Why a Leading Indian Politician Is Now an Environmental Hawk

Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh believes the “cult” of unfettered economic growth has been ruinous for India’s environment. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about his vision of “green growth,” which he says is essential for his nation’s future.

Jairam Ramesh was a self-described “economic hawk” when he became India’s environment minister in 2009, figuring that the country’s ecological problems could wait as India lifted its people out of poverty. But by the time he left his post in 2011, he had become an environmental hawk after witnessing how India’s rapidly expanding economy and soaring population had caused widespread pollution and destruction of the environment.

Today, Ramesh is one of the most outspoken critics of India’s environmental policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, despite his support of major investments in renewable energy, is otherwise widely criticized by conservationists for putting economic growth ahead of environmental preservation. This balance between economic growth and environmental protection is a core theme in Ramesh’s recently published book, Green Signals — Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India.

Jairam Ramesh
Jairam Ramesh

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Ramesh — an economist and member of the Indian parliament who is expected to play a role at the United Nations climate summit in Paris in December — talks about why a “grow-now, pay-later” philosophy is unsuitable for India. He describes how government corruption and corporate influence are undermining India’s environmental laws, explains why voluntary, national greenhouse gas reduction targets are insufficient to slow global warming, and discusses his own brand of GDP, which he calls “Green Domestic Product.”

Yale Environment 360: Prime Minister Modi wants to turn India into one of the world’s leading industrial nations and speed up economic growth. But you warn in your new book that there is a danger of excessive economic growth. Why?

‘Air and water pollution are becoming so severe in India that we are talking about existential risks.’

Jairam Ramesh: India definitely needs faster economic growth, but certainly not at the cost of ecological security. A growth-at-all-costs obsession is not in our national interest. In the mad rush to economic growth — where 7, 8, 9 percent annual growth is not enough — we now want double-digit growth, and we are destroying the foundations of ecological security. Air and water pollution, chemical contamination, and land degradation are becoming so severe in India that we are talking about existential risks now. The grow-now, pay-later model that Europe, the U.S., and China have adopted — which means that you have a few decades of rapid economic growth and you worry about the consequences later — that model does not work for India. India must show to the world a new approach that protects the environment at the same time as you grow economically.

e360: But Western countries are greatly impressed by India’s growth rate of 7.5 percent, which leads to a massively growing middle class in a country that has been poor.

Ramesh: It looks good until you start to go deeper. Our GDP right now is growing at 7.5 percent on paper. But if you count in the costs of environmental destruction, the effects of poisoned rivers, smog, soil erosion, and other environmental problems — especially for human health — growth would really be at 4.5 percent.

e360: Before you became environment minister in 2009, you were in favor of unlimited growth, too, weren’t you?

Ramesh: Yes, I was an economic hawk. I knew what was happening with the environment, but before I became minister I thought the environment could wait and that we could solve our environmental problems when we have become as rich as the West. Then as a minister I traveled across India and I got to see the price of our growth cult: how coal mining was destroying livelihoods, how polluted rivers like the Ganges are, and how desperate tribal people are fighting for the forest they live from.

e360: Some environment ministers forget about what they have said during their tenure when they move on. It didn’t happen to you?

Ramesh: These experiences have changed me personally. During and after my tenure I began to see that India just can’t remain on the path of further destruction. Some people benefit, of course. The gains are there for some people. But the pains of growth have to be borne by the majority.

e360: But isn’t more care for the environment a luxury for a country where hundreds of millions of people are still poor?

Ramesh: This is how a majority of politicians in India and in other countries think, but it’s not true. In India, environmentalism is a livelihood issue. Two hundred million Indians depend on forests for their income. We have 7,500 kilometers [4,660 miles] of coastline vulnerable to climate change, with hundreds of millions of poor people living there. It’s the poor who get sick first from polluted water — in a country where 75 percent of health care costs are paid directly by the individual. When you get sick from drinking water polluted with arsenic, or when you get cancer from toxins, or asthma from air pollution, you have to pay yourself to get healthy again. And many poor people just can’t afford that.

‘Corruption is a big issue. … We pass a law, and then we bypass it.’

e360: So why is this idea that caring for the environment is a luxury so persistent?

Ramesh: Actually we have very good environmental rules and regulations. But enforcement is very weak. Frankly, the general view in the government has been that the environment is a bottleneck. There is a big difference between the people and the government. People don’t see the environment as a luxury, but government gives greater priority to corporate interests. The corporate sector is extraordinarily influential. They get away with almost anything. And corruption is a big issue. In every state we have state pollution control boards that are supposed to implement air pollution laws, but they simply don’t. Many of them have been thoroughly compromised. We pass a law, and then we bypass it.

e360: What would you do differently from the current government?

Ramesh: During my tenure the plan was developed to introduce a Green GDP by 2015. That should be a priority for India. I wish that in the future GDP stands for “Green Domestic Product” and that we will internalize the benefits and value of the environment. We urgently need a system where destroying a forest reduces GDP and where regrowing this resource, also as a sink for our CO2 emissions, increases GDP. If you improve the quality of the forest, it will store more CO2. That should be reflected in the GDP.

e360: You were India’s chief negotiator at the failed United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Any regrets that India didn’t contribute more strongly to a positive outcome?

Ramesh: Not really.

e360: Couldn’t you have done more personally?

Ramesh: Well, believe me, I was fighting a rather lone battle. I said let India be in the forefront. Let us be the leaders, because we are the most vulnerable to climate change. But in India there is this sentiment that, ‘We haven’t caused the problem, so why should we take tough measures to solve it? It’s the responsibility of the developed world.’ Mr. Modi has also articulated that view, in the sense of, ‘If you want us to do something, give us money and technology.’

‘The average Indian is producing 2 tons of CO2 emissions per year. The U.S. is at 16.6 tons per capita today.’

e360: There will be a new attempt to reach a global agreement on how to tackle climate change with the Paris UN conference later this year. Have there been any achievements since Copenhagen?

Ramesh: In Paris we are back to where we were in Copenhagen. There we already agreed on bottom-up pledges to cut emissions, and in Paris we are talking about INDCs, or “intended nationally determined contributions,” which is the same. In Copenhagen, we agreed on monitoring, reporting, and verification of CO2 reductions. We have the same topic in Paris. We are back in 2015 to what we agreed in 2009. The Copenhagen conference opened the doors. Cancun clinched them. After that we have lost five years. But there is really no time to lose.

e360: How important is it that the Paris conference succeeds?

Ramesh: The Paris conference should not be seen as a destination. It’s a springboard.

What we will get in Paris is an agreement that is politically acceptable and economically practical, but it is not ecologically optimal. It will not be what is needed to keep global warming below the 2 degree Celsius threshold. So even with the best outcome in Paris, we will not be safeguarded against a global warming that climate scientists describe as dangerous to humanity and the biosphere.

e360: What are the most important elements for success in Paris?

Ramesh: It’s a reality now that CO2 reductions themselves will happen within the responsibility of each country, instead of being determined and governed by a legally binding agreement. But what needs to be top-down is monitoring. If you leave monitoring to the individual states alone, then nothing is guaranteed. That would be a disaster.

e360: What if the Paris conference fails?

Ramesh: The UN secretary general [Ban Ki-Moon] nicely said there is no Plan B because there is no Planet B. But that’s actually not true. We always need a Plan B, and we should not repeat the mistake of creating too high expectations like in Copenhagen.

e360: You’re saying that even the best outcome that is foreseeable will not stop dangerous global warming. Doesn’t that simply mean that each nation, including India, has to do more to cut emissions?

Ramesh: Let’s look carefully at some figures. As of today, India has 17 percent of the world’s population, but is causing only 6 percent of global CO2 emissions. And our population will grow by another 200 or 300 million people in the next decades. In this situation it is important to view CO2 emissions on a per capita basis. The average Indian is producing 2 tons of CO2 emissions per year. By 2030 our global contribution will most likely be something like 10 to 12 percent, and per capita emissions will be around 3.5 tons. The U.S. is at 16.6 tons per capita today. In 2030, the U.S. will perhaps be down to 10 tons, which means that India will still be very much below that.

We have to get away from, ‘Grow first, take care later.’ That will simply not work for India.’

e360: But doesn’t a country the size of India have an increased global responsibility? Some researchers say that the world’s climate depends on whether India’s large coal reserves are left in the ground or not.

Ramesh: I do recognize that India’s growing coal hunger is adding to global CO2 levels. What my country puts into the atmosphere is a big issue — there is no denying that. India’s coal consumption is likely to double within the next seven years. It will reach 1 billion tons, and it may well reach 2 billion tons by the year 2030. So it’s not enough when our current government says that the West should pay for any mitigation efforts. But at the same time, we can’t afford a strategy like China that has decided to peak its coal consumption at 3.6 billion tons in 2030. India needs more energy, and even if we increase renewables from 6 to 20 percent and also increase the shares of hydro and nuclear energy, coal will still deliver more than half of India’s electricity. But yes, India just can’t keep growing its coal consumption. What I see as doable and necessary for India is not a peaking [of coal], but a plateauing starting in 2025 or 2030.

e360: This should be something the Indian government puts on the table in Paris?

Ramesh: Yes, we should announce this as our contribution to the Paris summit, together with China and all other countries. Each country should add to its pledges a comprehensive low-carbon strategy. India’s contribution could be such a plateau.

e360: Do you think that India can become a green country in terms of environmental policy?

Ramesh: Absolutely. Culturally there is no civilization that is more nature-oriented than India. In Hinduism we worship rivers, mountains, and forests. Nature plays a central role as in no other religion. So it’s paradoxical, even absurd, what is happening to the environment. We have to get away from, ‘Grow first, take care later.’ That will simply not work for India.