TOPIC GUIDE: Climate Change and Development

"India should pay more attention to economic development than climate change"

PUBLISHED: 01 Dec 2009

AUTHOR: Chhandak Pradhan

Share this Topic Guide:


Note that this Topic Guide was produced for Debating Matters India, and looks at the issues from a specifically Indian perspective.

Since its inception, the earth’s climate has been changing as a result of natural forces. But in recent decades there have been growing concerns about the impact of climate change that has been caused or accelerated by mankind’s activities during the process of industrialisation and economic development. A particular concern has emerged around global warming due to the emission of greenhouse gases, and attempts are being made both at national and international levels to reduce the level of emissions. However, carbon-reduction measures can be controversial, because of concerns that they result in adopting practices that are less amenable to economic development.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, only industrialised countries have committed themselves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and submit annual reports on their measures. Developing countries- including India - are obliged to submit a ‘national communication’ report every six years to the UN climate body. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and the pressure is on for national governments to hammer out a new international treaty at the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (7-18 December 2009). A major stumbling block to reaching an agreement is an increasingly rancorous debate over the extent to which large and rapidly developing economies, such as China and India, should sign up to limiting their future emissions alongside the already industrialised nations.

For India, a country threatened by climate change but struggling to pull hundreds of millions out of poverty, what is the best way forward? Is slowing the pace of development a worthwhile trade-off to limit the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, or will economic development afford Indian people the best protection against the ravages of nature – whether driven by man-made climate change or by other factors? Can the drive for economic development be balanced with strategies to limit and absorb the impact of man-made climate change, or are the two priorities essentially incompatible? And what are India’s responsibilities on the international stage – to stand up to the industrialised nations and insist this is a problem of their making or to demonstrate, as a nation of growing power and stature, its willingness to generate new solutions?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The impact of climate change upon India
A recent World Bank study estimates that from 2010 adapting to impacts of climate change will cost up to $100bn per year in the developing world. Assuming that temperatures will rise by 2 degrees Centigrade over the next 40 years, the study suggests that the major costs of adaptation would come from improving coastal protection and protecting transport links. Environmental campaigners argue that India’s large and growing population, its 7500-km long densely populated and low-lying coastline, and the extent to which its economy is closely tied to its natural resource base, make the country ‘considerably vulnerable’ to the impacts of climate change. A trend sea level rise of approximately 1cm per decade has been recorded along the Indian coast, and there are concerns that global warming may lead to an increase in extreme weather events such as cyclones. There has been some suggestion that global warming may influence monsoon dynamics. In a country where, it is noted, 60% of farmland depends on rains, a shift in the rainfall distribution due to climate change would have far-reaching implications for the population.

A factsheet produced by the Centre for Science and Environment, an Indian advocacy organisation, describes the potential impact of climate change upon the nation’s agriculture, human health, coastal areas and biodiversity. The World Health Organisation has pointed to the adverse effects of climate change upon human health, and suggested that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be beneficial for health. If climate change precipitates extreme weather events, or makes rural areas impossible to inhabit or farm, there is a direct human cost, as ‘climate refugees’ or ‘environmental migrants’ move to urban areas, putting pressure on civic amenities. It is therefore argued that it is in India’s direct interest to deal with climate change now: the problem is not something that only future generations will experience. Some critics, though, have pointed out that the scientific evidence for more extreme weather events as the climate warms is lacking and that, in any case, economic development provides the best hope of coping with the vagaries of nature. Others have noted the alarmist language employed in the climate change debate and warned of the dangers of decision making based on hypothetical worst-case scenarios.

Levels of economic development
With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over $1 trillion USD, India is rated as the twelfth-largest economy in the world by financial entities such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Economic development in India depends on the various sectors that constitute the Indian economy – primarily the agriculture, services and manufacturing industries. Economic development has been rapid in recent years: as the Library of Congress notes, since the early 1990s, GDP has grown 4 to 7 percent annually, which is higher than GDP growth for the European Union, the United States, or the world as a whole. Agriculture accounts for about one-fifth of the country’s GDP and provides the means of livelihood for over 60 per cent of the population. However, the proportion of workers employed in the agricultural sector is declining, and the proportion of GDP accounted for by industry (27.6%) and services (53.8%) is more than that accounted for by agriculture (18.6%).

India’s economic growth has been uneven when comparing different social groups, economic groups, geographic regions, and rural and urban areas. Even though India has avoided famines in recent decades, half of children are underweight. However, as the World Bank suggests, ‘India now has a diminishing pool of very poor people’ and is poised to ‘join the ranks of the world’s middle-income countries’.  According to this report, continued economic development, including increased agricultural productivity and investment in infrastructure, holds the opportunity to bring about a better livelihood for the whole population. The question is, if addressing climate change involves slowing the pace of development, is this a worthwhile sacrifice for the benefit of future generations? Others point out that given it is India’s poor that will suffer the worst effects of climate change, not the growing ranks of the middle class, India must adopt a more proactive stance on tackling the problem.

The emissions divide: developed and developing world
The effects of global warming are a global concern – but ideas about how to mitigate these effects are sharply divided between the developed and developing world. On one important level, the issue is one of fairness: the developed world, comprising the USA, Europe, Japan, Canada and Eurasia, accounts for slightly over 50% of current carbon emissions; China adds about 20%; while India accounts for less than 5% of global emissions. Developing countries argue that they are already the victims of climate change caused by the activities of the developed world, and see it as unreasonable that their own development should now be constrained, particularly when this continues to account for a relatively low level of emissions. Despite projections that India’s greenhouse gas emissions will more than treble over the next two decades, India’s environment minister has argued that per-capita emissions would never exceed that of developed countries.

However, in the run-up to the UN Copenhagen conference, some have argued that, notwithstanding the moral responsibility of industrialised countries to commit to substantial reductions in their emissions, India needs to take responsibility for reducing its own emissions and ‘stop playing the victim’. The strategy of the Indian government of focusing only on measures where there are co-benefits for the economy and the environment, they argue, is short-sighted. The influential Delhi Science Forum, for example, argues that with its growing contribution to the current flow of greenhouse gases being added to the atmosphere, India should demonstrate that it is conscious of its responsibilities to the world’s poor and most vulnerable by agreeing to a cut in its projected emissions by 2030. This, advocates argue, will put pressure on the developed world to meet their obligations and prevent countries like the US from portraying India as obstructionist.

More recently there have been signs of a shift in the Indian government’s stance and suggestions that India will adopt a more conciliatory attitude than some other developing nations at Copenhagen. However, is there a danger that India will take the emission-reducing agenda too far, and undermine its opportunities to become a richer, more developed country that will be better placed to absorb the impact of global warming? 


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

New Script for India on Climate Change

Jim Yardley New York Times 3 October 2009

A bad climate for development

Economist 17 September 2009

Behind India’s Intransigence on Climate-Change Talks

Madhur Singh Time Magazine 10 September 2009


Poor nations will struggle with World Bank’s climate change plans

Carl Mortished The Times (London) 16 September 2009

Shifts On Climate Change- Rich countries would like poorer countries to cut emissions

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta The Telegraph 1 September 2009

India and climate change talks

Arvind Panagariya ET Bureau Economic Times (India Times) 29 August 2009

IPCC: separating fact from fright

Rob Lyons spiked 19 November 2007


India’s ugly climate belly: Emissions near tipping point

GS Mudur The Telegraph (India) 20 July 2009

Climate change and its impact on India

E C Thomas 5 June 2007


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Climate change is one of the most complex problems facing humankind today

Hamid Ansari and Anita Joshua The Hindu 24 October 2009

India’s stand on climate change is ‘unchanged’

Rajesh Sinha DNA 30 September 2009

$100bn A Year For Climate Safety

Richard Black BBC News 30 September 2009

Climate change to cost $100 bn per year: World Bank

The Economic Times 29 September 2009

Benefit of downturn: CO² emissions fal

The Times of India 22 September 2009

Investment in climate change is not charity: UN

The Times of India 21 September 2009

ANALYSIS - Poor nations CO2 curbs strengthen hand in UN talks

David Fogarty and Deborah Zabarenko Reuters 17 September 2009

Engineers find ways to combat climate change

The Times of India 14 September 2009

Himalayas hotspot of climate change

Nandita Sengupta The Times of India 4 September 2009

Climate change killing corals, costing billions: Study

The Economic Times 2 September 2009

Surat ahead in Asia for its climate change strategy

The Times of India 27 August 2009

India and climate change talks

Arvind Panagariya The Economic Times 27 August 2009

India makes forestry key plank in climate change plan

The Times of India 11 August 2009

Climate change ideas

The Telegraph (India) 29 July 2009

FACTBOX - Impact of climate change on India

Reuters India 29 July 2009

Tough climate signal to West

The Telegraph (India) 1 March 2009


The Science and Politics of Climate Change

Battle of Ideas 2007

This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.


© 2005-2023 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login