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INDIA: Despite Failed Climate Talks, More Green Awareness

NEW DELHI, Dec 20 2009 (IPS) - The world supped on an alphabet soup of acronyms over the nearly two weeks of climate change talks that just ended – UNFCCC, COP-15, IPCC, CDM, LDCF, MEF, CCS. But did any of these filter down to reach the average citizen?

Does it bother people if their countries’ “carbon sequestration” efforts are laudatory, or if the “anthropogenic climate impacts” in their cities are being mitigated? Would they come to grief if their carbon footprint outpaced that of others in the United States? And if it did, well, would they activate “carbon offsets” to minimise the damage to the planet?

Indeed, experts say, a lay person’s understanding of climate change issues becomes vital against the backdrop of the just-finished Copenhagen summit – bruising negotiations that ended with an agreement to keep global temperature rises to no more than two degrees, have developed countries cut greenhouse gases and developing countries take steps to limit theirs.

This, however, came without the comprehensive, legally binding international deal that was the Dec. 7-18 talks’ original aim, as developed countries, including the United States, avoided being bound by specific deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and developing countries like China, India, Brazil and African states stayed away from firm commitments and a regime of international monitoring. Activists called the deal no more than a political statement.

But as headlines spread around the world about the failure of the climate change summit in Copenhagen to reach a binding agreement, Mumbai-based environmental scientist Prabhu Goenka says that unlike in the past, the average person’s sense of awareness about environment issues has heightened considerably.

“Earlier, people would happily leave such concerns to governments and policy experts. Public engagement was minimal. But over the past decade, media’s exponential growth and the urgency of the situation have led to a mass awakening,” he explained.

It is no surprise then that a sundry cast of rag pickers, farmers, technicians and students was part of the 1,500-member Indian delegation in Copenhagen.

An Indian rag picker — part of a sizeable 15-million strong community in South Asia — even grilled a United Nations official on clean technology. A farmer from India’s desert state of Rajasthan made a presentation on why rich countries should fund agricultural research in developing economies. He was representing India’s 600 million-strong farming community, which is perhaps the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Fifty-six year-old Katori Devi is a farmer in Haryana state that borders Delhi. Her family has been tillers for seven generations. Climate change and global warming have come to pass, she believes, because her forefathers never bothered with things like organic pesticides and other eco-friendly farming methods.

“But now,” Devi says, “my sons and I ensure that we follow farming practices which not only increase yield but also cause minimal damage to our animals and the fields.”

Such awareness augurs well for an agri- and rain-dependent economy like India’s, 70 percent of whose 1.2 billion people subsist on farming. Agriculture contributes 17 percent to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product and powers its economy. But although over 60 percent of Indian farmland is rain-dependent, only about 40 percent of arable land is irrigated, leaving farmers exposed to the vagaries of the monsoon.

Due to drought and erratic rains, there has been a raft of suicides by debt-ridden farmers in the past few years.

Environmental concern among the Indian youth – who make up a sizeable two-thirds of the country’s 1.2 billion demographic – is hard to miss.

Divyang Saxena, 17, a Class XII student at Delhi Public School, NOIDA, in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, feels that the next generation has no choice but to be environmentally responsible. “I have to care about climate change because I don’t want temperatures to keep rising every year,” stressed Saxena. “So we recycle water at home and avoid turning the heater on by wearing thicker sweaters. We also buy organic produce because the farming processes are better for the environment.”

M. S. Kohli, founder member and chairman of the non-government Himalayan Environment Trust, adds that greater environmental awareness reflects people’s desperation. “Earlier, when we tried telling people that global warming must stop as the glaciers were melting, nobody gave a damn,” Kohli told IPS. “But now, when swelling rivers are flooding the plains, displacing millions and causing losses to property, people are keen to know how the damage can be reversed.”

Private citizens are also involved in addressing climate damage. Barefoot College, a Rajasthan-based NGO that won the Sierra Club Green Energy Award for 2009, is training semi-illiterate women as solar engineers. Though the work is traditionally perceived as a man’s job in Rajasthan, women are creating and installing solar cookers on their own, and this has led to tremendous energy savings.

Sarita Bhan, 35, one of the solar engineers at Barefoot College says, “The time has come for us to look beyond gender stereotypes so that everybody can contribute to saving the environment. Before I started doing this work, I had no clue about things like clean energy and power saving. But now, I’m spreading the message by educating other people too.”

The Indian government is also channeling money towards job training for green professions and clean-energy legislation. To introduce a subtle shift in the job market – and channel interest in a ‘green economy’ — The Climate Project – India, an international non-profit organisation, and the Sierra Club have been organising “green job fairs” across India.

“Gradually, people are realising that fighting climate change creates new economic opportunities,” says an official at the Sierra Club in New Delhi. Green buildings use fewer resources and save more energy. “The global climate scourge is creating a welter of new jobs in clean-energy industries, weatherisation and other areas,” he added.

“People are conscious now that if they continue to abuse the environment, it is their bottom line that will get pinched,” says a Delhi-based insurance agent. As sea levels rise, he adds, flash floods and windstorms attributable to climate change have got the insurance industry on edge. Insurance premiums are going up.

Recently, too, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) launched a specialised library on climate change here in New Delhi, the first ever such initiative. TERI Director General and Nobel laureate R. K. Pachauri, also chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told IPS that this aims to create “a resource from where people can gain knowledge about climate change.”

India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is preparing to have a ‘solar mission’ that focuses on ambitious targets for grid and off-grid generation of solar power to maximize hydropower, biomass and wind power.

“It is time to innovate and operate under a new paradigm with an emphasis on conservation and energy efficiency while embracing environment-friendly energy resources,” says Kohli. “The public needs to be in tune with such efforts. That’s the only way to survive in the future.”

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