Environmental Initiatives

Many Indian cities are known for their heavy traffic situations and smog. The AirVisual’s 2018 World air quality report indicated that 22 out of the 30 most polluted cities are located in India. Air quality has also been assessed as “airpocalyptic” in a Greenpeace report issued in January 2017. The severity of the matter should not be underestimated, particularly during winter months where air quality worsens due to atmospheric factors, heating systems and post-monsoon biomass burning. Around 60 percent of the Indian population still relies on biomass such as wood or charcoal for cooking and energy supply. In order to combat the emission of these fumes, the Indian government adopted the Pradhan Mantri Ujwala Yojana (PMUY) scheme in 2016 which provides clean liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to poor households freely for cooking purposes. It is aimed to reach 80 million households by 2022. Combating air pollution is an important concern, given that poor air quality has a significant health impact, reducing average life expectancy by more than 10 years in Delhi. In November 2020 for instance, New Delhi’s air pollution level was nine times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe, to the point where the air was considered dangerous to breathe. According to the state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the levels of PM 2.5, which is considered one of the most toxic particles, climbed to about 250 micrograms per cubic meter. A thick smog rendered the city’s gray winter sky a sickly yellow and shrouded national monuments. People’s vulnerability to air pollution has been exacerbated by the pandemic, as a combination of air pollution and COVID-19 makes people with chronic medical conditions more prone to lung inflammation and other health conditions. As Arvind Kejriwal, New Delhi’s chief minister stated, “the corona situation is worsening because of pollution.” As a consequence, the Indian Ministry of Environment launched the national clean air programme (NCAP), which sets the framework for sub-federal states to institute and adequately implement the necessary measures. Since many Indian cities are amongst the most polluted in the world, this programme aims at reducing the concentration of coarse (PM10) and fine particles (PM2.5) in 102 cities across the country by 20-30 percent by 2024, as compared to 2017.

Besides the deteriorating air quality, water pollution also poses a severe threat in India. According to the 2018 “Composite water management index”, India’s water index is ranked 120th out of 122 countries. In urban and rural areas, untreated sewage water from farms and factories flows into rivers and lakes, contaminating drinkable underground water. Farmers subsequently use the untreated water to irrigate their crops, generating food security challenges and illnesses among the consumers further down the food production chain. For years, the Ganges – Hinduism’s holy rivers, have been polluted to the extent that its water is unsafe in some areas due to the risk posed by heavy metals. This prompted the launch of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) in 2014. At the call of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nearly USD 3 billion of funds were committed to a five-year clean-up of the Ganges by 2020. However, the NMCG was criticized for its slow pace of cleaning-related work. According to the most recent data available from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), amongst its 2,500-kilometer length, the Ganges’ average water quality has not reached a level considered safe for drinking and bathing due to the fact that untreated sewage water has continually been discharged into the Ganges. 

Furthermore, urban planning failures, manifested in clogged drainage systems and the encroachment of water bodies, play a critical role in the impact of natural disasters on cities. In summer 2020, many Indian cities experienced flooding. The expansion of mega-cities in India makes them more vulnerable to heavy rainfalls, especially in locations with a high concentration of people such as slums and squatter settlements. Inadequate urban development policies go hand in hand with poor waste management, also causing food and health problems. In an attempt to address this, the Modi government has launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (‘Clean India’ project), aimed at decluttering the streets, clearing sewage pipes and the building of millions of public toilets across the country between 2014 and 2019. The project has paid off. It has been reported that since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, at least 180,000 diarrhoeal deaths were averted in rural India. According to a survey conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO) in 2018 and released in 2019, 71 percent of rural households had access to toilets in 2018, showing a significant improvement compared to 40 percent in 2012. On 1st February 2021, the Indian  finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the “Urban Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0” initiative, where Rs 1,41,678 crore are allocated to complete faecal sludge management and wastewater treatment over five years from 2021. The ‘Smart Cities Mission’ also contributed to developing public transport, sewerage, water supply and sanitation. The program will vary on a city to city basis, with financial aid payments being staggered between 2017 and 2022. Due to the severity of the pandemic, the project had to slow down to the extent that only 11 percent is completed until 2021. Thus, it has been estimated that benefits will be reaped from 2022 onwards. 

To protect the “lungs” of the earth and fight against illegal timber trafficking, the National Green Tribunal was set up in October 2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act 2020 to enforce laws on forest conservation and natural resources. Forests are known to absorb carbon dioxide, contributing to global temperature reduction and the slowing down of climate change. Mangrove forests served as a natural barrier to take in excessive water and hold the earth firmly in the ground. However, due to economic development, the demand for wood has increased in India. As a result, heavy rain loosens the soil, taking away the earth, while devastating agricultural outputs. Deforestation has aggravated the current environmental situation, not only in India but also on the border with Bhutan and Myanmar. Illegal traffickers from the northeastern states of India smuggled timber from Bhutan, to such an extent that they have been called the “timber mafia”. Despite a ban on timber logging since 1996 in the northeastern states of India, the policy has not been enforced very strictly. In India, due to its federal system, regional entities have, to some degree, power to decide what measures should be implemented. As the 7th largest country in the world, constituted by 7 union territories and 29 states, the Indian central government needs more stringent policies to better control measures in the different regions. Regional governments are dependent on the central government in terms of finance. Therefore, one solution could be to introduce financial penalties or specific taxation schemes in areas failing to adhere to environmental protection policies. There is a clear need for concordance between legislation set forth by the central government and its implementation by the states.

India’s International Engagement in Environmental Issues 

Policy awareness has been driven at the international level under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Third Biennial Update Report (BUR-3) to the UNFCCC was published in February 2021 by the Indian Ministry of Environment. Through the development of green technologies in the sectors of industry, agriculture, business and commerce, the BUR-3 highlighted India’s consistent efforts to combat the challenges of global warming. Besides meeting its commitments to the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, India has enhanced initiatives in climate change mitigation and adaptation. According to Babul Supriyo, Union Minister of State for Environment, “India, as a front-runner in climate action, is one of the few countries on track to overachieve the 2 degrees celsius compatible Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) targets submitted as part of the Paris Agreement.” The 2015 Paris Agreement adopted at the global level by up to 190 Parties is an important milestone, as it is the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate change agreement. Despite the withdrawal of the United States of America from the Paris Agreement in 2016, India and other partners such as the European Union (EU) proved to be strong advocates of environmental protection and leaders in the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable alternatives as a means of energy production. For instance, the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which promotes the use of solar energy, was launched by France and India in November 2015 at the 21st session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-21) in Paris.  

Indeed, one of India’s enormous challenges will be re-orientating its energy model, which today still relies heavily on coal, fossil fuels and biomass. Since the country will become the world’s most populous country in the coming years, it faces an enormous demand for electricity provided by fossil fuels. Following its commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement, the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has announced an ambitious target of 500 gigawatts (GW) of renewables by 2030, and has pledged to source 40 percent of its electricity from renewable and other low-carbon sources the same year. Incentives have paid off, as India’s is among the top ten performers in adopting substantial measures to mitigate climate change in the 2020 climate change performance index (CCPI). The construction of the Bhadla solar power park in Rajasthan, which is one of the world’s largest solar power plants, is the perfect example of solar energy production promotion as it can reach a maximum capacity of 2.245MW and serves as an excellent alternative to fossil fuel-based energy production. 

However, India’s “solar-powered revolution” and its solar manufacturing capacity have proven challenging to expand, since it relies heavily on the importation of Chinese solar equipment. According to R. K. Singh, the Indian renewable energy minister: “India imported solar cells and modules worth USD 1,179.89 million from China in the first nine months – April to December of the financial year 2019-2020.” The reason resides in the fact that “solar panels or modules imported from China are generally cheaper than those produced by domestic manufacturers,” Singh added. The Indian government ought to incentivize businesses to produce domestically manufactured components under the government-sponsored projects, such as the PM-KUSUM Scheme (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) or the Rooftop solar scheme, to discourage Chinese imports and provide protection to the domestic MSME (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) solar firms. The lack of skilled workers in the Indian green industry also needs to be urgently addressed through advanced training in the sector and the creation of new job opportunities. As a result, these initiatives would not only lessen India’s dependency on Chinese imports, but also increase its economic competitiveness vis-à-vis China, as well as its readiness for sustainable structural change in the long run. 

Challenges and Future Prospects of EU-India Climate Cooperation

In reaction to the commitments to the Paris Agreement, the EU-India Summit in March 2016 marked a milestone in their cooperation in leading climate action and clean energy transition. Based on a shared vision for sustainable energy production, both sides agreed on a joint declaration on Clean Energy and Climate Partnership, including renewables, energy efficiency, sustainable finance, smart grids and grid integration. The Partnership aims to support the European Investment Bank in deploying funds for renewable energy and climate change programs with India. Additionally, through the EU’s Partnership Instrument project “Clean Energy Cooperation between the EU and India” (CECI), specific technical assistance is also brought to India to reinforce its climate research capacity. In regards to sustainable management of water resources, a joint declaration on an India-EU Water Partnership (IEWP) was also agreed following the Summit, assisting in the implementation of the Indian government’s Ganga Rejuvenation Initiative. From exchanging perspectives with the Indian government on regulatory approaches in tackling the cleaning of Ganga, the EU can take in valuable lessons in reforming its Water Framework Directive (WFD) for the Rhine and Danube. 

The EU-India Summit in October 2017 focused on facilitating EU-India business-to-business interaction, including new cooperation on green cooling, solar pumping, energy storage and advanced biofuels. Both leaders emphasized the importance of transitioning to a circular economy to minimize primary resource demand and increase clean energy development. As a result, collaboration in the fields of resource efficiency and circular economy has increased under the EU’s Resource Efficiency Initiative (EU-REI) for India. Besides, a joint declaration on smart and sustainable development was agreed on creating cities with sustainable urbanization. For instance, the EU supports India’s Eco-Cities project which promotes use of renewable energy, clean technology and energy efficiency in five cities – Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar, Chennai, Mumbai and Pune metropolitan regions to meet its goals in the NCDs. The EU collaborates with Indian Urban Local Bodies to develop basic facilities and encourage sustainable urban management. Under the International Urban Cooperation programme (IUC), 12 city-to-city pairings between European and India cities aimed to support India Local Action Plans in promoting smart, green and inclusive growth. 

On the 15th of July 2020, the 15th EU-India Summit was held virtually due to the ongoing pandemic. As a common roadmap to guide joint action and further strengthen the EU-India Strategic Partnership, the “EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025” was endorsed, aiming to develop a “sustainable modernization partnership.” The EU and India reaffirmed their strong commitment to the Paris Agreement and agreed upon constructive bilateral relations in the context of a post-pandemic economic recovery plan by employing a “greener” and sustainable framework. For instance, the India-EU Clean Energy and Climate Partnership established at the 2016 Summit will be reinforced. Based on the principles of mutual benefit and reciprocity, further dialogue in sharing knowledge and expertise in the areas of innovation and technology will be promoted. The EU’s main strategy to combat climate change is through its green recovery agenda. However, “the environmental and economic ambition of the Green Deal will not be achieved by Europe acting alone,” said  Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries at the summit. In times of the global pandemic, the EU-India Strategic Partnership in the field of resource efficiency and circular economy is poised to gain ever more significance in view of achieving the European green recovery plan. “The transition to a resource-efficient and circular economy is essential for the sustainability of the EU and India’s economic growth and requires working together for a global systemic shift,” with the involvement of other global powers such as China, Russia, and the United States, he added. Besides, according to a joint statement released after the summit, both parties agreed to work closely in creating a post-2020 global strategy to conserve biodiversity, which will be discussed and adopted at the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2021. The 8th May 2021 EU-India virtual Leaders’ Meeting reiterated the importance of transport and industry decarbonisation and projected a new work programme for the EU-India Clean Energy and Climate Partnership.

To sum up, climate change is a worldwide issue and needs to be dealt with not only through domestic policies but also international cooperation. As one of the most populous countries vulnerable to climate change, India needs to act now in order to protect its population from rising sea levels, pollution and the degradation of biodiversity. One solution resides in transitioning from biomass-produced energy to sustainable energy, thus creating a greener economic model. As Muthukumara Mani, a senior environmental economist in the Sustainable Development Department of the World Bank’s South Asia Region stated: “while the overall policy focus should be on meeting basic needs and expanding opportunities for growth, they should not be at the expense of unsustainable environmental degradation.” The dilemma is finding the delicate balance between socio-economic development and environmental preservation and protection. To achieve this, engaging in regional cooperation with China and international cooperation with the EU in the domains of clean energy, infrastructure-building, and climate research capacity could be beneficial for India in a greener circular economy. 

Author: Kemeng Liu, Junior Researcher, EIAS 

Photo Credits: Pixabay