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Climate change: a development opportunity, not just a threat

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Climate Change, Economic Development

In my first blog I wrote about climate change and development in rather general terms, and about some of the thinkers who have influenced my understanding of the issue. The comments posted by readers have been impressively detailed and wide-ranging - touching on agricultural yields, national security, population control, construction techniques, the timber industry and Westerners’ toilet habits! I’ve done my best to respond to the various questions raised, but must admit some of them have tested my knowledge. I plan to return to some of these topics at greater length in future posts.

As it happens, the other week Lord Stern – one of the protagonists of my first blog – was in Delhi, where he is well known in academic and policy circles as a longtime friend of India. On the Monday evening he delivered a public lecture to an audience of several hundred people, on the need for a global deal on climate change that is both ambitious enough to minimise the risks of catastrophic climate change, and that takes account of the deep inequity in emissions, both historically and (on a per capita basis) currently, between rich and developing countries.

I won’t go into detail about the content of Lord Stern’s lecture – his presentation is available here. But I wanted to highlight two points made by India’s Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, in his remarks following the lecture.

Jairam Ramesh is interviewed at Climate Week in New York. Credit: Matthew McDermott
Jairam Ramesh is interviewed at Climate Week. Credit: Matthew McDermott

The first was that in his view, India is more vulnerable to climate change than any other country – “forget the Maldives and Bangladesh”, he said, “we are in the frontline”. He cited several reasons for this: the dependence of Indian agriculture on the vagaries of the monsoon; the crucial role played by threatened Himalayan glaciers in regulating water supply for hundreds of millions of Indians; the vulnerability of major population centres to sea level rise; and the fact that almost all of India’s considerable mineral wealth lies buried beneath forests – how to get at these without contributing to further climate change?

The story however is not simply one of vulnerability and costs – the Minister’s other really noteworthy point was that climate change also offers huge opportunities for India to become a leader in developing and supplying cleaner technologies to the rest of the world, bringing wider benefits in terms of economic prosperity and jobs. The potential scale of these opportunities is highlighted in a recent report from the UN Environment Programme which found that new investment in clean energy reached $155 billion worldwide in 2008, of which developing countries accounted for about $37bn – 27% up on 2007. If India has managed to become a world leader in information technology, why not low carbon technology?

I found the juxtaposition of these two points – vulnerability on the one hand, opportunity on the other – particularly interesting, and relevant. As I’ve heard it put by more than one person, if Martin Luther King had said “I have a nightmare”, it’s unlikely his words would have had quite the same effect!

We're working to help communities in India take a "green" path to development. Click the image for more. Credit: DFID / Abbie Trayler-Smith
We're working to help communities in India take a "green" path to development. Click the image for more info. Credit: DFID / Abbie Trayler-Smith

At DFID we are particularly interested in policies and investments that promote long-term economic growth and poverty reduction whilst simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It seems to me that technology is an issue which offers great potential for meeting these twin objectives; the roles of technology in addressing climate change, and of technological change in driving long term economic growth, have been long recognised.

The question is, what needs to be done to take advantage of the opportunities that Minister Ramesh talked about? Fundamentally it comes down to incentives and capacity, but the measures needed to create these will be many and varied. Many will require policy and cooperation at the international level, which is why technology is seen as a key pillar of any global climate deal. The role of supportive trade policies in the development and transfer of clean technology will also be important – when talking to the head of the UK government’s Trade Policy Unit last week I was struck by the extent to which she saw the WTO negotiations in terms of the knowledge economy, technology and innovation.

Domestically too, there is much that countries can do to position themselves to reap these opportunities. Conducive policies will be needed to support quality basic research, to enable new ideas to be commercialised as efficiently as possible on a large scale, and to improve the business environment more generally. That’s why DFID is working with InfoDev, a programme housed within the World Bank, to find ways of helping to stimulate innovation in clean technology in India. The conclusions of a recent conference bringing together technology innovators, entrepreneurs, financiers and policymakers to brainstorm ideas on how best to do this can be found in our news room.

Other parts of the UK government are also active on this issue - for example, the UK Research Councils have recently launched a joint research initiative with the Indian Department of Science and Technology on solar energy.

As Minister Ramesh suggested, it’s an issue that really resonates with the Indian government, which has proposed setting up a network of innovation centres for clean technology, and recently hosted a major international conference on global cooperation for climate technology.

Technology innovation however is only a part of the story. There’s huge potential for already available technologies, in renewable energy for example, to be deployed on a much larger scale in ways that bring direct benefits to poor people. DFID programmes in India are also helping to demonstrate how this can be done – but I’ll leave that story for another time.

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  1. Comment by Von Spreuth posted on

    "Climate change"?

    That idea had been kicked a bit in the head by recent developments in the U.K has it not?

    Just off now to turn all my lights on before I go out for the day.

  2. Comment by India most vulnerable to changing climate « Carsons Post posted on

    [...] He cited several reasons for this: [...]

  3. Comment by dkgiri posted on

    thanks are in order for Shan for objectively reacting to Minister Jairam Ramesh' remarks. I will like to pick one point though. Although technology innovation is an issue and developed countries support in necessary for deployment of cleaner technologies, are we using the technoly available. We are certainly not using them extensivley except some sprinkling as pilots and so on. Switching to renewable energy presupposes a change of mindset and massive awareness raising on its costs and benefit. DFID will do well in spreading the message ( the good word) and introducing the technologies. The technology company could be roped in to demonstrate their technolgy too. Clean technology melas ( exhibitions) with the support of REDAs of the states in India may be a good start.

  4. Comment by Yuwa Hedrick-Wong posted on

    Hi Shan: I agree in principle that there is the very attractive poosibility of re-framing "vulnerability" into new "opportunity" for investment to addressing the climate change challenge. The potential for boosting India's economic growth could be very substantial; as we know well that investment is the prime mover of economic growth, bar none. In the context of India, and in dealing with a challenge like climate change, however, I think it will require an unprecedented level of public-private sector to make it possible. To me, that is real daunting challenge. The government has, rightly so, its policy objectives. How to create the proper incentives for the private sector to participate such that the policy objectives are served along side with private sector investment being able to earn competitive returns? There is no question in my mind that the Indian private sector can mobilize the needed resources and execute the investment; should the incentives be created. They have demonstrated such capabilities time and again. What I have not seen thus far is the government's capability to create innovative public-private partnerships. Perhaps its something that DFID could take a leadership role?


  5. Comment by Himanshu posted on

    Hi Shan

    Read your blog. It was quite interesting.

    I do however feel that a virtual and India centric Resource Centre on Climate Change is need of the hour. I wonder if DFID would like to establish it.

  6. Comment by James Peet posted on

    Dear Shan, I think that you have written a very interesting article. I would certainly like to think that people respond more positively to the prospects of a bright future, rather than to the bleak spectre of disaster. I also enjoy the optimism that comes from the idea that climate change can be seen as an opportunity for sustainable development.
    I have been working on a project for the One World Trust (for more information see, looking at the accountability of climate change governance, and from my research there are a few things I would like to add.
    The research has highlighted the complexity of climate change governance, and how there is no real channel, through which vulnerable citizens can hold actors involved in climate governance to account. This means that their views on how climate change should be dealt with, from local to global scales, are often ignored. Therefore, if as minster Ramesh says, India is the most vulnerable nation to climate change, then delivery on emissions reductions is vital to many Indian citizens, but there are very few ways for them to make themselves heard.
    Furthermore, I think that in the case of green technologies and projects, there is a great potential to catalyse development. But for projects to be sustainable, their implementation needs to be accountable. This will eliminate the risk of the exploitation, of marginalised and vulnerable people. Meanwhile helping them to feel ownership of the ways in which their country is changing, thus leading to truly sustainable development with benefits for all citizens.

  7. Comment by Shantanu Mitra posted on

    Dear James:
    Thanks for sharing this info on your research, which I look forward to reading more about. You'll be interested to know that the annual Dignity March of the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (which represents Dalits (formerly "Untouchables") and other socially excluded groups) which took place at Parliament yesterday, focused for the first time on the impacts of climate change - a really significant development I thought.

    In the Indian political system, democratically elected local governments should have a key role to play in climate change governance - their constitutional responsiblities encompass many of the important issues such as natural resource management, social protection, water availability and disaster management. In most cases however they lack the awareness and technical capacity to play this role effectively - this needs to be addressed.
    regards, Shan

  8. Comment by Shantanu Mitra posted on

    Dear Giri and Yuwa:
    I think the issues you have raised are at the heart of practical policy making for low carbon development.

    As I said in my post, innovation is one issue but deploying available technologies more widely is arguably where most of the "low-hanging fruit" lie. Giri is right that information and awareness raising will be important in some cases. There will also be a role for govt regulation such as mandatory standards, and for financial incentives such as taxes and subsidies. In practice a combination of these measures will be needed - the reasons for non-deployment will vary between technologies.

    Yuwa, I agree that public-private partnerships will have a vital role to play, as they do for a lot of infrastructure investment in general. Public resources will not be sufficient to finance investment on the required scale. As well as creating incentives for greater private investment in clean tech, the private sector could be a valuable partner in ensuring that public resources, such as the subsidies provided by the Indian govt for renewable energy, are utilised much more effectively.
    These are all issues DFID is working on in India. I hope to say more about this subject in future posts.


  9. Comment by Shantanu Mitra posted on

    Hi Himanshu:
    Thanks for your comment. I agree that greater investment in research, and better coordination and cooperation among researchers, will be important.

    Not sure however if you are referring specifically to technology research - if so then this is very much a focus of the InfoDev initiative I mentioned in my blog. Extensive consultations are underway to scope out the most appropriate model for the India context. I would be happy to put you in touch with the InfoDev team if you'd like to participate in this.

    Research in other areas, such as climate science/impact, and policy, is another area where more, and better coordinated research is needed. At a global level DFID is addressing this through a new £40m climate change knowledge network, currently under procurement. At the country level I believe the Govt of India itself is planning to establish a network of research institutions working on climate change across the country - of which there are many albeit of varying quality. We will follow this initiative with great interest.


  10. Comment by Bhavesh Kothari posted on

    I believe that there should be more investments in creating awareness as well as implementing green energy mission state wise. this will also set an example for the governments of other states to follow and implement. Lets decrease our spend on defence and other useless (our Ministers expenses such as travel, election campaign, his home, telephone, hotel stay etc. etc..etc..etc..etc...) and invest more in various initiatives such as planting more and more trees, use of biodegradable materials, less use of polythene bags, use of recyclable material. More over create awareness and create stricter and more stringent laws..