High numbers, but low per capita. 5 ways India does a lot for the environment

Heading into the UN Climate Change Summit later this year, we take a look at five markers and compare India's progress against the world in the fight against climate change.

The IPCC report on climate change had the grimmest possible warning for the world at large, with countries like India even more likely to literally feel the heat. So, as the world heads to Poland to discuss the next steps to prevent climate change, it is instructive to see just where India stands vis a vis the world on these 5 crucial indicators.

Ecological Footprint: In the simplest of terms, ecological footprint is the only metric that measures how much nature we have and how much nature we use. Measuring how fast we consume resources and generate waste compared to how fast nature can absorb our waste and generate new resources. If a population’s Ecological Footprint exceeds the region’s biocapacity, that region runs an ecological deficit. Its demand for the goods and services that its land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what the region’s ecosystems can renew. 

[credit: global footprint network]

The world’s ecological deficit is referred to as global ecological overshoot. Since the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot, with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. In terms of countries ranked by total ecological footprint India comes in at third, behind China and the USA. But, when comparing ecological footprint per capita India (1.1 gha, 2014) ranks very low versus the US (8.4 gha). However, it is the sheer number of people which makes India’s requirements so high.

Per Capita Water Availability: The global demand for water has been increasing at a rate of about 1% per year as a function of population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns, among other factors, and it is predicted to grow significantly over the next two decades according to the UN’s World Water Development Report 2018. At the same time, the global water cycle is intensifying due to climate change, with wetter regions generally becoming wetter and drier regions becoming even drier. At present, an estimated 3.6 billion people (nearly half the global population) live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8–5.7 billion by 2050. 

Renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in India (cubic meters) [credit: world bank]

The average annual water availability of any region or country is largely dependent upon hydro-meteorological and geological factors and is generally constant. As per the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD) report, the total water availability of India received through precipitation is about 4000 Billion cubic meter (BCM) per annum. After accounting for all factors, water availability is 1123 BCM per annum, comprising of 690 BCM of surface water and 433 BCM of replenishable ground water. However, water available per person is dependent on population of the country and for India, water availability per capita is reducing progressively due to increase in population. The average annual per capita water availability in the years 2001 and 2011 was assessed as 1820 cubic meters and 1545 cubic meters respectively which may reduce further to 1341 and 1140 in the years 2025 and 2050 respectively.

Per Capita Energy Consumption: 

Primary energy use (before transformation to other end-use fuels) in kilograms of oil equivalent, per capita.{kilogram of oil equivalent (kgoe) = ~1,163 kWh}                        [credits: world bank, 2014]

In the New Policies Scenario, global energy needs rise more slowly than in the past but still expand by 30% between today and 2040 according to a study conducted by the International Energy Agency (IEA). This is the equivalent of adding another China and India to today’s global demand.  A global economy growing at an average rate of 3.4% per year, a population that expands from 7.4 billion today to more than 9 billion in 2040, and a process of urbanisation that adds a city the size of Shanghai to the world’s urban population every four months are key forces that underpin this projection. The largest contribution to demand growth, almost 30%, comes from India, whose share of global energy use rises to 11% by 2040 (still well below its 18% share in the anticipated global population). 

Per Capita Meat Consumption: Meat can be part of a balanced diet contributing valuable nutrients that are beneficial to health. Meat and meat products contain important levels of protein, vitamins, minerals and micronutrients which are essential for growth and development. However, the destructive impact of animal agriculture on the environment far exceeds that of any other technology on Earth. The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined. There is no pathway to achieve the Paris climate objectives without a massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture.

India’s per-capita consumption of meat stands at 4.4 kg (2014) per person, which puts it at the second position on the list of countries with the least meat consumption per-person. This distinction can be attributed to a 2000-year-old tradition of vegetarianism, besides limited access to meat for the poor. However, the demand for meat is expected to grow faster in India with sustained economic growth, rising per capita income, strengthening urbanization trends and increasing awareness of the nutritive value of meat and meat products. By 2020, the demand for milk is estimated to reach 143 million tonnes and that of meat and eggs eight million tonnes.

Per Capita Plastic Consumption: As on date, every state in India has a plastic ban of some shape or size in effect, save for two. While the efficacy of these moves can still be questioned, there is no doubt that the bans send a strong message of intent, and at least ensure that the law will already be ready when the authorities do get serious about implementing it. More importantly, awareness of the negative effects of plastics use are spreading fast, and increasingly visible too. The per capita consumption in India is still low compared to more developed countries. According to FICCI, Indians today consume 11 kg of plastic per year in comparison to 109 kg by an average American. 

India has made serious efforts to do its part by adding renewable energy at one of the fastest speeds anywhere. Renewable Energy capacity additions in India has surprised everyone with its growth. Power generation from solar and wind power has grown faster than expected in all but the most saturated markets, giving everyone reason for high hopes that this sector can do much more. Add to this the high ‘carbon tax’ in the form of the unpopular but essential fuel taxes in a bid to drive more and more traffic towards cleaner fuels and electric mobility – which the government is strongly pushing for central as well as state levels. India’s pledge to stop using single use plastics by 2022, well before many countries including developed nations, is a bold indication of India’s commitment to fighting climate change. 

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Ayush Verma

Ayush Verma

Ayush is a correspondent at iamrenew.com and writes on renewable energy and sustainability. As an engineering graduate trying to find his niche in the energy journalism segment, he also works as a staff writer for saurenergy.com.

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