Reporting climate change

[Here’s a blog post on the the SACCA media workshop posted on Indigenus, Nature India’s blog, on 26 August 2012. The full blog can be accessed here.]

Subhra Priyadarshini

Climate change seems to be our favourite punch bag, whatever the calamity — droughts, failed monsoons, floods or cyclones. How much science goes into deciding which of these natural phenomena are an offshoot of the global climate change phenomenon? Is climate change reporting as robust (or weak?) as the scientific evidence to back accentuated glacial melts or sea level rise?

A regional meet of climate change communicators from the SAARC nations currently underway in Kathmandu, Nepal (August 24-30, 2012) is seeking to look at all that is good with our reportage and all that we need to improve. It would look and feel like any of the umpteen such well meaning ‘workshops’ which fail to make much headway but for the presence of some real ‘experts’ who have toiled it out on the ground. From Nepalese journalists who have trekked the Hindukush range to Sri Lankan scribes who have shrugged off the ‘small island nation’ tag to influence policy across south Asia; spirited Editors of newspapers, magazines and television channels from SAARC countries to radio reporters whose voices reach the farthest corners of our villages — the mix at the meet organised by PANOS is eclectic and therefore works.

‘Gaping holes in India’s climate change policy’

[This story was published in Nature India on 9 September 2012, and can be read at http://www.nature.com/nindia/2012/120909/full/nindia.2012.130.html. To access the full article please register free at Nature India here: http://www.nature.com/register]

Subhra Priyadarshini

India’s best known climate change strategy – the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) – has come in for sharp criticism by leading domain experts who say it not just lacks vision but also allows glaring lack of cohesion between the eight grand mitigation missions launched by the government five years back.

The ‘course correction’ review conducted by Sujatha Byravan of Chennai-based Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR) and Sudhir Chella Rajan of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras collated views of 44 experts from across the country to conclude that the pressure and challenges that India faced in developing the national climate policy have resulted in ‘certain tensions’ running through these lofty missions.

“Most of the mission documents read like a wish-list from which little has been left out,” they point out. This might please everyone, but hardly makes for national strategy. As a result the mission document is nothing more than “the usual planning document with a few points on climate thrown in.”

NAPCC is the national framework laid out by the Prime Minister’s Council for Climate Change in 2008 as the guiding national strategy to address India’s development concerns and challenges.

The eight missions launched alongside were the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency (NMEEE), National Mission for a Green India (GIM), National Mission on Sustainable Habitat (NMSH), National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE), National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change (NMSKCC), National Solar Mission (NSM), and National Water Mission (NWM). These missions are run by various ministries of the government.

Are the priorities right?

Though it might be too early to evaluate these missions, Byravan and Chella Rajan say the water, green India and agriculture missions fail to prioritise the issues that India needs to tackle on a long term basis. “The solar and energy efficiency missions, on the other hand, are sharp, clear and relatively focused.”

A climate mission can’t solve all the problems of water and emissions that the country has been facing for a long time, the reviewers feel, making a case for smaller and focussed missions such as a “mission to improve efficiency of urban water use, or a missions to replicate some successful models of sustainable agricultural practices in a particular agro-climatic zone, or a mission to expand non-motorised transport in 5 pilot cities.”

According to the reviewers, there’s also a clash between India’s aspirations in framing the climate change policies — are they designed to fulfil international or national ambitions or both? They cite the example of the solar mission which looks like something India wants to “make a mark internationally” with and “demonstrate its commitment to addressing climate change.” The answer to this, however, varies from mission to mission.

No clarity on emissions

The policy is not clear on emission reduction targets and as such there is no mention of the level of mitigation expected in describing climate action plans in these missions. “Since the missions are expected to describe development strategies with climate as a co-benefit, it would have been helpful to clearly identify activities for which a climate benefit is accrued”, the duo write in their 32-page report.

One of the main criticisms of India’s climate policy is that there is no specified goal or target for sustainable development projects. For instance, the solar mission fails to focus on off-grid solar power, which could be a boon for remote areas. Similarly, there’s little emphasis on low-chemical practices in the sustainable agriculture mission – a practice that would not just boost sustainability of crops but also help reduce greenhouse gases. Some deeply-embedded challenges such as removing environmentally destructive subsidies for chemical fertilisers have not been taken seriously at all.

“The development targets of the eight missions are not prioritised with clear sustainable development-focussed approaches and outcomes, if these are indeed the focus of the NAPCC,” the reviewers point out. Most experts interviewed by them also felt that integration among these missions was missing. A persistent question asked by many was, “Where will all the land come from for expanding agriculture, (making a) green India and (for the) habitat (mission)?”

Byravan says that the missions were placed in eight “separate bins” and so India is looking for solutions to its climate change problems through “sector-specific lenses”. There’s little synergy between the missions and hardly any effort to work together. “The multiple dimensions of climate change, however, make it vital that we adopt an approach that is interdisciplinary, breaks traditional ministerial boundaries, and creates conditions for flexible institutional responses based on continuous learning,” she told Nature India.

Pointing out that some other countries actually address climate policies through independent councils and not ministries like India does, they say that unless India breaks traditional ministerial boundaries to approach climate change as an interdisciplinary issue, “our goals and aspirations for ‘climate-proof’ development will not be attained.”

In India climate change is still perceived as a marginal concern and its centrality to economic development and poverty alleviation is not appreciated, Chella Rajan toldNature India. “The emergence of a framework of climate policy in the country provides us with an opportunity to communicate the significance of global warming in the development context,” he said.