It seemed like a bad sign that India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, skipped the U.N. Climate Summit last week. What with India being the world’s second most populous country, the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, the U.S., and the European Union, and a fast-growing economy, it would be worrying if its government were more concerned about short-term economic growth than a safe and stable climate, right?
Plus, maybe you were a little unsure about Modi’s humanitarian impulses. He does hail from the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party, and he was chief minister of Gujarat province when, in 2002, anti-Muslim riots there killed 1,000 people. That incident led to him being banned from entering the U.S. for a decade.
Well, you can rest easy, because Modi spoke to the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday, and he revealed a brilliant plan for combating climate change. The only strange thing is that he didn’t want to come to the Climate Summit to share it.
We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and well-being without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption. It doesn’t mean that economies will suffer; it will mean that our economies will take on a different character. For us in India, respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism. We treat nature’s bounties as sacred. Yoga is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.
Whether you’re looking for unity of mind and body or just worried about how greenhouse gas emissions from industrial activities are warming the planet, Prime Minister Modi has got an answer for you.
Unfortunately, the rest of his comments on climate change were less encouraging. Like many of the heads of state from developing countries who spoke at the U.N. Climate Summit last Monday, Modi emphasized that his citizens have material needs that cannot be ignored. He placed poverty alleviation above other possible development goals like sustainability, without acknowledging that climate change can also exacerbate poverty:
When we think of the scale of want in the world — 2.5 billion people without access to basic sanitation; 1.3 billion people without access to electricity; or 1.1 billion people without access to drinking water — we need a more comprehensive and concerted direct international action. In India, the most important aspects of my development agenda are precisely to focus on these issues. The eradication of poverty must remain at the core of the development agenda and command our fullest attention.
Those of us who live in First World luxury cannot begrudge anyone the desire to access electricity. But, of course, 1.3 billion new electricity consumers, 400 million of them in India, could mean a lot more emissions if that power is coming from dirty sources. Modi did not discuss limiting India’s emissions. Last week, when his environment minister was asked about emission cuts, the minster said, “What cuts?” Again, this is understandable: The U.S. and Europe were under no such obligation when they industrialized, and their aggregate historical emissions still far outstrip India’s. The U.S.’s cumulative emissions are nine times that of India’s, and most our energy portfolio is still dirty. But escalating emissions will mean more extreme weather and sea-level rise for everyone, including India. That, in turn, will mean disasters resulting in failed crops, property damage, displacement, and death for some of India’s poorest citizens.
Modi did briefly nod toward reducing emissions through energy efficiency, saying, “We need to change our lifestyles. Energy not consumed is the cleanest energy.” Modi is also making a big push to ramp up India’s solar energy capacity.
So, much like Modi’s comments on yoga, the future of India’s energy and climate policy is inscrutable for now. Modi’s cooperation, though, will be essential to reaching a climate accord at U.N. negotiations in Paris next year. Hopefully he will come up with some other ideas by then, just in case the yoga approach to climate mitigation doesn’t pan out.