Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the LIFE Movement in Kevadia, Gujarat. As an environment conscious lifestyle, the mission enhances the idea of ‘pro-planet people’ (P3) which Modi invoked at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, while simultaneously reinforcing Mahatma Gandhi’s environment trusteeship, which claims ‘The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children.’ While addressing climate change requires national and international actions; communities, households and individuals, have a vital role to play too. Article 51A (g) of the Indian Constitution states, “It should be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for the living creatures”. Detractors would argue that LIFE is a typical diversionary by putting the onus on the individual and absolving the government of its role. Where does the responsibility lie has been a recurring debate in the relationship between the state and its people. With climate urgency, the time has passed about who is to blame. Clearly both are needed – system change and lifestyle change.
As an effective mass communicator, intuitive conversationalist, a practicing yogi in a world in desperate need of compelling vision, the profundity of Modi’s leadership to stir the conscience is soundly truthful, moral and rational. Studies have observed that ‘lifestyle’ carbon footprints are out of sync with globally agreed goals to keeping temperature rise to 1.5 ºC above pre industrial times. Some analysis in fact point out that lifestyle carbon footprints need to be reduced by 91-95 percent by 2050 in high-income countries, compared with 76 percent in lower-middle income countries, that could account for a quarter of the emissions reductions required to keep the global heating down to 1.5 ºC. Conscious and concerned, Modi is positing a redefinition of human life and values in a climate disruptive world dangerously close to spiralling out of control.
What would LIFE in true sense mean? LIFE brings in the essence of the individual, as part of the collective, to pave the way for new approaches and good habits of living by undertaking simple climate friendly actions on a daily basis. Individuals matter and they are important in affecting change by making choices about protecting the environment. The LIFE expression is simple: If democracy can work because of people’s participation, then so can environmental action, and since humans collectively have damaged the environment then logically they can equally fix it. Leading by example, Modi’s personal lifestyle exemplifies two key niyamas or the self-based codes of conduct. One, shaucha that relates to keeping the environment and natural surroundings clean in particular water and air; and tapas or austerity defined by the principle of need and not greed, in other words ‘mindful and deliberate utilisation’ instead of ‘mindless and wasteful consumption’.
Central to LIFE, indisputably, is reining in runaway consumption. Modi made a thoughtful observation at the Davos Agenda 2022, “Throw-away-culture and consumerism have deepened the climate challenge. It is imperative to rapidly move away from today’s ‘take-make-use-dispose’ economy to a circular economy”. Consumption patterns also reflect inequality between the developed, emerging economies and the developing world. But there is one common factor and that is the high consuming lifestyle-linked greenhouse gas emissions of the rich and wealthy across the world. Addressing the way the affluent live by utilising the carbon emission space is fundamental to allowing everyone equitable opportunities for life of dignity. Food, housing and personal transport representing about four-fifths of the total lifestyle have the largest impact on climate change. Calculations suggest that the emissions share of the top 1 percent highest-income earners is greater than the total emissions of the bottom 50 percent combined.
To reach a ‘fair consumption space’ a number of government actions like easing subsidies for fossil fuels and tax incentives on low carbon technologies along with increasing the prices of carbon-intensive products and activities can be considered and several policies have already been undertaken. Individual actions that are neither expensive nor reducing well-being can be initiated based on environmental consciousness and choice. A number of studies and surveys indicate that there are several behavioural shifts at individual level, for example plant-based diet without wasting food, reducing buying of clothing per year, upgrading light bulbs, recycling, extending the use of electrical and electronic items, optimising public transport and holding on to personal vehicles longer. Another environment conscious approach is to trade-off individual carbon footprint. For example, if one is using personal cars then a good practice would be to offset it by other low-carbon emissions actions like moving to green energy. Even if at least one carbon reducing specific action is taken at an individual level, the impact collectively will help fight climate change.
Modi’s LIFE appeal is trustworthy. At the governmental-level, the NDA government since 2014 has made several announcements and policy interventions aimed to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. At the COP 21 in Paris, India aimed to reduce the economy-wide emissions intensity by 33-35 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. At COP 26 in Glasgow, Modi announced that India has set a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. India’s new pledge included increasing the country’s installed renewable capacity to 500 GW, meeting 50 per cent of its energy requirements from non-fossil fuel sources.
LIFE encapsulates state and society, the global and the national, the rich and poor both between and within countries, the market and regulators and all that must be done to ensure climate transition that is fair and equitable. All this will help to generate behavioural adjustments and changes. However, high impact actions require substantive even radical behaviour changes. This brings in the question of population growth which by far has the highest impact on the climate. To gradually reduce the global population rate, the goal is to ‘lower the total fertility rate from the current value of 2.4 to 2.1’. Although the fertility rate has declined since 1960 it still remains above the required level. Population control has to be a movement requiring individual awakening, change of perception, and government policies and awareness campaigns that relate family-planning decisions of the individuals based on climate-mitigation consideration. This will be the biggest impact of LIFE.
(The author works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and a well-known climate and water expert. Views expressed are his own.)