In Delhi, Prime Minister Talks Low-Carbon Consumption and Strong Environmental Safeguards

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh address the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. His clear vision for why economic development and environmental protection must go hand in hand set an inspiring tone for this gathering of world leaders and sustainability experts.

I am here in Delhi to attend the summit and to release a report tracking the progress of the Green Partnership—the joint effort between India and the United States to promote clean energy solutions. I am also here to see firsthand the work being done by NRDC’s new India Initiative on Climate Change and Clean Energy.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address shined a light on why this work is so important. In his wonderfully gentle voice, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began by reminding us that each one of India’s religions preaches “the unity of humankind with nature.”

This view is echoed in NRDC’s mission statement. Though entirely nondenominational, we strive to “safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends.”

Yet I was struck by how this focus on interdependence is in sharp contrast to that prominent vein in American thought and history that pits human beings against the natural world.

Perhaps this fundamental difference explains why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasized the damage that can be done by single-minded pursuit of material gain, and he ended his speech with a call for the world to change our lifestyles and “move away from production and consumption patterns which are carbon intensive and energy intensive.” Yet when America is confronted with crises like 9/11 or economic recessions, our leaders urge us to shop more.

The United States and India may have some divergent cultural values, but we also have plenty in common. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke, for instance, about the challenge of enforcing environmental safeguards. It is not enough to have good laws on the books. You also have to implement them in the real world.

This tension is at the core of NRDC’s work. We act as an environmental watchdog, making sure that companies, industrial sectors, and even the government are following the laws that keep our air safe, our water clean, and our landscapes preserved.

NGO’s have a powerful role to play in making sure laws are enforced. Indeed, at one point, NRDC had more active environmental cases than the U.S. Department of Justice. Civil society groups in India play a similar role, and our India Initiative is sharing some of our insights on strengthening environmental governance with these groups.

One of the many lessons America can learn from India is the principle of “polluter pays.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “This will discourage the polluter and also provide a means of financing the corrective steps necessary to counter the pollution caused.”

It was great to hear the head of such an influential nation proclaim this mandate. How can the United States not adopt a similar principle? We say we do, but our actions prove otherwise. If Congress does not pass new legislation in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, for instance, oil polluters will not pay their fair share; the taxpayers and the victims will instead.

This wasn’t the first time on this trip that I was reminded of the Congress’ failure to act. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reminded us that the developing world is making real commitments to reduce carbon pollution, and now it is waiting for the developed world to do the same. From here in Delhi, Congress’ refusal to act in the face of climate change seems even more absurd.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the former head of the IPCC and the director of The Energy and Resources Institute, which has been a valued partner for NRDC in India, also addressed the summit yesterday. He noted President Obama’s pledge in the State of the Union to meet 80 percent of America’s energy needs through clean sources by 2035.

This is a bold and impressive commitment to make. Not only will it reap enormous benefits, but it also demonstrates to the world that the United States is moving ahead with climate solutions, even if its Congress is paralyzed. 

Listening to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reminded me how urgent this endeavor is. At the end of his speech, he distilled the matter down to its very heart: “Life as we know it on our beautiful planet is at stake.”