India Struggles To Develop Without Furthering Carbon Footprint

May 9, 2016
Originally published on January 8, 2017 8:23 pm

How does a country bring its people into the 21st century without pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere? This challenge is more acute in India than anywhere else. Though India already has the third-largest carbon footprint in the world, around 400 million people still don't have access to reliable electricity.

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We've been working on a big reporting project here, and today I'm excited to tell you what it's all about. At this point, virtually all the countries in the world have agreed to reduce carbon emissions to try to slow climate change. Now the challenge is to implement that deal. And when I asked the top U.S. envoy on climate change where the challenge is biggest, Todd Stern told me one country now has a steeper hill to climb than any other.

TODD STERN: There's no country probably with a bigger challenge looking at the number of people, the level of their economic growth, the number of people who don't have access to electricity.

SHAPIRO: Want to guess which country he's talking about? Here's a clue - sounds from a market in one of this country's biggest cities.


SHAPIRO: So which country is this?

ANJALI JAISWAL: India has a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities.

SHAPIRO: That's Anjali Jaiswal from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

JAISWAL: What's happening in India is really transformational. It's unprecedented.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We would like to be the first to welcome you to New Delhi, India.

SHAPIRO: To see this transformation up close, a producer, a photographer and I flew to the biggest democracy in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So we do ask that you please remain comfortably seated.

SHAPIRO: We've brought back stories looking at some of the ways people are managing the tension between development and climate change. And today we want to answer a more basic question. Why India? When lots of developing countries are struggling with these challenges, what makes India unique, and what can it tell us about the challenges around climate change that the whole world faces?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: First and perhaps most importantly, India's now the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

SHAPIRO: This is Anthony Leiserowitz. He directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He says even though India is only behind the U.S. and China in total carbon emissions, it's just getting started. Per Capita emissions are still really low. Most people are poor and just don't have a big carbon footprint.

LEISEROWITZ: Seventy-six percent of Indians live on less than $2 a day. I mean, Americans can't imagine living on $2 a day, and yet, 76 percent of this population which is right around a billion people right now are living on that kind of income.

SHAPIRO: In India, 400 million people don't have reliable electricity. That's more than the entire population of the United States. And India has ambitious goals to give its people think that Americans take for granted like refrigerators or cars or even something as basic as lighting at night.

AJAY MATHUR: This means that we need to enhance the energy supply by four to five times what it is now.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean provide four to five times as much energy as India is creating right now?

MATHUR: Right now.


MATHUR: Right.

SHAPIRO: This is Ajay Mathur. He is one of India's climate experts who now runs the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. He told me no matter how fast India increases its clean energy like solar and wind, the country will not cut back on coal - in fact, quite the opposite.

MATHUR: It will increase. But whereas the amount of coal that we use will probably double between now and 2030, the amount of renewables will probably go up by an order of 10.

SHAPIRO: So here's the answer to that question, why India? If India can find a sustainable way to develop, that could be a template for the rest of the world. Every highly developed country in history has gotten where it is in an unsustainable way - by cutting down trees, pumping carbon into the atmosphere. And if the developing world today does the same thing, this could lead to disaster, and the impacts of climate change would hit people in India harder than almost anywhere else.

RICHARD HEWSTON: India has the highest number of people exposed to natural hazards.

SHAPIRO: Richard Hewston is with a global risk assessment firm call Verisk Maplecroft. His company looked at which countries around the world are most vulnerable to storms, flooding and other acts of nature, and India was at the top of the list - No. 1 in the world.

HEWSTON: Tropical cyclones are likely to become more intense. We're also seeing that climate change is going to have an impact on the monsoon.

SHAPIRO: That means more floods for some people in India and more droughts for others. To of India's biggest cities, New Delhi and Calcutta, are on the top 10 list of global cities most vulnerable to natural hazards. We will visit both Delhi and Calcutta over the next two weeks. And here are some of the people we'll meet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: On a small island, a man whose home has already been washed away by rising tides.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through interpreter) This is my motherland, so I can't abandon it.

SHAPIRO: In the world's largest mangrove forest, we'll meet people who are figuring out how to share a shrinking landscape with Bengal Tigers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Many times I have seen the tiger.

SHAPIRO: And in India's capital where the air is more polluted than any city on Earth, we'll meet salesmen who are trying to profit off the dirty air.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We have vegan leather masks, also, for the bikers.

SHAPIRO: Vegan leather masks?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, for the bikers.

SHAPIRO: For the bikers who are also vegans.


SHAPIRO: We're chronicling this project on social media with the hashtag #ATCInIndia. You can find us there. Tomorrow we'll meet someone who is trying to shrink the carbon footprint of the dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Chanting in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.