India battles to balance economy and environment.

Human-induced climate change is now considered one of the most prominent challenges of our time, with a warming planet being a present-day reality, rather than a potential future threat.

The problem has been thrust into public consciousness ever since scientific consensus emerged that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “most of the observed increase in global average temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Anyone who has experienced the increasing intensity of sizzling summer temperatures in India over the past two decades would find it hard to have any doubts as to whether our planet is warming.

It has become routine to report about the scorching heat gripping many parts of India during summer months, with the mercury shooting up to as high as 48 degrees Celsius (118.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and causing thousands of deaths of vulnerable people. In the last four years, India has seen as many as over 4,620 deaths caused by heat waves, according to data published by the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The increased frequency and severity of these heat waves are blamed on the altering global weather patterns as a result of climate change due to human emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, among others.

“India’s climate is warming up at a very fast rate. It is warming at a much faster rate than thought previously. Our analysis looks at temperature trends in the country – both annual and seasonal – from 1901 until recent years. It finds that the country has been getting warmer continuously, consistently and rapidly,” Chandra Bhushan of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based environmental NGO, told DW.

Harmful effects of climate change

In a recent study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers even warned that if climate change continues at its current pace, deadly heatwaves could make large parts of South Asia too hot for human survival by the end of the century. Up to 1.5 billion people could see their hometowns in the densely populated agricultural regions of the Ganges and Indus river basins become impossible to live in, according to the report.

Scientists and environmentalists say global warming is also endangering India’s rivers like the Ganges, which holds deep religious and cultural significance for millions of Indians. They note that rising temperatures are causing Himalayan glaciers, which provide water to some of these rivers, to recede. This is affecting the amount of water flowing into them annually.

The harmful and profound environmental effects of climate change are not limited to the occurrence of severe heat waves and threats to river water systems. Other phenomena observed worldwide in recent years include: reductions in snow and sea ice extent, rising sea levels, changes in ocean acidity, extended droughts, stronger tropical storms as well as increased frequency of heavy and extreme rainfall events.

Already one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, India is considered to be extremely vulnerable to these effects. Its dense coastal populations could be hit hard by rising sea levels, while changing weather patterns may negatively impact agricultural and food security. They could also lead to acute water shortages and deadly disease outbreaks.

India’s growing economy and energy demands

The potential adverse implications of unabated GHG emissions have placed New Delhi in a tough spot, forcing it to look for ways to come up with measures to cut the nation’s high carbon footprint while not jeopardizing its economic growth prospects.

In per capita terms, India’s emissions are only one-third of the global average and far lower than those of richer Western countries like the US or Asian peers such as China. But in absolute terms, the South Asian nation is one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases, currently accounting for over 4.5 percent of global GHG concentrations, behind only China, the United States and the 28-nation European Union bloc.

India’s energy sector is a significant contributing factor. Asia’s third-biggest economy relies on coal for around 60 percent of its total electricity generation and the fossil fuel remains a vital element in the nation’s long-term energy strategy.

India’s efforts to boost economic growth and development by rapidly industrializing and transforming itself into a manufacturing hub are set to drastically increase the demand for energy in a country that is home to about a sixth of the world’s population.

People in India today use much less energy per capita than Europeans, Americans and also Chinese. Moreover, millions of Indians subsist on roughly $2.00 (€1.71) a day and, according to the International Energy Agency, some 18 percent of the nation’s 1.3 billion-strong population did not have access to electricity in 2016.

Increasing prosperity may offer these people the chance to get their households connected to the grid and lay their hands on things like refrigerators and washing machines – gadgets people in developed countries take for granted. This, in turn, will increase demand for and consumption of electricity.

Read more: Climate change increases suicide in India as crops fail, study says

Renewable energy

To diversify its energy mix and reduce its reliance on coal, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been actively promoting renewable power sources and aims to pump tens of billions of dollars in new investments to expand generation capacity over the coming decade.

Ambitious targets have been set: The goal is to source 40 percent of India’s electricity from renewable and other low-carbon sources by 2030. It also wants to reach 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by 2022 – of which 100 GW will be from solar energy. Furthermore, India joined hands with France to launch an alliance of 121 countries to dramatically boost the use of solar power.

This push has helped India emerge as a key player in the global renewables market, which has driven down the cost of clean energy.

India has aggressive goals even for the automotive market, with plans to allow the sale of only electric and hybrid vehicles starting from 2030. The challenge to realize this objective, though, will be to build the infrastructure needed to support battery-driven cars.

Despite these measures, New Delhi has long opposed signing up to any international moves aimed at imposing a cap on its GHG emissions, arguing that it would hurt its economic development and attempts to pull millions of its impoverished citizens out of poverty.

Pointing to its lower per-capita emissions, India has repeatedly stressed that it bears little responsibility for the enormous rise in GHG emissions since the industrial revolution.

Instead, New Delhi has called on rich, industrialized nations to accept their shared responsibility for all the GHGs they emitted in the past. It has sought comprehensive actions from them to assist poor countries address the problem, for instance, by meeting their commitment to muster $100 billion (85.86 billion euros) a year from 2020 to help poor nations cope with climate change.

Another consistent Indian demand has been green technology transfers from developed countries. India sees itself as one of the most vocal proponents of “climate justice” – the notion that historical responsibilities as well as present-day capabilities matter greatly in shaping the climate governance regime.

Trump’s disagreement

This is something US President Donald Trump clearly disagrees with. Announcing his decision in July to withdraw the US from the historic Paris Accord reached in 2015, the US leader cited among other reasons that the deal was not tough enough on India and China.

“…India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries. There are many other examples. But the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States,” Trump said at the time.

The US president’s move marked a significant setback to global efforts to tackle climate change, sparking fears other nations might follow suit and abandon the pact.

But after Trump’s decision, Indian PM Modi reiterated his country’s commitment, saying New Delhi would go “above and beyond” the Paris agreement and that “the protection of the environment and the mother planet is an article of faith.”

Yet, economic factors complicate measures to reduce emissions, and the path India takes to balance its twin goals of boosting economic development and safeguarding environmental sustainability is likely to be paved with tough challenges.