17/10/2016 5:11 PM IST | Updated 17/10/2016 7:37 PM IST

Development Versus Environment Is A 'False Choice' For India, Says UN Green Chief

Climate change an opportunity for India to make its economy "much more modern, efficient and cheap."

Bob Strong / Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Earlier this month, HuffPost India met with Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Program, for a freewheeling discussion on issues ranging from the clean up of the Ganga to how Prime Minister Narendra Modi had altered India's image on climate change.

The conversation began with the Versova beach clean up, the largest ever of its kind in the world, which involved residents of Mumbai removing three million kilos of trash in one year. "That was so inspiring," Solheim exulted. "This is a fantastic superb example of what to do all over the world. People rise up and act."

The 61-year-old Norwegian, who previously led the the Socialist Left Party in his country, and served as the chief negotiator between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government from 2002 to 2005, helped out with the cleaning on the Versova beach on 2 October, the first anniversary of the campaign.

"I was particularly touched by the dedication of the people. There were children, old people, housewives, professionals," he said. "They wanted the beach for their children to play, for people to walk around and watch the sunset. Fishermen want to fish knowing what they sell is safe for customers."

Tackling Delhi's Air Pollution

After talking about this success story out of Mumbai, the discussion veered to why successive governments had failed to tackle air pollution in Delhi, which, until recently, was ranked by the World Health Organisation as the most polluted city in the world. While Delhi is now in the 11th spot, half of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India.

"I think the biggest problem is a false mindset which has been there not only in India, but in the United States, China and other places that there is a choice between the environment, affluence and development," Solheim said. "That first we develop and after that we take care of environment. It is completely false. The most successful countries on the planet, such as Germany, are taking care of development and environment."

Environmental protection can turn into a huge industry. Caring for the environment is not destroying jobs, it is providing jobs.

The key, Solheim stressed, lay in expanding the mass transit system. "I was very happy to see that the metro now reaches the airport," he said. "The Chinese are now building 100 kilometres of new metro every year in both Shanghai and Beijing. So India should be inspired by China in the rapid rollout of metros."

The Chinese are now building 100 kilometres of new metro every year in both Shanghai and Beijing.

Solheim was reluctant to comment on the Odd-Even scheme, which the Aam Aadmi Party government launched in Delhi as a way to reduce pollution and ease up traffic congestion. He said that it was an "immediate reaction" rather than long-term solution.

READ: The Ganges - Can This Holy River Be Reborn?

Cleaning The Ganga

Another emblematic example of the environmental challenges facing India is the clean up of the massively polluted Ganga river. Despite throwing ₹20,000 crores on clean up efforts over three decades, the Indian government has failed to regulate industries and stop raw-sewage and rubbish from flowing into the river. It is a task that Modi has promised to complete, but so far there is little to show for the close to ₹3,000 crores his government has spent in the "Namami Gange" project in the last two years.

Solheim, who had recently visited Varanasi, said that India had no reason to despair considering that countries such as Germany, China, Vietnam, and South Korea had made a success of huge river clean ups. "It is doable. It isn't rocket science," he said. "Prime Minister Modi will not in one year be able to say that we did it. A lot can be done in ten years."

The UN environment chief pointed out that it was worth looking at Germany which had brought political pressure to bear upon its industries. "If they cannot implement the rules then they are out of business. Businesses change," he said. "It happens all over the world because businesses are very innovative."

Read: India Joins Paris Agreement To Combat Climate Change On Gandhi Jayanti

False Choice For India

In the context of combating climate change, Solheim again emphasized that the notion that India had to choose between development and preserving the environment was "absolutely a false choice." If the central bank and the government regulate the market in order to drive investments in the green direction, the UNEP chief said, climate change would be a huge business opportunity and a chance for India to make its economy "much more modern, efficient and cheap."

Earlier this month, India signed the Paris Agreement to combat the global environmental crisis. The current agreement is a departure from the past when the burden of combating climate change rested on the shoulders of developed countries, which have achieved industrialisation by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But with the economic rise of China and India over the past decade, pressure on emerging economies to do more has grown.

But what about the developed countries' largely unfulfilled funding commitments to combat global climate change? Solheim said that it was imperative for developed countries to meet their financial commitments, but that climate change was not a "funding issue or a pledging conference."

"Climate change is about changing industrial and behavioural patterns," he explained. "Lot of it costs nothing. It is just doing something that is better, like climate-smart agriculture. At the end of the day, the main issue is for India to see this as a huge business opportunity. A huge chance for Indian firms, big and small, Tatas and Birlas, as well as startups to provide new and much more fascinating jobs."

Climate change is not just a funding issue or a pledging conference. It is about changing industrial and behavioural patterns.

READ: India Can Beat Climate Change With Trees On Farms, Says World Agroforestry Chief

While conceding ground at climate change negotiations since 2009, India has maintained that poverty eradication must be its priority, and for that it still needs low-cost energy such as coal. In fact, India's coal production target is 1.5 billion metric tons by 2020, from an estimated 634 million tons in the year that ended on 31 March.

Solheim stressed that coal was not in any way cheaper than renewable energy when health costs were factored. "In the studies that we have made, coal industries in the US and China are the least profitable industries on the entire planet," he said. "They seem profitable because they don't count the health costs, the cleaning costs, and so you don't apply the polluters pay principle. One day the coal industry will have to pay for the health budget, for those who get asthma, and who have breathing problems, the cost of coal would be much much higher."

Solar energy has received a big push under the Modi government, which has not only pledged to draw 40 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, but also set up the International Solar Alliance to help boost solar energy in developing countries.

When HuffPost India asked Solheim on what Modi had brought to the table on tackling climate change, he replied that the prime minister had brought solar "front and centre," and that he had made a link between pollution around us and climate change, which was very important to engage the public. Whereas New Delhi had earned the reputation of being obstructionist in climate change negotiations in the past few years, the UNEP chief said, "He has brought decisiveness, the ability to make the decision without wavering, which I think has been very much appreciated."

According to Solheim, until recently there was skepticism about India's commitment to ratifying the Paris Agreement. "The fact that it just did it made a huge difference," he said.

He has brought decisiveness, the ability to make the decision without wavering, which I think has been very much appreciated.

READ: Climate change refugees from Sundarbans are trapped in a nightmare

Tax The Wealthy

India ratified the Paris Agreement on 2 October, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The date is significant because over the past two years, Modi has held out Gandhi's simple lifestyle as an example to developed countries.

While India produces seven percent of greenhouse gases, which makes it the fourth largest emitter after China, the United States and the European Union, its per person emissions are just 1.9 tonnes as compared to 16.4 tonnes in the U.S.

"The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed." - Mahatma Gandhi

On political measures that could translate Gandhi's message from lofty ideals to something more real, Solheim made two suggestions: imposing higher taxes on the wealthy and preventing food waste in the developed world, where somewhere between 40 percent to one-third of the food produced is thrown away.

"The main remedy is a three-letter word called tax. It is time to tax properly the multi-billionaires of the world and it is time to distribute the revenue for the benefit of the rest of the world," the UNEP chief said. "We have been far too lenient in taxing, and that applies to India. India has among the lowest tax levels among the major nations of the world."

"In the developed world and in India, it is time for wealthy people to pay tax," he said.

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