“India will be the first major country to experience urbanization after the Paris Agreement.”
I was attending a panel called “Urban Skylines of the Future” at the 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival, when Professor Navroz K. Dubash from India’s Centre for Policy Research made this statement. The panel was hosted in response to a UN report that claimed that by 2050, 35% of the world’s urban population growth will happen in Nigeria, China, and India, with India responsible for the greatest portion of that growth.
Earlier in the day, I attended a session, also featuring Professor Dubash, with journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of the 2017 landmark climate piece, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Last year, Wallace-Wells released a full book edition of the piece, which paints, in heavily researched, terrifying detail, the worst case (but certainly not impossible) scenario if humans do not act fast to slash our carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, and take the steps available to us to prevent runaway climate change.
These two sessions put into stark relief a question that I have been wrestling with since I first arrived and started working in India a few months ago—can a fast-growing country like India develop both quickly and sustainably? Or put more fundamentally: are economic development and environmental sustainability even compatible?
Disclaimer: I do not have a definitive answer to these questions. But from what I learned from these speakers, and from my own research, the answer is something like: Maybe not, but we have to find a way to make them compatible.
Which brings me back to Professor Dubash’s statement—“India will be the first major country to experience urbanization after the Paris Agreement.” Whether your source material is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2018 report (which gives us roughly a decade to make major changes if we are to avert the most serious consequences of climate change by limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius), Mr. Wallace-Wells’ book (which shows us a near-future world with social and ecological collapse), or some other research-based publication, the urgency of climate change is clear. But as I’ve quickly learned—whether in conversations with peers and coworkers, through readings, or through the panels I attended—the fair question comes up about who bears the responsibility for solving the climate crisis?
We can look at the list of countries most responsible for the historical emissions that are largely responsible for the climate crisis—the top 10 being the US, China, Russia, Germany, UK, Japan, France, India, Canada, and Ukraine. (1) Contrasting this to the 10 countries most impacted by climate change today—Japan, Philippines, Germany, Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, Canada, Fiji (2)—we see some overlap, but generally, climate change can be perceived as a problem caused by the Global North that devastates the Global South. As these countries work to develop and urbanize, is it the responsibility of poorer, more vulnerable countries to solve a problem they didn’t create?
In fact, when we look to the behaviors of small island nations, we can see that they are clearly recognize the existential threat that climate change poses to them, and have made major commitments when it comes to reducing their emissions, greening their infrastructure, and making sure they are designing for a resilient future. (3) Their ability to change the global trajectory, however, is unfortunately limited, unless the most major polluters step up and change their ways.
But this is where India has a particularly interesting role to play: it holds the unfortunate distinction of being both one of the world’s fastest growing and most major polluters, and one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In fact, during Mr. Wallace-Wells and Mr. Dubash’s panel, one of the panelists shared the fact that India will bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s climate impact because of its population density, geography, and inequality (he cited 25% of the world’s total impact, a number I was not able to verify for this piece).
To me—in this sobering position, there is an exciting possibility for India. Unlike many countries which have largely completed their urbanization, India has the opportunity to create a blueprint for what it looks like for a massive country to urbanize in an era where carbon neutrality is an imperative. India has to find ways of tackling climate risks—extreme heat waves, drought, air pollution, floods and other natural disasters—while addressing major urbanization realities like transportation, energy, construction, supply chain management, and sanitation. (4)
If India is able to innovate its way into a low to no carbon future, imagine the precedent it could set for other countries—big and small, high and low polluting—all across the world. While climate change will, over time, impact all of the top 10 polluters on the list, India must address the problem with an even greater sense of urgency given the impact its already having on its population (just look at 2019’s flooding, heat waves, delayed monsoon, and more). Beyond solving a problem for its own people, India could help safeguard the futures for other countries as well—stepping into an even greater international leadership role.
So what is India doing to take advantage of this unique opportunity, and what are the challenges it is facing along the way? In Part Two of this post—Urbanization After Paris—I’ll feature some of the innovative work happening across India to build more resilient cities and start creating this blueprint for the future.