Why young Indians should put ‘equity’ at the forefront of climate activism


Young students at a climate strike gathering in New Delhi in September 2019. Courtesy: Anjali Sharma

The global call for Climate Strikes between 20-27 September, 2019 drew many young Indians to the streets. The week-long climate protests held across the world have shown that the young generation isn’t going to let the politicians continue with their inaction on climate change. They want them to listen to the scientists, and take urgent climate action.

Global climate strikes have built a solidarity among youth across the world on the issue of climate change. The youth today live in fear and anxiety about their future because of the failure of the previous generations to act on climate change. These feelings, most compellingly articulated by youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, resonate with millennials and Gen-Z’s across the world, including India.

However, portraying climate action solely as a tussle between youngsters, and an unwilling-to-act older generation is a gross simplification of the issue, that lacks historical context and also goes against climate science.

The climate change that we are experiencing today is a result of accumulation of human-emitted Green House Gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, particularly Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Naturally occurring greenhouse gases play an important role in maintaining a liveable temperature on Earth by trapping some of the sun’s radiation. This is called the “greenhouse effect”, and without this, the Earth would have been too cold to live.

However, since the 1850s, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 has increased rapidly due to human activities, which has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the average temperatures on Earth, causing sea levels to rise, glaciers to melt, and extreme events such as cyclones and droughts to occur more frequently.

What makes CO2 a particularly potent greenhouse gas is that it is a ‘long-living’ gas, i.e. it stays in the Earth’s atmosphere for centuries, thus continuously heating it up. This is also the reason why the current generation is impacted by the inaction of the previous generations on reducing their CO2 emissions.

Urgent action on climate change requires drastic reduction in CO2 emissions. But the responsibility of these reductions does not rest equally on everyone. Given the long-lived nature of CO2 gas, the responsibility for climate action is decided based on ‘cumulative’ CO2 emissions that includes past emissions as well. If all the CO2 emissions starting from 1850 are taken into account, the US and EU have been responsible for almost 50% of it. In comparison, India has only been responsible for 3% of total cumulative CO2 emissions till now. This means that ‘developed’ countries have emitted a majority of the CO2 that is causing climate change. We cannot fight climate change unless these countries drastically cut their CO2 emissions.

This also implies that not all members of older generations are to be blamed for climate inaction. If we look at the share of cumulative emissions in the world by 1985, the year which marks the beginning of the millennial generation, India only accounted for about 1% of the total C02 emissions in the world, whereas US and EU contributed for 30% each.

Though India’s cumulative emissions are low, its annual emissions have risen in the past decades. But the rise in India’s emissions is not because of consumerist pursuits as people sometimes believe. India is going through a development process that developed countries achieved decades ago. India’s emissions have mainly increased in the energy sector, specifically for the improvement of electricity access in the country. While the US had achieved 100% electrification by the 1970s, more than half of India still did not have access to electricity in the early 1990s. In the past decades, though the electrification levels in India have improved, the per-capital consumption of electricity in India still remains the lowest in the world.

A climate movement in a developing country like India cannot be built without acknowledgement of the differentiation in the responsibility of developed and developing countries in causing climate change. The rhetoric of ‘young vs old’ is simply untrue in the case of India as per climate science.

Rather, the Indian youth needs to question developed countries on their slow progress on climate action, and demand them to take the lead in reducing their CO2 emissions, because they are responsible for a majority of it. Both developed and developing countries need to act on climate change but unless we demand the responsibility for CO2 emission reductions to be distributed ‘equitably’, we don’t have a chance at combating climate change.

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About Anjali Sharma 1 Article
Anjali Sharma holds a Masters in Climate Change and Sustainability Studies from TISS, Mumbai and is currently pursuing a PhD in climate and energy policy from the University of Maryland, College Park. She can be reached at anjalie2@gmail.com.