How India's Climate Plans Are Falling Short
Sushmita (IndiaSpend) 08 July 2024
Even as general elections in India continued through the months of April to June, heat wave to severe heat wave conditions prevailed in northern and western India and in parts of eastern India. Many of these areas started experiencing heat waves around May 18.
 
With the onset of the south-west monsoon, India finds itself in an odd extreme weather scenario: On the one hand, people have died of heat and on the other, many states particularly in the north fear floods and find themselves ill equipped to tackle them. On June 28, for instance, the national capital region of Delhi received 235.5 mm of rainfall, the highest-single day amount in June in 88 years.
 
IndiaSpend spoke to experts and activists to understand the changes and developments in the country's climate, and its environmental regulatory regime over the past decade, and where its policies fell short. This is crucial for the new government and for climate action as the next few years are critical for the Paris targets
 
Climate change action framework in India
 
India's climate action plans consist of two elements: adaptation and mitigation. While mitigation has found a lot of focus, not enough attention has gone into planning adaptation, as IndiaSpend reported in December 2023. In terms of commitments and goals, there is a National Action Plan on Climate Change and its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs).
 
India's Climate Goals
 
                                                                                                                                                                  
India updated its INDC targets in August 2022, seven years since it first submitted its targets to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The update included two new targets: 
1. To reduce the emissions intensity of the country's GDP by 45% by 2030 as against the earlier target of 33-35% (compared to 2005 emission levels). (Emissions intensity is the emission rate of a given pollutant relative to the intensity of a specific activity. For instance, grams of carbon dioxide released per megajoule of energy produced)
2. To achieve about 50% cumulative installed electric power capacity from non-fossil fuel sources (including nuclear) by 2030, as against the 40% targeted earlier.
 
About a year later, in December 2023, it said that it had achieved the two targets originally mentioned in the INDCs, well ahead of deadline: 
1. To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 level; and 
2. To achieve about 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030 (As on October 31, 2023, the cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources was 186.46 MW; this was 43.81% of the total cumulative electric power installed capacity.)
 
Despite these components as well as many state-level action plans, India's climate action policies are often driven by "opportunism", as argued in a 2021 paper by Navroz Dubash, leading climate researcher and Chair of the Advisory Council of the Sustainable Futures Collaborative (SFC), an independent research and action group based in Delhi, and others. 
 
"In my opinion, climate change became a pretext for the government to bring businesses, whether in Gujarat or the rest of India," notes Alok Shukla, member of the convenor collective of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan and winner of the 2024 Goldman Environmental Prize. Shukla points to the gaps in the targets being achieved on paper and how these transpired for people on the ground.
 
Stress on afforestation
India's target on achieving an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030 has driven its policies on forests and land use, and has meant the implementation of policies around afforestation.
 
India's third biennial report submitted to the UNFCCC in February 2021 said that the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sequestered 330.76 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2, which is about 15% of India's total CO2 emissions from all sectors in 2016.
 
It also said the forest and tree cover had increased to 807,276 sq km in 2019 from 802,088 sq km in 2017. The net change in the carbon stocks of forests was +42.6 Mt as per the report, which cites Forest Survey of India (FSI) data. Several experts and the UNFCCC have questioned FSI's methodology for calculating forest cover. 
 
Increase in forest cover has happened outside the area classified in land records as "forests", a 2022 report by the Centre for Science and Environment says. "It has also happened mainly in forests that are defined as "open"—with canopy cover between 10-40%. This shows that forests are growing because people are planting trees on their individual lands, including plantations of rubber, coconut or eucalyptus, all non-forest species, as there are huge restrictions on planting and cutting trees that are listed in the Indian Forest Act."
 
Further, a June 2020 report by a subcommittee of the Department of Economic Affairs under the Ministry of Finance to assess the financial requirements to meet INDCs noted that it was unclear whether improving the density of existing forests would add up to the target. The report concluded that, as the target uses the word "additional" twice, it "may have to be achieved only by adding areas to the existing forest and tree cover majorly by afforestation outside forest area, thus by creating new forests and from sequestration of carbon in the increased extent of trees outside forest (TOF) comprising urban forestry, agroforestry, avenue plantation".
 
Analysing the financial instruments to meet the forestry targets, the report said that the focus should be on forest ecosystem instead of plantation, as "[i]t is possible that injudicious plantation may end up exacerbating the environment and ecosystems".
 
 
Commitments versus coal mining
India has made ambitious commitments to increase its forest cover, while simultaneously giving a push for coal mining as part of its Covid-19 economic recovery package. In its Long Term Strategy for Low Carbon Development document (which provides a sector-wise breakdown of initiatives) submitted at CoP27, India said that it will continue to use coal. 
 
A Climate Action Tracker summary evaluated India's status as "Poor" based on the observation that "the level of information provided is extremely limited with no emissions pathway to demonstrate how India will reach net zero by 2070. It remains unclear as to whether India's net zero by 2070 target covers all greenhouse gas emissions, or just CO2."
 
As per a response in the Lok Sabha in 2022, the government said that India has already achieved 1.97 billion tonnes of additional carbon sink as compared to the base year of 2005. 
 
The remaining, it said, could be achieved by increasing forest and tree cover through programmes such as Green India Mission, National Afforestation Programme, Compensatory Afforestation Funds under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), afforestation activities under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Green Highway Policy 2015, Policy for Enhancement of Urban Greens, National Agroforestry Policy and Sub-mission on Agroforestry, National Bamboo Mission and National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture. 
 
India did not sign the Glasgow declaration on forests and land use that aimed to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030 on the grounds of mention of "trade as an area" in the declaration, the government told Parliament. 
 
The declaration said that the parties will strengthen efforts to, among other things, "Facilitate trade and development policies, internationally and domestically, that promote sustainable development, and sustainable commodity production and consumption, that work to countries' mutual benefit, and that do not drive deforestation and land degradation." 
 
How does India expect to achieve net zero by 2070 if it continues opening up new coal mines even when it has already extracted the desired quantity of coal, asks Alok Shukla. 
 
"The policies that the [National Democratic Alliance] government brought in the last 10 years are quite opposite to the commitments made by it at the global stage," Shukla says. 
 
Shukla, who has led the Hasdeo Bachao movement along with thousands of Adivasis and forest communities, says that coal mining allocations were increased in the past few years. Hasdeo Arand is a long stretch of intact forest land in Chhattisgarh. During the coal mining auctions, as many as 21 sites were auctioned from Chhattisgarh, most of them in the Hasdeo Arand forests, against which the movement has been mobilising. 
 
"Our needs can be fulfilled by 1.3-1.5 billion tonnes of coal, so why did the government auction so many mines?," Shukla asks. "There has been no assessment of the areas in which mining is permissible without harm." 
 
IndiaSpend reached out to Ramesh Pandey, the Inspector General of Forests, on the steps being taken to protect forests in Hasdeo. We will update this story when we receive a response.
 
Government policies have prioritised the interests of the private sector, says Shukla. The Economic Survey 2022-23 pointed out that coal demand is estimated to be around 1.3-1.5 billion tonnes by 2030. It further estimated that demand will continue to peak between 2030 and 2035, and that electricity generated by coal-based power plants increased by 10% between 2021-22 and 2022-23.
 
Renewable energy policies not kosher, say experts
India's policies on renewable energy, especially its push for large hydropower projects to generate renewable energy, have been criticised by experts on account of a lack of consideration for communities residing on these lands, as well as for financial and scientific reasons.
 
In 2019, India said that large hydropower projects (HEPs with a capacity of 25 MW) were central to its renewable energy transition. A slew of measures was approved, including for example that for the hydro-power projects commissioned after March 8, 2019, the energy will be considered part of the Renewable Purchase Obligation. States will have a mandate to purchase a share of renewable energy, and as part of it, to purchase energy generated from large hydro power projects. 
 
"Far from being cost-effective, these have ended up causing distress to people, especially communities living around river basins," said Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a Pune-based centre that monitors and analyses water and energy issues. "There is no cumulative impact assessment of these projects, though some of them are in very close proximity, becoming the reason for environmental disasters." 
 
Experts have, however, pointed out that hydropower dams pollute and also precipitate natural disasters, as IndiaSpend reported in November 2021. Large hydropower projects often ignore the complexity and risk of construction on the local terrain, geology, hydrology and ecology. 
 
This negligence impacts local communities significantly during or after construction, several organisations from Himachal Pradesh said, in a submission made on May 14 to the state government. "Recently, in Barot valley of Kangra district, the underground forebay near the 25 MW Lambadag Hydropower Project, constructed by Megha Engineering Infrastructure Limited, experienced rapid water leakage, causing penstock pipe to burst, causing extensive damage to fields, shops and homes in Multhan due to water flow," the organisations said in a press note.
 
Emphasis on creating land banks
 
Under different names, the Indian government brought policies to create land inventories. In 2013, The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (also known as LARR, 2013) proposed the creation of land banks and said that if a land acquired for development purposes was not utilised for more than five years, it was to be returned to the landowner or title holder. However, seldom is the land returned to the landowners, who are Adivasi and forest community members, Shukla says. 
 
In 2022, through the Forest Conservation Rules, the government again emphasised on the creation of land banks--this time for compensatory afforestation. The rules diminished powers of the Gram Sabha, even though an earlier Act, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 recognises that Gram Sabhas need to approve the usage of forest land that they may be using. Here the assumption is that the government already has a land and that all the land in it has already been reconciled, said Arpitha Kodiveri, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vassar College, who has previously studied environmental law. 
 
The latest attempt is the Green Credit programme, whose second objective says: "Registration of land on the web portal to build a land bank which can be offered for plantation activities. This land inventory will be available to individuals/entities for voluntary plantation, plantation under CSR and for plantation under Accredited Compensatory Afforestation."
 
In states like Jharkhand, land banks have been created as part of a push for industries.
 
"Land banks and compensatory afforestation have both been undertaken on community and common lands. For instance, in Hasdeo, for the forest land diversion for Parsa coal block, common lands in Surajpur zilla (district) will be used for compensatory afforestation. People are already using these lands," says Shukla. 
 
IndiaSpend wrote to the Ministry of Environment to ask if afforestation has indeed taken place on tribal lands. We will update this story when we receive a response. 
 
Climate harm in the name of climate action?
 
The United Nations on its website calls greenwashing a significant obstacle to tackling climate change. "By misleading the public to believe that a company or other entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is, greenwashing promotes false solutions to the climate crisis that distract from and delay concrete and credible action."
 
The definition enlisted various situations in which greenwashing may take place, including claims of being on track to reduce a company's polluting emissions to net zero without a credible plan, being purposely vague or non-specific about a company's operations or materials used, and applying misleading labels such as "green".
 
Around the time India said it met two of its INDC goals ahead of time, it was also enacting laws that weakened protection. "Despite consistent struggles from forest-based communities, laws brought in the recent past have only led to the weakening of the environmental and climate protection regime and the hard won rights of communities," Shukla says. 
 
Prominent amongst these was the Forest Conservation Amendment Act. On July 26, 2023, the Lok Sabha passed a bill that amended the country's Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This happened despite vocal protests by several environmental and rights groups. The FCA was legislated to regulate the use of forest land for development purposes such as mining, industries, dams etc. 
 
The preamble of the existing Act was amended to add "...the importance of forests is to be realised to enable the achievement of national targets of Net Zero Emission by 2070 and maintain or enhance the forest carbon stocks through ecologically balanced sustainable development". 
 
The amendments have made the provisions applicable on lands notified as forests under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or in government records after the 1980 Act came into effect. "The definition of forests themselves has been changed as per this law, which is so dangerous," Shukla says. "Why have there been no discussions? Despite protests, the 2023 amendment to the FCA could not become a political issue, and the opposition also failed to take it up." 
 
The Act also removed the need for forest clearance for certain types of forest land such as lands that lie within 100 km of India's international border for projects of strategic relevance (such as those related to national security), public utilities, roadside amenities and public roads leading to habitation. It specifies activities that can be carried out on such lands, such as the establishment of zoos and check posts. 
 
"With the amendments to the FCA, the government gave concessions to build linear projects, road projects etc. So it's not about conservation, only business," says Govabhai Rathore of the Gujarat Adivasi Mahasabha. "For instance, if the Delhi-Mumbai corridor is built, entire districts will be gone in Gujarat. The entire tribal belt will be wiped off." 
 
IndiaSpend reached out to Ramesh Pandey of the environment ministry asking how necessary checks and balances will be ensured. We will update this story when we receive a response.
 
Are changes causing distress?
There are three ways to understand the changes in the environment law regime in the last decade, says environmental and policy researcher Kanchi Kohli, most of which responded to the frameworks drawn up by committees in commitments made by the ruling party's election manifestos in 2014 and 2019. 
 
"First is the assumption that loosening the pre-approval environment regulatory 'burden' on the private sector will incentivize economic investment and enable the safe passage of specific projects," she said. "Second, relaxing the post-approval compliances will encourage companies to adopt the utmost good faith principle whereby business practice will adopt better environmental practices." Kohli added that both these assumptions have seriously fallen short on the presumed outcomes.
 
In January this year, the Supreme Court stayed two Union government orders of July 2021 and January 2022 granting ex-post facto clearance for projects across sectors without prior environmental approval as mandated under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006. 
 
Kohli said that the third way to understand changes in regulations was the aligning of national laws towards achieving net zero carbon emissions, which has relied heavily on tree plantation-based carbon offsets to balance India's carbon emissions footprint. "This has resulted in new ecological and rights-based justice questions for which India's present environment regulation falls short on both acknowledgment and vision," she said. 
 
Amendments without public notice
A 2023 report published by the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law found that the EIA notification of 2006 has been amended over 50 times since its inception and that 70% of these amendments have been passed without due public notice.
 
"The pandemic saw an uptick in such amendments when the pretext of 'public interest' was used to bypass the mandatory step of prior public notice of upcoming amendments," said Meenakshi Kapoor, one of the authors of the report. "Similarly, since 2017, existing coal mines have been allowed to increase their capacity without public hearings provided they demonstrated 'satisfactory' compliance. What started with coal mines has now been extended to all projects exhibiting 'satisfactory compliance'." 
 
Contrary to the current government's self-professed liking for standardisation and unambiguity in environmental governance, neither 'public interest' nor 'satisfactory compliance' have been spelled out, Kapoor says. "Oftentimes, public hearing exemptions have been granted to mines with poor environmental compliance," she said. 
 
The way forward
"India urgently needs a unified, robust climate law that not only prevents greenwashing but also enforces genuine environmental progress to make our economy and society sustainable and resilient," says Harjeet Singh, Global Engagement Director at the Fossil Fuel Treaty Initiative and co-founder of Satat Sampada, a social enterprise promoting environmental solutions. 
 
Singh said that with the introduction of the new Carbon Credit Trading Scheme and Green Credit Programme, there was a significant danger that, without stringent and transparent enforcement, these initiatives could merely serve corporate interests, painting a deceptive veneer of environmental responsibility while continuing to exacerbate the climate crisis. 
 
Singh feels that India's current landscape of climate change legislation reveals a troubling paradox. "While we see an array of regulations and initiatives aimed at environmental protection, a comprehensive policy framework that effectively tackles the full scale of the climate emergency remains conspicuously absent," he said. 
 
"There has also been a pattern of diluted regulations, particularly evident in the Environmental Impact Assessments, which risks turning green policies into greenwashing tools," he added.
 
"While climate change is yet to become a political issue in India, the consciousness around climate change is growing because of a number of extreme weather events," Shukla points out. "It is no longer possible to ignore climate change, and these events are having a bearing on the livelihoods of people."
 
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