A great Indian bustard flies near windmills, somewhere in India. Photo: Nirav Bhatt/Conservation India.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change claims it will need $2.5 trillion (Rs 183 lakh crore) to fight climate change between 2015 and 2030.
Current spending from all sources, while much lower, is still significant and has ensured a steady flow of climate-friendly projects and programmes, transforming India’s position as a global climate leader.
However, there is no effective climate action without natural resources. And mainstream climate action projects and programmes (CAPs) require exclusive access and control over them.
The trouble is that these resources are already being put to numerous uses – including subsistence agriculture, collection of forest produce, ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation.
In this regard, action as a remedy for climate change could be an added burden. And we also rarely discuss CAPs’ undesirable outcomes.
Governments often approve CAPs quickly, have softer regulations and provide unfettered access to resources. Thus it’s easier to implement CAPs without effective scrutiny. But recently, these actions have produced irreversible consequences – with disproportionate effects on fragile ecosystems and vulnerable groups of people. And we either don’t observe these consequences or ignore them for the sake of fulfilling climate objectives.
Governments still tend to gauge progress in terms of, say, the growth in the number of solar-panel installations – without accounting for the perils of such thin veils of progress.
There is no doubt that carefully considered, scientific and socially appropriate climate action has the potential to benefit the nation’s fortunes and help reduce preexisting vulnerabilities. But such CAPs will still have outcomes that we don’t need, and which could even erode social justice.
So the question we must ask is how we can evaluate CAPs better. More specifically, how can we resolve the long-standing demand for climate justice, social safeguards and robust regulatory control of CAPs?
Consequences of climate action projects
It’s a problem to conceive climate action as a monolithic entity made up of positive developments. Undesirable outcomes of CAPs do exist, including those that affect economic activities, degrade or impede access to natural resources, affect the ecological balance, and even cause political turmoil. So CAPs will require both ‘before’ and ‘after’ remedies.
Scholarship on this issue is hard to come by – but there is rising evidence of such perverse outcomes and to which we need to pay more attention.
Consider large-scale solar plants, small to medium hydroelectric dams and afforestation and forest regeneration activities, which have all precipitated negative outcomes.
Both public demand for such projects and government decisions also produce (avoidable) crises. For an example of a conflict arising from ‘green development’: farmers recently protested in Jaisalmer against state efforts to acquire land for a 1,500-MW solar power plant. Distributional and procedural injustices in 2009 at the Charanka solar plant brought on multiple early delays.
Wind farms have disrupted biodiversity hotspots, and triggered opposition among people living nearby about how natural resources ought to be used. Smaller hydro-electric projects in the Western Ghats of Karnataka have affected elephant habitat and disturbed small streams that endemic fish need to survive.
Sometimes the judiciary has pulled up offending projects for sidestepping environmental and forest protection safeguards. But this is rare.
These contests are likely to increase as India has plans to increase its forest cover by 5 million hectares – a number that experts have criticised for being rooted in colonial ideas. To this end, the National Action Plan on Climate Change has already created a National Mission for Green India (NMGI) to attempt to merge with other older programmes, schemes and incentives for forest development and governance.
Such a convergence runs the risk of displacing or alienating marginalised communities that depend on ‘degraded’ land in the subcontinent. The initiative also threatens to pull back progress towards securing land rights for millions of indigenous people through the Forest Rights Act 2006. (So it’s not surprising that the NMGI doesn’t seek to converge with the FRA.)
Adaptation projects in India have slowly begun to penetrate sectors invested in climate resilience, disaster-risk reduction and preparedness. However, project proponents are yet to grasp the importance of human-nature interactions.
For one, fuzzy and knee-jerk responses to climate hazards, together with unregulated coastal development measures, have spelt disaster for coastal communities. We’ve seen such knock-on effects on India’s eastern and western coasts. Even adaptive measures the state has implemented in the Hindu Kush Himalaya have produced adverse outcomes.
The government has also been pushing “climate smart” technologies in agriculture. However, the widespread adoption of intensification methods in rice-farming in Telangana failed to understand the socio-political dimensions in which they were implemented. A drip irrigation project in Rajasthan incentivised the over-extraction of groundwater, instead of curbing it. And despite the government announcing a national policy in 2018, the biofuel project remains stalled by low quality and quantity of seeds, complicated land use and shifting goal posts.
We need to understand how much risk is acceptable, but the shared landscape of project prerogatives and risk is not easy to navigate. CAPs’ successes may come at social and ecological costs, despite early signs – signs like protests, red-flagged ecological consequences and land alienation. Often project proponents elect to ignore them, or choose to deal with them later. These choices are in turn made possible by political patronage, regulatory circumventing and corruption (e.g. bribing).
One way out is to have international and national funding and consulting agencies reconsider how risk is evaluated. For example, in a 2013 guidance document, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development stressed the importance of considering a project’s potential to have negative or maladaptive effects. In the same vein, the National Implementing Entity and other multilateral agencies must also hold projects accountable for their actions ex-post.
A language to understand these outcomes
The disconcerting similarity of CAPs to older development programmes hasn’t deterred the government. Regulatory flexibility means ‘development’ projects have erupted inside critical habitats, without environmental and forest loss assessments, and after having circumvented public consultations. This is why the proposed dilution of the environmental impact assessment protocol is a step in the wrong direction.
Experts have advanced a number of conceptual lenses to understand these outcomes. Ideas like maladaptation, backdrafts and the ‘boomerang effect‘ have opened up rich fields of enquiry. And by engaging with them, we can learn a language that allows us to articulate CAPs’ perverse outcomes. It’s time policymakers, financing agencies and project proponents use these lenses wisely. A good starting point is to strengthen existing regulatory mechanisms, environmental laws and rules, and create space for democratic decision-making through free and prior informed consent.
The tussle between traditional development projects and the conservation of, and access to, natural resources can’t be a blueprint for newer climate action. In this scenario, in fact, climate action becomes just another contender – bereft of any virtue – that threatens to deepen instead of eliminate what vulnerabilities already exist.
This is why it’s doubly important to save climate action from itself, and from succumbing to crudities of the past. And if this is our only chance to fix the climate problem, we must not do it by sacrificing biodiversity and the welfare of the marginalised at the altar of mainstream climate action.
Nakul Mohan Heble is a PhD scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. His thesis is on the politics of climate action in India, at the intersection of climate, development and human well-being.