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Climate debuts in India polls

India’s main parties are offering environment plans in their manifestos for the first time, but the chances of climate policies to limit emissions after the election are slim because of low public awareness.

There is little voter pressure on environmental and climate policy because, for the vast majority of Indians living in villages and who influence election results, the overriding concerns are more immediate: jobs, housing and health.

The lack of awareness contrasts sharply with the fact that India is among the countries most at risk from climate change that could dry up its rivers, affect the crucial monsoon rains, wipe out forests and glaciers.

New Delhi says priority must go to economic growth to lift millions out of poverty while gradually shifting to clean energy led by solar power, putting it in possible conflict with many wealthier nations pushing for a global climate change deal.

”Climate change is not an election issue because it does not resonate with a larger section of people,” said K Srinivas, Greenpeace’s climate expert in India.

”There is very little domestic pressure and it is more international pressure that is shaping [India’s climate] policy.”

This means that any new Indian government after the election will face little public pressure to make compromises in negotiations in Copenhagen in December for a climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, whose first phase ends in 2012.

Wednesday is the final day of voting in India’s general election which, polls show, could re-elect the Congress party-led coalition. Results are out May 16.

A major shift in India’s present stance during United Nations-led climate talks this year is unlikely, given India’s two main parties — the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — endorse the idea that economic growth takes priority.

But big developing nations such as India are facing growing demands from rich nations to curb the growth in emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change such as more intense droughts and storms, rising seas, drying rivers and melting glaciers.

While developing nations, which produce more than half of mankind’s greenhouse gases, won’t agree to legally binding curbs in a new climate pact from 2013, they are expected to sign up to nationally appropriate actions to fight climate change, such as energy efficiency or carbon trading.

In their election manifestos, the Congress, the BJP and the communists all promise to check river pollution, protect the environment and gradually shift to a low-carbon economy by investing heavily in renewable energy.

There is no mention of capping emissions.

While the Congress plans to add up to 15 000 megawatts of power each year through a mix of sources, including renewables, the BJP proposes to add at least 120 000 megawatts over the next five years, with 20% of this coming from renewables.

The vast majority of new power generation will come from coal-fired stations.

Many in India see this as inevitable. India is the world’s fourth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions which, some studies suggest, could soon overtake Russia to become number three after the United States and China.

In India’s vast countryside, climate change concerns are virtually non-existent, even as global warming begins to leave an indelible mark on the lives of the poor.

Take, for instance, open-air cremation practised by India’s majority Hindu population who believe burning the body helps to release the soul in a cycle of reincarnation. United Nations figures show close to 10-million people die a year in India, where 85% of the billion-plus population are Hindus who practice cremation, mostly using wooden pyres that release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).

That means felling of an estimated 50-million trees, half a million tonnes of ash and eight million tonnes of CO2 each year, according to Mokshda environmental group.

”This is our tradition, why should that change?” retorted Sailesh Bhagidar, a poor Indian farmer, when asked if he would consider an environment-friendly electric crematorium.

”Climate and all are for the rich people of the cities.” — Reuters

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