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A new report from the Political Economy Research Institute puts forth a proposal to boost equity while lowering carbon emissions. Shouvik Chakraborty, an author of the report, explains

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

India is home to over 1.3 billion people. It’s the most populous country in the world. It’s also an emerging economy, meaning its GDP is growing rapidly. As the country grows, though, it’s becoming more unequal, and it’s emitting more greenhouse gases. The Global Carbon Project projects India’s emissions will go up by more than 6 percent this year.

A new proposal aims to tackle both of these issues. Joining me to talk about this is Shouvik Chakraborty. He is one of the authors of a new report from the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst. It’s called Green Growth and the Right to Energy in India. Thank you so much for joining me today.

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So, OK, India’s population is more than four times the population of the U.S. But it contributes much less to global carbon emissions, because poverty and inequality in India restrict access to energy for the vast majority of the population. So the rich of the world profit from the inequality and poverty in India, but you say that people also should have a right to energy. So before we discuss the solution to the dilemma between growth and conservation, which right is really more important–the right to energy, or the right to preserve the environment?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: So, we, the authors, believe that the rights are equally important. In India now, currently almost 30 percent of the population does not have access to even a bas like electricity. So the point is that we should be able to provide electricity which they need but that can be provided to green cleaner forms of energy like we are geothermal. And these options given that the technological advancement of science has lead this field and the cost of electricity has been almost equal to any of the fossil fuel sources. It seems these options, these renewable sources are becoming more and more viable, even in those poorer countries.

So we believe that both these requirements need to be done. And likewise introducing what you said is really important; the inequality that exists in these countries. It’s like the rich are having the best of times, consuming all forms of energy, traveling on airplanes, driving luxury cars. And the poor doesn’t have even a basic facility like electricity, or they still burn–almost like 60 percent of the households still burn biomass like [woods] to cook [inaudible]. So we think that both need to be addressed at the same time for a poor country like India.

DHARNA NOOR: And to address this you propose a carbon tax. And of course, critics of carbon taxes say that they’re regressive because they privilege the rich who can afford to pay them. But based on your research, you came up with an interesting suggestion to give people in India access to free or pre-paid green energy and free transportation. Could you talk about that a bit?

Yeah, exactly that’s the idea. Critics are right. The carbon tax has been regressive in nature because the poorer people spend a higher proportion of their budget on energy, which actually puts a lot of burden on the carbon taxes levied on those energy sources. Now, what we are proposing here is suppose we tax the rich people, and distribute those taxes evenly in a way that up to a certain unit of industry, those taxes can be used by people to distribute free energy, free electricity, and a certain pass, like you were saying, like universal travel passes.

Now, the tax which we are proposing is around 60 U.S. dollars per metric ton of carbon dioxide. And by using those taxes we can actually provide energy for around 190 kWh per month to every household in India, and around 18 dollars of a universal travel pass for every person.

Now, there is an interesting–you can see an interesting connotation to this. One of the factors is that those who will cross this 190 kWh level per month will have to pay from zero, so there we introduce the progressive nature of this tax. So thsoe who are consuming below 190 kWh per month doesn’t have to pay anything. But if they cross that 190 kWh per month level, then they are charged from zero at a very high progressive rate, which the carbon tax then will [inaudible].

DHARNA NOOR: What are some examples of other kinds of industries, or people who use energy at that higher rate?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: So, we believe that mainly the energy consumption which happens, as our research also shows, is like–we determined this by what we call the climate injustice quotient. Now, the climate injustice quotient is a very interesting measure, where every class of the share of the carbon footprint is measured with the share of the population in the economy. So if you pollute more, in the climate injustice quotient you reach close to 1, you are greater than 1, you are actually polluting the atmosphere more than what you should.

And what this does is, with this measure, what we find is more than–almost like from less than 70 percent of the people it does not even pollute the atmosphere. But those who are above 70 percent, like from the 8 to the 10 [side], they are polluting more than they should. And the uppermost side is polluting the maximum level, like those who are from the 98 to the 99 percentile. They are the ones which are actually polluting the whole–their emission levels are almost two and a half times more than even the penultimate decide, which is from the ’80s to ’90s.

So this brings in the perspective that this rich class, which is the richest class in India, is actually hiding behind the poor.

DHARNA NOOR: And how did you determine the rate of the proposed carbon tax? Again, you said that it was $60 for a unit.

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: Yes, this was very interesting. What we did was our carbon tax has two portions. One is provided for the distribution of this energy which we’re talking about, the free electricity to the poor households and the universal travel pass, and also there is another component to it. It’s the 1.5 percent which we have already shown with progressive polling and [inaudible] people that show that India needs around 1.5 percent of additional GDP to convert the energy mix to a clean energy resource by improving the energy efficiency, and also converting the energy mix to clean, greener forms of energy.

Given both these combinations, what we found out, to achieve both these targets of clean green energy mix, and also providing free energy, we calculated what is now the current distribution of income, and we reached this through an input-output analysis that this system of the tax, which we have to add on $60 dollars per metric ton of carbon dioxide. And just to put it in perspective, this is not really out of range, because the usual range of carbon taxes which is now in the world ranges from 5 to 150 [dollars]. So we are somewhere around the midpoint, what we are proposing.

DHARNA NOOR: So as we’re speaking, of course, the proposal for a Green New Deal put forth by Representative Alexander Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Ed Markey, youth leaders with the environmental group the Sunrise Movement, is capturing headlines. This proposal for a Green New Deal is capturing headlines. And critics, largely right-wing critics, have said that this policy won’t really tackle climate change, because in order to tackle climate change both China and India, the other two largest emitters of fossil fuels, would have to reduce their emissions, as well. So I’d like to just sort of pose the same question to you. Will this be able to make a big difference to global carbon emissions if only India were to act, if countries like China and the U.S. did not?

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: So, to be honest with you, India has to do it also for its own sake. Of course, rich countries like the United States and other economies need to realize that they need to get their [acts] correctly. The Green New Deal is a very good proposal which actually tries to do this. This is based on research. This is based on the research which PERI has also done, and shown that this conversion to green new entity is not only helpful in terms of the environment, but also it leads to a lot local employment generation in the economy.

Now, actually, India–putting in India’s perspective–India is a tropical country. The proportion of the people there per unit of area is much higher than in the U.S.; similarly for China. So in theory, if there’s a climate disaster, then these economies will be very badly affected. There will be a lot of, a huge loss of lives. And we already see this happening globally, that there are a lot of floods there. And the most interesting thing, [inaudible] is so huge it’s just unimaginable.

So what we’re trying to say is that, of course, every country should have to act together. The richer countries have to take more responsibility in correcting this. And these poorer countries like India, which it’s true, per capita, in terms of per capita emissions they are not that high, but in total emissions they are contributing a lot. So these countries also have to act accordingly. And like I was telling you, that today this argument doesn’t hold anymore that it’s already getting so expensive that a poorer country like India cannot afford. China has done a huge focus in this direction. So I think India should take some lead and try to provide this energy to the poorer people so that they have–like, we started off with free access to energy, and also green, clean forms of energy.

DHARNA NOOR: Clean not just for carbon emissions, but also–I mean, most of my family lives in India, and I know that there’s a huge problem of smog, of air pollution. Hotspots in India are getting hotter, and people have died from heatstroke. So talk about what the sort of environmental impacts, besides the impact on climate change, what are the environmental impacts internally would be.

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: So you are absolutely right, like, India now hosts 14 of the most–out of the 15 most polluted countries in the world–cities in the world. So India has–you know the really interesting thing, 65 percent of the people is not even aware of this term, according to a recent publication in the Nature Climate Change journal, is not aware of this term, ‘climate change.’ They are breathing every day a lot of polluted air. Recently there were reports, like, in the capital region a year ago it was declared as a public health emergency because people might not be able to breathe the air.

Now, the problem in India is that the poorer people cannot shield themselves from this negative impact of air pollution. And others are repeatedly quoting about the incidents which are happening in India, the negative health impacts it has on the poorer people. The rich people, as you know, can buy an air conditioned car, or can live in air purified rooms; they’re trying to protect themselves. But poor people every day have to go out to work, they pull rickshaws, it’s such an informal set in the economy, that every day it’s like breathing–[inaudible] air. And they cannot even shield themselves, because wearing a mask almost costs around $5-$6, which is not even their wages.

So you’re right; the impact of this air pollution is extremely negative, especially on the poorer people. And now lots of research is there which is proving the same point.

DHARNA NOOR: OK. Shouvik Chakraborty is a professor at the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst, AKA PERI. He’s an author of the new PERI report Green Growth and the Right to Energy in India. Thank you so much for coming on today. We look forward to talking to you again soon.

SHOUVIK CHAKRABORTY: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.