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India - the Climate Tiger?

India - the Climate Tiger?

My recent trip to North India got me thinking about the importance of ‘developing’ countries like India to our Earth’s future.  Optimism, or pessimism?  Read on.

India has the world’s largest population, 1.44 billion, over 20 times the population of the UK.  It has the 3rd largest emissions of greenhouse gases in the world. India emits 3 tonnes of CO2e per person per year, less than half the average of a UK citizen, but the per capita gap is narrowing as our emissions fall and India’s continue to rise.  We can play a ‘leadership’ and new technology role in tackling climate change, but what happens in fiercely independent countries like India will really shape the Earth’s future.

My mind (and my stomach) has a love/ hate relationship with India.  It is a chaotic cultural melting pot – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist; with the affluent living adjacent to subsistence farmers and the urban poor.  My trip was to Delhi and Ladakh, a Buddhist province, revisiting my student adventures there in 1986.  Ladakh is situated high in the Himalayas, bordering Pakistan and China.  This blog is mostly based on my experiences in Ladakh, which due to its remoteness, may not be representative of the rest of India.


Leh is the ‘capital’ of Ladakh, which hosts a large airport used by military and civilian traffic.  The number of tourist flights is increasing rapidly.  India’s domestic aviation industry has the fastest growth in the world.

The big change for me, is that in 1986 the tourists were ‘westerners’ travelling to Ladakh overland via Srinagar in Kashmir and the notorious Zoja La pass which remained shut for six months of the year due to snowfall and landslides.  Now a massive road tunnel is being bored to bypass the treacherous pass. Today, many tourists arrive by air, although there is also an increase in Indian tourists driving their private cars to Ladakh or touring by motorbike.  Until not long ago there were no private cars in Leh, just lorries, a few buses, and 300 taxis. 

Road construction is rampaging across the landscape.  New tracks, new tarmac roads, new bridges, and road widening schemes.  Roadworks everywhere.  Much of this is ‘driven’ by military necessity, India’s need to defend its borders from its neighbours.  A sad reality.  Of course roads also open up a new tourist market.                                                                                                                   

New roads, and motorways, are being built across India.  These provide a rapid way to ‘develop’, but create an increase in the consumption of aggregates, concrete and asphalt, a rapid increase in private car sales and a new wealth ‘lottery’ arising from land speculation next to the new roads.  New roads lead to rapid and irreversible social change, particularly in areas that previously relied on subsistence agriculture.  They bring remote villagers into the market economy and create new consumer markets.  

At least most of the cars are relatively modern and clean.  Meanwhile the buses, and old lorries belch out black diesel fumes.  Electric vehicles have not yet reached Ladakh, but there is an active programme to encourage electric cars and buses in Delhi (partly to tackle its dreadful air pollution).

And, even in some of the remote villages with no road, there was access to the internet (via satellite).  Mobile phone reception was as good as in the Scottish Highlands.


Construction, construction everywhere.  Traditional Ladakhi houses are built from local materials – clay bricks and poplar trees.  Most new houses and other buildings are built of concrete.  Concrete everywhere.  Also new electricity pylons over the mountains and into remote villages (puts our Beauly-Denny transmission pylons into perspective).  There is a tradition of starting to build a house as soon as you have some money, then putting it on hold until you save up more, so there are hundreds of half-built, empty buildings.  And these take up land, usually on the outskirts of towns and villages and in a linear fashion along roads. Urban sprawl leads to more roads, more cars and more traffic congestion. 

The construction sites are interesting to observe.  There are men (mainly poor migrants) working with hand tools (chisel and hammer to split boulders), side by side with modern JCB diggers.  No helmets, no safety warning signs. Labour, and life, must be cheap. 

Across India, young people are abandoning their villages and flocking to the cities.  The town of Leh has quadrupled from around 10,000 to 40,000 since my last visit.  Access to boarding schools in towns drives this, with educated young people then choosing urban life with its social prospects and job opportunities.  The villages become devoid of young people and are maintained by the elderly.  There were many signs of abandoned fields.


India is developing fast.  Its electricity consumption is soaring as electricity is extended to outlying villages, as the middle class grows and becomes more prosperous, and as the demand for air conditioning rises.  Coal provides the backbone to the electricity grid, with around 10% (52GW) from hydro-electric.  Solar and onshore wind are growing fast, up to 84GW and 46GW capacity respectively.  India is still building coal power stations, but there is a hint of optimism that the falling cost of solar and wind will undermine the economic case for coal in the years ahead.

The Indian government has rolled out energy efficiency subsidy schemes, resulting in a rapid take up of LED lights and energy efficient cooling fans.

There is an active programme to connect remote villages to the electricity network, but in the meantime ,I observed many solar pv panels, that combined with batteries, provide power to operate light bulbs, televisions, and water pumps.  In other villages, the power was generated by dirty diesel generators, and only switched on between 7 to 10pm. Many places on the grid have diesel generators as a back-up due to the unreliability of electricity supply.  


India’s middle classes are copying the ‘western’ consumption-based lifestyle.  They are building bigger houses, buying more consumer products, driving cars, aspiring to more ‘stuff’.  Diets are changing, away from local and mostly healthy food to a more processed diet wrapped in plastic.  In the remote areas there were no refuse collection facilities.  Plastic bottles line the roads and lake shorelines, and any rubbish collected will be burnt locally or buried.

Tourism is booming.  The tourists are mainly from the north of India, and huge cities such as Delhi or Mumbai.   Many are here to escape the dreadful heat.  The temperature in Delhi was above a stifling 450C for much of June 2024.  In Ladakh, at 3,500m, the temperature is a pleasant low 20’s.  It seems that everyone in Leh has opened to tourists, creating a dependency and a wealth disparity with those not involved in tourism.  The remote lake of Pangong (on the Chinese border) featured in a Bollywood film, 3 Idiots, in 2009.  This led to a sudden tourism boom which the area was not prepared for.  There are now numerous tented, and prefabricated guest houses strung along the lakeside, spoiling much of the scenery in the process.  Goodness knows how the sewage is treated (or not).

Climate Change

India is a large sub-continent, but it is easy to predict some changes and vulnerabilities.

  • Increased temperatures (eg recent heatwave in Delhi) results in heat related deaths, power cuts, fires, droughts and water shortages;
  • Rising sea-level around its extensive coastline;
  • Flash floods, destroying infrastructure and livelihoods;
  • Spread of tropical and sub-tropical pests and diseases;
  • Potential changes to the monsoon, which is important for agricultural production; and
  • Reduction in snowfall, and snowmelt in the Himalayas.

Our guide pointed out some high-level pasture and fields which had already been abandoned due to the lack of meltwater from snow patches.  In the short term the glaciers are melting and continue to release summer meltwater into the rivers.  However, there are 18,000 glaciers in Kashmir and Ladakh and around two-thirds may have disappeared by 2100.  This will have a major impact on biodiversity, hydro-electric production and the crucial summer flow in rivers which flow across northern India and Pakistan. 

India’s Climate Targets

  1. India committed to cutting its ‘emissions intensity’ by 35% 2005-30 under the Paris Agreement. 
  2. 50% electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. 
  3. 30% of new cars to be EV by 2030; 100% of new urban buses.
  4. More recently it pledged to achieve net zero by 2070.


What to conclude from all of this?  Let me outline a pessimistic and an optimistic scenario. 

Developing countries like India will prioritise traditional economic growth above all else.  Cities will continue to grow fast, whilst rural areas may experience a drop in population. Urban sprawl will lead to more private cars and more congestion and pressure for further road building.  The burgeoning middle classes will want to consume a ‘western’ diet of food and consumer goods resulting in more manufacturing, distribution and waste. Domestic tourism will grow strongly, as will the demand for flights.  Emissions from industry and construction will continue to rise (steel, aluminium, asphalt and concrete).  The demand for electricity will grow faster than renewables can supply, resulting in an increased consumption of coal (or at least not a sharp fall).  Road traffic growth will be faster than the roll out of electric vehicles, resulting in an increase in demand for petrol and diesel.

Under this scenario the first three targets are achieved, but total emissions continue to rise due to population growth and economic growth overwhelming any emission cuts.

More optimistically, there is a huge potential to cut emissions given India’s current dependence on coal.  If there is a focus on energy efficiency, and solar energy can realise its true potential, then the demand for coal could soon fall.  Investment in energy efficiency, and new lower carbon forms of concrete, will be required to cut emissions from industry.  Targeted subsidies could result in a surprisingly fast roll out of electric vehicles, curbing the use of oil and petrol. 

Whatever happens, it is clear to me that our planet’s future lies in the hands of a handful of fast-growing economies – India, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey etc.  At the moment, not surprisingly, they are promoting ‘economic growth’ to their growing populations.  But, as they grow wealthier, and experience the adverse impacts of climate change, they will choose to seriously tackle their emissions.  We should share our policy and experience in tackling our emissions, and be ready to support them with technology, innovation, and new ideas to cut their carbon emissions. 

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