Modi sends conflicting messages on climate as Indian voters brave the heat

Shefali Anand
Guest Author

Shefali Anand

As India wraps up nearly six weeks of voting for its national election, voters have faced one major impact of climate change at the polls: extreme heat.

Since polling opened in mid-April, most parts of the country have faced higher than usual temperatures and more heatwave days than usual, according to the country’s weather department. Average temperatures across India consistently topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). At least two ministers fainted in recent weeks while campaigning outdoors.

And yet: “The threat of climate change has not been reflected in any of the manifestos,” says Ashish Fernandes of Climate Risk Horizons, a think tank in Bangalore.

Politicians’ election speeches haven’t mentioned slowing down climate change because the issue doesn’t resonate with most voters, observes Dhruba Purkayastha of Climate Policy Initiative’s India team. “You don’t go down to the electorate and say you need to reduce carbon emissions. [That topic] doesn’t appeal to 95% of the population.”

Instead, politicians focus on plans to cope with the impacts of climate change or to increase renewable energy capacity.

India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in power since 2014 and is widely expected to win a third term, has set a target of reaching net zero by 2070. India is the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for about 7% of global emissions; burning coal, India’s main energy source, is the leading contributor. Part of Modi’s decarbonization plan involves meeting 50% of fast-growing India’s energy needs with renewable sources by 2030.

But Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has taken some actions at odds with its promises. The development of renewable energy has slowed, adding just half of what’s required to meet India’s climate goals in each of the past two years. Last year, coal-fired energy growth outpaced renewable energy growth for the first time since 2019.

In recent months, state-run Coal India said it will expand its coal output and will soon start five new coal mines.

“We are sending extremely conflicting messages on fossil fuels, on coal in particular,” says Fernandes.

Energy on the ballot

The emergence of clean tech innovation in India has been a positive signal for the country’s climate trajectory. Of the tens of billions of dollars that have been invested in India’s climate tech startups in recent years, much of the funding has concentrated on energy and mobility. Notably, both are areas where the government has implemented incentive schemes for businesses and consumers.

India, like most countries, faces a significant annual shortfall in climate finance: $170 billion annually, according to a recent report from Climate Policy Initiative and Impact Investors’ Council. “Time is ripe for the financing actors to foster collaborations and partnerships and nurture the financing and impact ecosystem,” the authors write.

The report calls on the private sector to step up commitments of both commercial and concessional capital to four high-impact green tech sectors in particular: green hydrogen, battery storage, climate-smart agriculture, and waste management and reuse.  

Government support is key. Both of India’s major parties – Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the centrist opposition party, Indian National Congress – have dedicated a section to the environment in their election manifestos. The Congress party says it will establish a body to create standards for environmental protection and climate change; it will focus on renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure; and it will set up a Green Transition Fund to achieve the goal of net zero by 2070. The manifesto also mentions plans to tackle air and water pollution.

While these promises are welcome, climate experts observe that since the Congress has not been in power for a decade, it lacks a track record to judge it on.

“Will they actually have the backbone to stick to their promises is a question,” says Fernandes.

Modi’s BJP manifesto, meanwhile, says the party will continue on its path to net zero and notes that 44% of India’s current energy needs are already being fulfilled by renewable energy. The manifesto mentions government programs to drive clean energy adoption, such as the electrification of India’s railway system and more recently, incentives for homeowners and businesses to switch to rooftop solar.

On the environmental front, the BJP’s manifesto says it will “take a holistic approach toward disaster mitigation and strengthening of disaster resilience,” particularly in the Himalayan region, which is facing increasingly frequent and intense natural disasters. But the manifesto doesn’t address the impact of disasters triggered by human intervention.

Diluted and delayed

Last year, 41 workers were trapped for 17 days in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, when part of a tunnel they were helping build collapsed. The tunnel is part of Modi’s flagship project to build a 900-kilometer road to connect Hindu pilgrimage sites to make the sites accessible year-round. Environmentalists have warned that this construction could lead to further landslides and soil erosion in an already sensitive region.

Another issue: India’s air quality has worsened in recent years. It clocked 42 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities last year, according to IQAir. The BJP’s manifesto mentions attention to reducing air pollution. 

Experts say, however, that there’s a big gap in what needs to be done to tackle air pollution and is what is being done, and many related laws and regulations are being weakened. For instance, regulations on emissions from coal-power plants have been diluted and delayed. That in turn adds to pollution.

“If you look at the actions,” laments Fernandes, “there’s absolutely nothing to give us any confidence that is going to change.”