Climate crisis does not figure in India's election campaign! Modi must mobilise youth for climate action

Accelerated climate action would continue if Modi retains his leadership after the election. Expansion of solar and wind infrastructure and enhanced investment in green hydrogen and electrical vehicles have already been announced in the interim budget presented recently.

Rajendra Shende Mar 19, 2024
Representational Photo

The year 2024 is all about voting. 76 of the 196 countries in the world will be engaged in the national elections. The people will be selecting the leaders who will govern them for the next few years. Nearly four billion people residing in these countries will be voting in the elections of which almost one billion will be in India. Interestingly these four billion do not include China’s 1.4 billion who just a few weeks back confirmed their leader in their communist system. Countries like Pakistan and Taiwan have already elected their leaders in the early part of 2024. It is a year that celebrates the festival of democratic expression.

Unfortunately, this festival comes with its verbal fireworks and even hazardous mind games.  The extremism in campaigns, the use of violent languages and now the technological deepfakes have made this carnival a race for grabbing the voters and their votes by belittling the opposition candidates.  

National elections anywhere in the democratic world have always been inherently messy and even chaotic. However, the key question is: whether these elections can bring about real change in terms of the transformation needed to tackle the burning issues related to the degradation of nature.

The single largest election this year, spanning April to June, will be for India’s parliament whose 543 members will make policies and laws to govern India’s future for the next five years. The underlying issues before voters are related to the triple crises: Social ( harmony between various sects, castes and religions )  economic ( unemployment, price rise, poverty and rising disparity), and Ideological battles ( approaches to policy andgovernance.). One does not need to be an economist or sociologist to know that these crises are all interconnected.

Climate crisis looming

There is, however, another parallel triple crisis looming large on the future of present and future generations not only in India but in all other countries. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says that loss of biodiversity, climate change and pollution are the three crises that are threatening the very existence of people on our planet.   It is now recognised that the triple crises is also closely linked to each other. For example, plastic and air pollution are linked to the use of fossil fuels which in turn is linked to carbon emission and climate change. The worst dilemma in 2024, which is the historic year for democratic elections, is also the historic predicament because these life-threatening triple crises do not appear to be the key issues for the leaders that are campaigning for the elections

2024 is not just a record-breaking year for number of the voters in the history of mankind but it is also the year that is likely to break the record as the hottest year.  2023 was confirmed to be the hottest since the temperature records began. Paris Climate Agreement has drawn the red line of 1.5 degrees C rise in temperature of the earth above the pre-industrial level, above which the impacts of climate change would be more frequent, more intense and even irreversible. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached historic highs last May and are forecast to keep rising in 2024 at a much higher rate. At this rate, it is predicted that in the next five years (time for India to have the next general election) humanity will be standing on the cliff of disaster and our addiction to fossil fuel will be pushing us into the suicidal valley. That will happen above the rise of the earth’s temperature beyond 2 deg C.

Many villages and cities in India are already going dry as 1 billion people are getting ready to vote. Even Bengaluru, the capital of software technologies, is unable to satisfy the thirst with all its prowess in advanced technologies and Artificial Intelligence! The widespread use of digital technology is unable to improve the crop yields of small and large farmers.  Pollution continues to severely affect health. Indeed, humanity is standing on thin ice that is melting fast.  We do not have to wait for the results of the elections; we are already running out of time. 

The two largest carbon emitters (after China which is the world’s largest emitter), the US and India are holding elections in 2024.  The US has made some progress in mitigating climate change but it has not yet fulfilled the promise of finances to developing countries even under the Biden administration. Under Trump’s administration, if he becomes the next president, the planet would be losing the small steps taken by the US over the last four years.

Modi's leadership needed

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is, beyond doubt,  recognised as a climate leader by UN and international political leaders. Though India’s population is 17 percent of the world’s population, its emission is just about four per cent of the global emissions. And per-capita emissions are less than one-seventh those of the United States and one-quarter those of China. Still, Modi has committed to the UN that India would achieve net-zero emissions, carbon-neutral India, by 2070. More than the promise, he has shown that a number of his milestone commitments are met ahead of schedule. For example, 40 percent of electricity generation from non-fossil fuel has been achieved 9 years ahead of the schedule. India’s wind and solar power capacity has doubled over the past 5 years, to 135 gigawatts. Together with hydropower, renewables now account for 42% of power generation capacity.

Accelerated climate action would continue if Modi retains his leadership after the election. Expansion of solar and wind infrastructure and enhanced investment in green hydrogen and electrical vehicles have already been announced in the interim budget presented recently. Subsidies for solar rooftops for 10 million houses of poor families announced last month are already made operational.

However, Modi has not yet found the narrative to convey to voters in clear terms his committed efforts to address the triple crises,     particularly the climate change that affects the voters and their children and their children’s children. His inspiring speeches during election campaigns still do not find the space for his leadership in climate activism. Maybe he thinks that the climate change issue, though critically important for a safer, better and sustainable lifestyle for Indians and although his actions and dedication have made impacts on UN and international platforms, they are not the issues that would make him win the elections. He probably thinks that his guarantees on economic issues constitute the winning strategy for election more than the possible guarantees for ecological issues. 

India’s efforts though lauded by many around the world would not alone help in resolving the global climate crisis. It would need Modi’s leadership to forge partnerships at the global level like the International Solar Alliance that he initiated. That could be yet another strategic reason why Modi should continue as leader of India. The task of transitioning away from fossil fuel is increasingly difficult even in India. While the renewable energy capacity of India is rising, coal still accounts for three-quarters of electricity generation. Luckily, the costs of renewable energy are falling rapidly. Considering the burden of health costs due to air pollution from coal power plants makes renewable energy much more viable.

One of the more convincing pitches that Modi has made before the election campaign is about the power of youth in addressing future challenges like the triple crises and climate change. Indeed, India has a demographic advantage and has a large proportion of the youth population between 18-24 years of age, mainly in Higher Education Institutes. The new skills to tackle climate change and achieve Net-Zero need to be imparted. It is not just a green skill but accompanying hands-on experience in meeting the accelerated goals of net zero. But even that pitch is yet to figure in India’s election campaigns.

Such skills must be imparted through out-of-box methods of making institutes’ campuses as living laboratories for Net-Zero emissions. Many universities and institutes are making a beginning. Not-for-profit Green TERRE Foundation’s global network is catalyzing the skilling for Net Zero. The global partnership of youth, more than  50 percent of whom will be voting in 2024, needs to be encouraged and incentivized for climate action and address the triple crises.

(The author is a noted environmentalist, former Director UNEP, and Founder Director, Green TERRE Foundation, Pune, India. Views are personal)

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