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Changing For Good

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In 1987, a UN World Commission on Environment and Development report — ‘Our Common Future' (Brundtland Report) — laid the basis for the concept of sustainability. It focused on intergenerational equity, for now and in the future. In 2002, the Johannesburg Summit redefined the concept with three core areas: environmental sustainability, economic growth and social equity. It wanted to ensure that these areas were recognised, as developing countries were upset about the focus on sustainability, which many felt would limit growth.

Now, at the Rio+20 conference (to be held to June 2012), they will be revisiting sustainable development. But some countries are mistakenly opposing this. They think these goals could be used to bypass principles of equity and "common but differentiated" responsibilities. But these can be used to highlight inequities in the system and force industrialised countries to come up with the financing that has always been promised.

India needs to be really pushing here. It needs to push for scientific data as well. What does it say about the 2 degree C target? How can one be so blase about it? It is a huge amount. We are looking at 4 degree C and it is not going to be a linear rise in temperature. This is going to have huge implications on the ecosystem. The gap in transmitting information to the public is not unique to climate issues. It is part and parcel of development itself. For example, the previous regime in the US used uncertainties in the economic model to not make any policies. But ‘no policy' is by itself a policy. Climate policy is really about socio-economic development that has an impact on climate. It is about the implications of development on climate and its impact on the policies you undertake in response to climate change. The concept of what constitutes climate and the response to it also have to be wider. You also need an anticipatory work plan as well. Whether one likes it or not, government departments and ministries exist in silos. Given that, we need to make sure that there is strong inter-sectoral policy coordination at critical junctures, especially at district and state levels. Then we will not have a situation where multiple climate policies are working at cross purposes. Subsidies are also crucial. It is not about yanking them away. We have to look at the nature of the social safety net that needs to be created to absorb the welfare shock from removal of subsidies.

The eight missions under India's National Action Plan on Climate Change are impressive. These are based on what is going to happen 100 years from now. I would like to see how resilient critical infrastructure is in India now. What would happen in extreme events? Too many times when people talk about adaptation, they only focus on climate as the dynamic, as though the rest of it is static — what I call development nirvana. That is not the case at all. India is seeing massive population movement, resource intensification, changes in farming patterns and job structures in urban areas. Once you have looked at the vulnerability and new infrastructure requirements, add to it the population trajectory or the urbanising trend. What else should be the combined infrastructure? What happened in Mumbai (flooding) was because of climate change as well as designs which were 100 years old.

You can also look at this in terms of engaging new areas of opportunity. Indian entrepreneurs are innovative in spotting new areas. There are huge opportunities in many industries whether it's through improving efficiency in buildings, fuel and so on. The same holds for agriculture. Businesses protest when things are changing and say they need stability of policy. But the fact is they got into the business at the time of change. So they should not fear policy changes as long as they are reasonable and have scientific backing.

Now, there is a lot of emphasis on financial institutions in the West to change. For example, in New York and California, they are forcing insurance firms to reveal plans for extreme climate events. The green insurance companies have been at the forefront of climate risk evaluation. And investors want to figure out if their funds are safe. This is how the finance industry is becoming savvy about the risk and opportunities from changing climate. As for financial institutions in India, I do not know. Also, it makes no sense to talk about local commons (resources) versus global commons. The tragedy of the commons can happen at any level. And biophysically and socio-economically, they are all connected. We no longer have the freedom to say it is within our national boundaries.
Someshwar is director, climate policy, at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. (As told to Yashodhara Dasgupta)

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 27-02-2012)