India’s Glaciers Help Shape Climate Change Policy

A paper set to be published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources takes a critical view of the breadth of academic literature on climate change policy and politics in India. It evaluates not only the ideas and knowledge regarding climate change, but also recent shifts in domestic and international governance and policy. The authors underscore the ways that glaciers have played a role in shaping the trajectory of climate change responses in India.

Himalayan Glaciers in India as seen from the International Space Station (Source: Jason Betzner/Flickr).

India has a significant stake in the climate change arena with about 9,000 glaciers within its boundaries. In fact, it was recently named the most vulnerable country to climate change, in a report by HSBC bank earlier this year.

The Himalayan region has millions of people that reside in India and in the neighboring countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. The residents depend on the glacial meltwater that sources rivers for drinking water, electricity generation, and irrigation. Snowfall from the monsoon season is able to replenish the glaciers to create the foundation for this hydrological system, but climate change disrupts this pattern and dramatically increases the vulnerability of all who depend on it.

India’s scientific community has closely studied monsoons and glacial melt. In this way, they have helped usher initial attention toward climate change action among the public and policy makers. However, this attention has not been without controversy.

The Himalayan glaciers were the subject of heated debate after the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Fourth Assessment Report claimed that they would completely disappear by 2035. This claim was later corrected after it was determined to be incorrect. While Himalayan glacier retreat may be substantial by the end of the century, models show that the glaciers will not completely disappear.

The issue of glacial melt is just one of the many factors that raised the importance of climate change policy action in India, which the paper highlights as shifting substantially over time.

Initially, India built its international negotiation strategy on a pillar of climate equity, bridging rich and poor nations. But the paper notes that the meaning of this term has broadened over time “to include not only disparities among nations, but also disparities within India and the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations.”

Although emphasis remains on the developed nation’s obligation to take responsibility for its contribution to climate change, India has stated its own national contribution to mitigation.

Its forest sequestration pledge to increase forest cover came with Indian advocacy for the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) program, for example. This rewards increased sequestration of carbon, not just reduced deforestation, and was eventually adopted in Bali during the UNFCCC’s 15th Conference of the Parties.

The Institutional Structure of India’s Climate Governance (as on March 2018) that outlines the period in which engagement with climate change began. Abbreviations are offered in the journal article (Source: Annual Review of Environment and Resources).


Despite India’s push toward forest expansion, the paper emphasizes the remaining global concern over the country’s future role in carbon emissions, including black carbon, which is a significant factor in the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

The literature has provided a range for future carbon emissions that is largely dependent on India’s energy future. Future demand and supply will shape how India will be able to contribute to global mitigation efforts, and the outcome of this is one of the main issues the paper discusses.

“India has made significant progress in mitigation measures but has not been able to take sufficient steps for including adaptation measures in its development policies,” Sumit Vij, a Ph.D. candidate researching public administration and policy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told GlacierHub.

The Bhagirathi River in the town of Gangotri, Uttarakhand, India at an elevation of 3,100 meters (Source: Atarax42/Wikimedia Commons).

This is a major problem for the vulnerable country, especially for those living in the Himalayan region, where coordinated efforts that work on the ecosystem level could be of benefit.

“The adaptation strategies are focused toward the local level. There has been no focus on transboundary or regional level adaptation measures from India,” Vij continued.

Of the adaptation policies that currently exist, they have been overly focused on the short-term, which inclines them “toward development or business-as-usual,” according to Vij.

“Conceptually, it makes sense that adaptation policies focus on long-term impacts of climate change, rather than on short-term development interventions,” he said.

Nevertheless, India has worked to strengthen its commitment to climate change, which represents a move in the right direction for the country. “However, given the overhang of immediate development challenges, climate change can only be salient to politics and governance if a robust analytical framework is developed to integrate climate considerations alongside and interwoven with pressing development challenges,” concludes the paper. This will remain the next frontier for future climate change research and responses in India.

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