Can India really adopt a climate-friendly way of life?
In its updated climate action plan recently submitted to the United Nations, India mentioned adopting an eco-friendly lifestyle as a key way to combat climate change. But can the country balance this with its economic ambitions?
Countries that are signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention must submit a plan – called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – every five years. This details how they plan to reduce carbon emissions – to help slow global warming – and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
India’s updated NDC includes measures such as reducing the volume of carbon emissions per unit of GDP and reducing the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
But at the top of the list is “LiFE – Lifestyle for Environment”, a “healthy and sustainable lifestyle based on traditions and values of conservation and moderation, including through a mass movement”.
“LIFE’s vision is to live a lifestyle in harmony with our planet and without harming it,” a government statement read. It was first proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in 2021.
But experts say there is a contradiction between this goal and the increase in consumption that both stimulates and is stimulated by economic growth.
“Modernity essentially means increased consumption. The concept of LiFE is not in line with this consumption trend,” says Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, President of Indian Society of Ecological Economics.
Growing consumption, growing economy
India is now among the world’s largest economies, with growth estimated at around 7% this year, at a time when other major economic powers are facing recession.
While inflation and global headwinds are of concern, consumer demand is strong. Private consumption accounts for around 55% of India’s GDP, and experts expect this to continue to drive growth.
This, says Dr Ghosh, is why there is a “dichotomy” in the government’s emphasis on LiFE.
“Will there be measures to adopt a different way of life or will it be as if nothing had happened, that is the question,” he says.
Eugénie Dugoua, assistant professor of environmental economics at the London School of Economics, says solutions to the climate crisis will need to focus on ordinary people, as the LiFE campaign has done.
“But we shouldn’t be too optimistic about the resulting reduction in emissions,” she says, adding that research shows that while nudges like these can have a positive effect in the short term, it does. is not sustainable in the long term. term.
Behavioral change is “necessary and important”, but it cannot be the primary tool for decision-makers, she adds.
“Instead, governments must focus on structural change in energy, transport and agricultural systems.”
The largest increase in energy demand
The biggest source of carbon emissions in India is the energy sector.
In its October report, the International Energy Agency said India is likely to see the biggest increase in global energy demand this decade, although its per capita energy consumption will be much lower. half the world average.
Some experts believe that lifestyle changes are possible even with continued increases in consumption.
“It’s not about asking people not to buy air conditioners, but we can get into the habit of keeping our room temperature at 25°C, which will lead to a reduction in our energy consumption,” says Madhav Pai, acting CEO of the World Resources Institute India. , an international non-governmental organization that works with the Indian government to spread the message of the LiFE program.
Mr Pai says the campaign envisions helping people gradually change their way of life.
“It’s a boost to 1.5 billion Indians for behavioral change towards a circular economy – to buy into it.”
A larger message
The Indian government has also positioned LiFE as a message to Western countries.
“The consumption pattern of the world is insane and takes little account of the environment,” India’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Bhupender Yadav wrote in the Indian Express newspaper in October, days after Mr. Modi has unveiled an action plan for Mission LiFE.
“Mission LiFE is trying to remind the world that the mindset of ‘use and dispose’ must immediately be replaced by ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’,” he added.
But India also faces its own share of serious environmental problems.
A report by the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment think tank showed that India generated 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2019-2020, of which only 12% was recycled and 20% burned.
“The remaining 68% remain untraceable, meaning they are found in the environment (land and water) or in landfills,” the report says.
It also found that three out of four river monitoring stations in India showed alarming levels of toxic heavy metals.
Air pollution is a major concern especially in the northern states of India.
A World Bank report released earlier this year ranks India among the countries with the worst environmental health – the government has challenged the report’s methodology and offered its own environmental and sustainability metrics.
Successive governments have also been accused of ignoring environmental laws while pushing for infrastructure and development projects, especially in the fragile Himalayan region.
Experts say this all needs to be solved by a government that wants people to change their way of life to fight climate change.
“Change has to be healthy,” says Dr. Ghosh.
“Both [government’s actions and people’s behaviour] must agree.”