New Delhi: A recent study by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature has found that the top 20% of high expenditure households in India generate nearly seven times the carbon emissions compared to low-expenditure households, defined as those who spend less than $1.9 in a day.
India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and accounts for 2.46 billion metric tonnes of carbon or 6.8% of the total global emissions. The average carbon footprint of every person in India was estimated at 0.56 tonne per year– with 0.19 tonne per capita among the poor and 1.32 tonne among the rich.
According to IndiaSpend, the study combined household expenditure data from the 2013 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and observed that that food and electricity were two avenues of expenditure that accounted for the majority of emissions in the country across socio-economic groups.
Among affluent households, expenditures that resulted in high emissions also came from private transport, durables and non-cereal food items.
The study, which is the first nation-wide, region and class-specific assessment of carbon footprint, used micro consumption data from 203,313 households across 623 districts and concluded that pro-poor development measures led to an incremental increase of 1.97% in carbon emissions. However, moving the country’s middle-expenditure families to the higher expenditure group would result in a 10% rise in carbon emissions, the study said. If all Indians started to consume as much as the rich do, there would be a nearly 50% rise in emissions, the study held.
The study reinforces global findings on the vast gap between the global rich and the poor when it comes to carbon emissions. According to the UN emissions gap report, the world’s wealthiest 1% account for more than twice the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%. It also concluded that to avoid a serious rise in global temperatures this century, the richest would have to rapidly cut their CO2 footprints.
While the consumption of products like detergents, soaps and clothing accounted for the majority of carbon footprints in lower expenditure households whereas the demand for durable goods and private transport constituted the highest carbon emissions among higher expenditure households.
Electricity consumption was the highest contributor to household carbon footprints – ranging from 26% in low-expenditure households to 36% among the rich – given India’s reliance on coal-based power plants. The lowest amount of household emissions came from spending on education, gas, medical care, and other energy like fuelwood, dung cake, and kerosene.
After electricity, food was the largest contributor to household carbon emissions, the study found and said that rich Indians spent twice the amount on animal products, alcohol, other beverages and restaurants, and three times as much on fruit than low expenditure households. In low and medium expenditure households, consumption of grains accounted for the majority of food-related spending (41–49%) but only 28.7% in affluent households.
The study also focused on the difference in carbon emissions in rural and urban India. “Per capita carbon emissions in India vary greatly within and between urban and rural areas, whilst residents in mega districts such as Mumbai (1.76 ton CO2/capita), New Delhi (0.98 ton CO2/capita), Bangalore (1.13 ton CO2/capita), Chennai (1.11 ton CO2/capita), or Kolkata (1.56 ton CO2/capita) have a carbon footprint above the national average (0.56 ton CO2/capita),” the study said.
The UN-Habitat has estimated that cities are responsible for emitting up to 70% of harmful greenhouse gases while occupying just 2% of the global land.
The district with the highest carbon footprint, Gurgaon, was found to be responsible for 2.04 tonnes of carbon emissions – 10 times the emissions from Boudh, a district in Odisha that reported the lowest carbon footprint at 0.21 tonne.
Furthermore, the study held that Sikh and Buddhist households had a higher average carbon footprint than Hindu, Muslim or Christian households. “Buddhists spent the least on animal products, around one-fifth of their food-related expenditure, whilst Sikhs spent the most, just over a third of their food-related expenditure,” the study claimed. Muslims and Christians spent an equal share on dairy and meat products, while Hindus and Jains consumed mainly dairy products.
To reduce its carbon emissions, the study said India had to phase out coal, invest in renewables and promote energy-efficient production of food and other consumables. India should also promote transport and introduce carbon pricing of goods and services to manage consumption if economic growth is accompanied by a shift from medium to high income households, the study said.
But carbon pricing, a tax or cess on goods and services that score high on carbon emissions, could be a tricky concept in the Indian context, said experts.
However, experts pointed out that implementing a carbon tax in India could disproportionately impact poorer sections of society. “Many countries have been toying with this idea for years but there is a concern that levying a tax can burden the poor if not done properly,” said Soumya Dutta, co-convener, South Asian People’s Action on Climate Crisis (SAPACC) told IndiaSpend. “For instance, India has been increasing tax on diesel for past few years but it harms the small farmer using the fuel to run an irrigation pump more than a rich SUV owner. Carbon pricing can only work properly if it’s focussed and prohibitive. A tax of Rs 25,000 on cars won’t stop people from buying them. A Rs 2 lakh tax can be prohibitive but is not feasible due to political compulsions.”
The study also noted that, with the advent of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, the Indin government had promoted the use of high-yield and low-nutrient varieties of wheat and rice that emit more greenhouse gases. A reduction in emissions could thus be achieved by shitinf away from rice to wheat, maize, bajra, and ragi; and from beef and eggs to chicken and legumes, the study said.
While Ulka Kelkar, director of the climate programme at World Resources Institute said that the study was “a close enough proxy for the real picture” other experts pointed out that the large informal economy in the country did not allow the building of a comprehensive dataset on consumption and carbon emissions.
“Only things which flow through the formal systems can be captured in data. This is why it’s difficult to account for the carbon footprint of fuelwood or biomass use because that’s mostly informally acquired and used,” Soumyajit Bhar, doctoral scholar at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said.