The smog that has blanketed Delhi in recent days shows how badly developing countries have been impacted by climate change, largely caused by historical carbon emissions of rich nations
Almost from the beginning of the 23rd Conference of Parties being held in Bonn, Germany, the issue of loss and damage has cast a pall over the proceedings as developing countries have argued for the insertion of pre-2020 action into the proceedings. A much more visible pall hangs over Delhi, India’s capital city, and its surrounding areas, extending across the border into Pakistan.
Visibility has plummeted, a health emergency has been declared, and schools shut down. Various regional level governments are quarrelling with each other, and central government agencies. But the answers seem elusive. The Indian environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, advised residents not to panic, saying that a Graded Response Action Plan was in place, but given that it had allegedly been in place for a year and Delhi’s air is at least as polluted as last year, the plan seems to have delivered little.
Just as the issue of loss and damage remains deadlocked in global negotiations, and funding for climate adaptation and mitigation consists largely of loans rather than grants, the problem of Delhi’s air pollution had an obvious — but expensive — fix. The key problem leading to air pollution in north India has been the practice of farmers in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana burning stubble to clear their fields. This contributes up to 90% of the pollution. NASA photographs reveal the concentration and spread of these fires. The Indian government had a plan to deal with the issue, which fell apart as the distribution of costs of the INR 30 billion (USD 460 million) could not be agreed upon. See: From bread basket to basket case
One of the reasons that the government does not have money to allocate to these measures is because it is already spending a huge amount dealing with adaptation costs. According to a study carried out by the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITG) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), India spent USD 91.8 billion in the financial year 2013-14, and that these costs are projected to go up to USD 360 billion by 2030.
In terms of just direct damage, in 2016 Germanwatch estimated that India suffered infrastructural damage of approximately USD 21 billion due to extreme weather events. This is equivalent to almost 1% of India’s total GDP, and about the same that it spends on its entire health budget. See: Climate risk perilously high in India
The Delhi smog, therefore, showcases how badly developing countries have been affected by climate change impacts, largely caused by historical carbon emissions of now developed countries. The huge losses and expenses that a country like India faces in dealing with these issues limits its ability to allocate funds to easy, but expensive, solutions, which — in turn — lead to massive carbon emissions. The effects of Indian crop burning will, inevitably, add to the load of carbon already in the atmosphere, adding to the problems of climate change faced by the world at large.
More problematically, countries left to fend on their own to deal with these issues will have to boost their GDP to deal with the issue. At a pre-COP23 briefing for Indian journalists, Thomas Hagbeck, the Counsellor for Economics, Environment and Urban Development at the German Embassy in India, spoke of German’s Energiewende, or Energy Transition, away from fossil fuels. He emphasised that the transition was not cost-free and required significant investment.
Germany has a per capita GDP of nearly USD 42,000. India’s per capita GDP, in comparison, is USD 1,850. As a result, developing countries like India, which also accounts for the fourth largest carbon emissions in total (after China, the US and the European Union) is likely to adopt the easiest and cheapest technologies to boost its GDP, pushed in part by the costs needed to deal with climate adaptation. It is little wonder then, that coal-based power plants remain one of the key drivers of energy growth in Asia.
Bills coming due
Environmental pollution is famously one of the key externalities left out of economic calculations, as the costs are diffused and long-term, but the bills are coming due now. This generation is likely the first one in nearly a thousand years to see a lowered life expectancy compared to the current one. Our children are paying the costs. One key reason is air pollution, a fact already seen in the US and China.
As developing countries make poor choices — partially due to poor choices made by developed countries in the past — this problem is only likely to become greater. The Delhi smog cannot be disentangled from a larger global problem, which will not go away without a global solution. The fact that developed countries refuse to have that discussion hurts all of us in the long run.