India’s air is cutting 660 million lives short by about three years, while nearly all of the country’s 1.2 billion citizens are breathing in harmful pollution levels, writes Kelly O’Shanassy

Last week I was fortunate enough to be part of Climate Reality’s training in New Delhi, India attended by 600 Indian community leaders, academics, politicians, commentators and change agents. All had volunteered to be trained by Al Gore as climate leaders – to go back into their local communities all over India and run forums on how best to achieve a clean energy future.

One glaring irony of the occasion was that outside the conference room the air pollution was hard to take for an outsider like me. Delhi is the most polluted city on earth and I could see it and smell it with every breath I took. For people living there, that translates to the average life expectancy being three and a half years shorter – in fact 99.5 per cent of Indians live with air declared to be unsafe by the World Health Organisation.

This oppressive pollution made discussing leadership on climate change all the more tangible and real. This is not just an issue of wise politics but literally of life and death.

I was shocked to discover that 300 million Indians are still living without access to electricity – surely as tangible a barometer of endemic poverty as any.

With the weight of such knowledge, climate change becomes pointedly human in its impacts and toll. But the majority of those 300 million do not have access to the power grid so coal (or uranium for that matter) won’t help them to get power any time soon. In India, there is also such a thing as indoor air pollution caused by burning polluting fuels indoors for cooking and warmth.

The devastating impacts of floods and droughts in India, Pakistan and the broader region was discussed at length with climate change already increasing the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. In Pakistan last year for example, 20 million people were displaced by flooding – just slightly less than the entire population of Australia.

Considered together, these circumstances led most of the discussion at the conference in the direction of renewables and energy efficiency. Even at a panel discussion of energy company leaders, the consensus was that solar offered the cheapest, cleanest and fairest route to lifting India’s poor out of abject poverty.

I emerged from the conference weary, but full of ideas and hope about India’s appetite for clean energy

When I arrived home it was clear that I was not the only one with India on my mind – and I was increasingly aware of many media mentions. Understandably many of these revolved around cricket and the World Cup but some were a far more serious look at a looming Australia-India trade that is anything but a game.

An Australian Parliament Inquiry into the planned sale of uranium to India is happening right now – and exposing some very concerning corner cutting. Behind the smiles of the Abbott-Modi photo opportunity it appears all is far from happy with both the Indian nuclear sector and Australia’s nuclear safeguards.

I’ve since learned that two of Australia’s former most senior and experienced nuclear safeguards officers – John Carlson and Ron Walker – are scathing about the lack of the protections provided in the proposed deal. They noted that the safeguards in place were grossly inadequate, and that “the agreement does not provide assurance that Australian uranium will not contribute to India’s nuclear weapons program.”

I don’t claim to be an expert on India but my recent time – spent in deep engagement with Indians who are – has made me acutely aware that fast tracking the supply of a risky fuel that always becomes nuclear waste and might well end up fuelling nuclear weapons is not in the interests of either country.

There are enormous challenges and opportunities facing India, and Australia is well placed to play a positive role in a mutually beneficial journey to secure clean power to meet the living needs of a growing global power. From my trip I am convinced that India’s energy future is renewable, not radioactive or coal powered and it is time that Australia steps away from the mine and up to the plate to help them achieve this.

  • This article first appeared on SBS

Kelly O’Shanassy

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.