On my current visit to India, I've been looking at everything through my "sustainability lens". I am not sure if India is really representative of most big emerging economies, but my guess is that it is not very different from China when it comes to sustainability.
The first thing that strikes an observer is that green labels and practices -- such as organic, local, reduced packaging, recycling, low emissions, low carbon footprint, renewable energy, etc. -- are largely absent from public discussion. There are occasional newspaper articles, but both consumers and corporations are focused on other things: quality, cost, convenience. This is not very different from the state of affairs in Western countries just a decade ago. Given the huge numbers of people that are just short of becoming big consumers in India -- and the money to be made by selling to them -- my best guess is that sustainability is unlikely to be front and center in public consciousness for quite a long time.
Government is not leading the way with policy initiatives, so it all comes down to motivating the private sector to take the lead. I believe that any immediate sustainability solutions for India (and possibly China as well) would need to include cost-reduction and profit-making at the core, relying more on the market and less on subsidies, tax breaks and the like. The low cost of labor in these parts might be a big advantage in implementing these solutions. Just looking around, some possibilities come to mind immediately:
- Organized plastic and paper recycling -- segregation/collection (from homes/businesses), state-of-the-art processing, reuse in new products. Increasing cost of raw materials should make this viable. A success story: Bangladesh already has a network of 3000 small factories that are exporting 20000 tons of recycled PET flakes.
- Biodiesel production from used vegetable oils, animal fats and non-edible oil seeds, without consuming edible foods or converting agricultural production. Given the soaring demand for diesel in India and increasing prices (one of the reasons is the increasing use of private diesel generators to offset power outages), an alternative fuel from waste products might be profitable while reducing net GHG emissions. There are some biodiesel plants in operation in India, but the fuel is not widely known or used at this point.
- Small-scale, solar energy systems that can be installed on roofs, possibly off-grid initially. Given the frequent power outages in India and the big part of the population that still doesn't have electricity, something like this is overdue. The cost of solar cells is still an obstacle, but the economics may start making sense in a few years as the $1/watt barrier is breached on a large scale. Government subsidies may be needed to offset capital costs for consumers/businesses, but may turn out to be cheaper than building expensive new coal/gas/nuclear plants -- not to mention lower life-cycle GHG emissions.