India’s fight against climate change starts at home

By Susannah Fisher

Solar heating unit used to cook food

Solar power is already in use across India and the Himalaya (RTCC)

As governments across the world prepare for the COP17 in Durban, the talk in the corridors and at the preparatory meetings is of technical papers, expert bodies and the latest method of verifying carbon emission reductions.

However, beyond the international conference centres, in dusty offices behind piles of paper, engineers, local mayors and civil servants at regional levels of government are already working on developing and implementing their climate change policies.

This is not in Germany or Scandinavia. It’s India, and these are the people leading the fight against climate change and its impacts.

National politics and international agreements have long dominated the media attention, but is it time to give more recognition to local and regional climate policies at the forefront of managing climatic change?

Lagging behind or leading the way?

India has often been criticised for being a laggard in global climate politics, refusing to commit to emission reductions due to the historical responsibility of other countries such as Europe and the US.

The arguments of international equity and solidarity with developing countries have dominated the domestic debate, but despite this rhetoric cities and States in India are becoming more and more engaged in local action plans on both mitigation and adaptation.

This is because climate change in India is an immediate and pressing concern.

There is a severe shortage of energy and lack of energy security across India which encourages mitigation actions.

On the other hand, the long coastline, Himalayan glaciers, and reliance on the monsoon for water and agriculture makes India particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

So, whilst the politics and rhetoric will define Durban, behind the scenes in Indian cities and States people are getting on with addressing the problem.

States and cities: experimenting and implementing

India has a federal constitution where certain responsibilities lie with the federal government and others with the States.

In the context of climate change many important areas will be the sole responsibility of the State governments, such as agriculture, water, and taxes on electricity, whilst others such as forests are the joint responsibility of the States and Federal government.

While the Federal government can set policy direction and encourage States to take action (through policies such as the National Action Plan on Climate Change released in 2008), in many cases it will be up to each one to address climate change at the regional level through their own institutions and mechanisms.

The State of Gujarat already has a Ministry for climate change, one of only four States/provinces globally to do so and Himachal Pradesh (a State in the Himalayas) is aiming to become the first carbon neutral State.

Others such as Karnataka and Orissa have developed Climate Action Plans looking at adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Whatever agreement is reached within the UNFCCC over the next few years, it will not be implemented without the work and support of the States.

Beyond the activities of States, cities are also laying the groundwork for engaging in mitigation and adaptation.

Mumbai, India


The Government of India has a programme for developing Solar Cities across 60 cities, with a minimum of 10% reduction in conventional energy use through solar power and efficiency measures.

Other cities such as Delhi and Mumbai are involved with the C40 network of global cities tackling climate change, while other less well known towns like Vijayawada and Thane are working on their municipal energy policies with the help of transnational city networks.

Beyond the policies and actions explicitly directed at climate change, there are many policies at regional levels that will contribute to mitigation and adaptation.

States are obliged to buy a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources – through Renewable Purchase Obligations.

The State of Tamil Nadu is leading the way in developing rainwater harvesting, and addressing poverty in informal settlements also addresses vulnerability to floods and droughts.

Using alternative terms for the associated work around climate change mitigation and adaption in many ways sidesteps the political stalemate of the national and international issue, but this different terminology may mean we underestimate just how much is happening at the lower levels of government in India.

Change from the bottom-up?

City and State governments play a key role in tackling climate change through actions on a range of measures at the local level.

Individuals within these local governments are leading the way in experimenting and implementing on-the-ground responses to increased pressures on energy and the uncertainty brought by climate change, and will be vital partners if and when any international agreement is reached.

The “India” portrayed in the climate negotiations is just the top of a very complex multi-level structure, and climate politics and polices extend well beyond national governments.

Whilst an international agreement is needed from the UNFCCC, decision-makers already working on these issues at multiple levels need to be supported in their work and included in these discussions. Building links between these scales of activity would make a promising start to tackling climate change from the bottom-up whilst the discussions continue in Durban on the solution from the top-down.

Both will be needed, but we can’t have one without the other.

Susannah Fisher is a post-doctoral researcher at the Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics.


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