“When I go back, I’ll be going back to a toxic soup; I will actually put my anti-pollution mask on the second I leave the airport,” says Lou Del Bello. The Italian environmental journalist lives and works in New Delhi, one of the ten most polluted cities on the planet. She is currently back in London waiting for her visa to be renewed. She says many people in India aren’t bothered by air pollution, they just see it as ‘bad weather’. “Obviously everyone knows it’s bad, but it ends up being perceived as part of the seasonal cycle.”

As a young journalist working in the UK, Del Bello realised she did not want to report on a global issue like climate change from Europe. “I was there in London eating my sushi and I didn’t know anything about what I was reporting on in these places because I didn’t have any direct experience,” says Del Bello.

She believes the West’s failure to properly engage with the challenges faced by developing countries is hindering the world’s ability to tackle the climate crisis. “Until quite recently, COP was always dominated by really simplistic headlines like, ‘why are governments in developing nations still using coal?’, or ‘why are developing countries not given enough money?’.” But, she says: “If you live for a bit in the Global South, you quickly realise that things are much more complex.” It’s not that India doesn’t want to avoid a climate disaster, says Del Bello, it’s just that the net zero model does not work for them.

So far, 59 countries have set out a plan to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. And at COP26, India, one of the world’s top emitters, finally joined the pledge. It set its cut-off date for 2070, two decades later than most other members – any earlier would not work for a country that big and complex, says Del Bello. “There has been some criticism from UK commentators and journalists but for me this goes to show how people are still pretty ignorant about the challenges of such systemic shifts,” she says.

The net zero concept has gained popularity in recent years because of its easy-to-understand approach to tackling the climate crisis. But some feel that its simplicity overlooks the socio-economic, infrastructural and environmental constraints which make this challenge much bigger for poorer societies, says Del Bello. She explains that India’s new climate strategy tries to circumvent some of these problems by extending the timeframe for reaching net-zero and by setting a series of mid-term goals to help it reach its final target.

Unlike wealthy industrialised nations, many low- and middle-income countries are trying to strike a balance between the carbon-intensive task of improving the lives of their citizens while also reducing CO2 output. As an endpoint, net-zero is a desirable outcome, says the journalist, but how we get there matters. “In the case of India, there are hundreds of millions of very, very poor people and you can’t just uproot your energy system overnight because they will starve to death,” says Del Bello.

The media has the power to shape this discussion, but it needs to do better, she says. “You see a lot of editors for major outlets and broadcasters saying it would be so easy to solve the climate crisis if only we all hopped in an electric car or stopped eating beef,” she says. “For me, it highlights the need for a more pluralistic debate.”

Journalists sometimes fail to appreciate the enormous challenges faced by countries in the Global South, says Del Bello. “It’s hard to walk a path of development, [while] also making sure the developments are as clean as possible”.  She believes that better informed journalists will lead to more informed policymakers and a more inclusive plan – one which everyone can adhere to.

Lou Del Bello first came across environmental journalism while studying in Bologna, Italy, where she worked at her local newspaper. Her task was to write flattering profiles about local businesses in the hopes they might sponsor the paper. It was boring and repetitive, so she started looking for ways to spice it up by adding an environmental angle to her reporting.

She quickly fell in love with the beat and moved to London to work for an independent media charity writing on the impact of climate in developing countries. The job was exciting, but Del Bello felt her writing was out of touch with what was happening on the ground.

She decided to move to Kenya and then to India where she set up her weekly environmental newsletter, Lights On.  Alongside this, Del Bello now also works as a freelance journalist and writes for Third Pole, a platform publishing news about the Himalayas’ water sources.

Living and working across the world has given her a unique insight into how Western media sometimes misconstrues the attitudes and capabilities of developing countries. “You hear a lot of blame placed on India’s energy mix,” Del Bello says. “There is a lot of blame placed on bad choices, and not on why they are choosing to use so much coal”.

Less economically developed countries often fail to measure up to the climate progress made by industrialised nations. And policymakers and journalists in the West sometimes take this as a sign that these states don’t want to engage in climate action.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Societies, and particularly women, in South Asia have been among the hardest hit by worsening weather events. And, says the journalist, local leaders know they must do all they can to tackle the crisis if they are to keep their citizens on side.

Floods, droughts and cyclones have always been a part of India’s natural environment, but they have been getting worse, and the infrastructures meant to deal with them “are not cutting it anymore,” she says. Last month, 26 people were killed by floods in southern India and a further 180 people died on the country’s west coast.

It’s not that India doesn’t want to stop this from happening, it’s just more difficult for them, says Del Bello. “They have a massive dependence on coal, and you cannot get rid of that very easily because they have about half a million jobs depending directly on the coal economy”. Without it, India’s subsidised rail service becomes untenable because Indian Rail relies on the income it gets from coal transportation to keep passenger tickets cheap, Del Bello explains. Price increases on trains will mean that millions of workers from rural areas can no longer afford to travel to cities and access the jobs they need to survive.

Rigid gender roles, a volatile climate and higher rates of poverty also mean that women in South Asia are being particularly badly impacted by the effects of the climate crisis, she says One researcher in Bangladesh told Del Bello that women living in the country’s most flood-prone areas were experiencing significantly worse mental health than the men in those communities.

Parts of Bangladesh are peppered with little islands that come up and disappear again over the season and the people who live in these areas must prepare for flooding every year.

But as these events become more frequent, it’s women who have been left to shoulder the additional strain. “They have to look after the children,” says Del Bello, “make sure that whatever property they have, whatever capital they have, that it’s safe”. She adds: “This sort of thing is stuff that men do not do, it’s just not their role.”

She says there is also another narrative which portrays developing countries as completely helpless. “It is even more dangerous because it’s more pervasive in diplomatic circles like COP.” It is a view which is widespread but untrue, says Del Bello. Developing countries are not incapable, they just have more to do and less to do it with.

India has a population 20 times the size of the UK and only 5 per cent of its GDP per capita, yet both countries are being asked to reach a net zero target in the same timeframe. “It’s silly to just say, ‘we’re gonna do net zero by 2050’ – these are big claims, but the reality on the ground is too complex,” says Del Bello. She believes political and corporate leaders in India are wise to not overcommit like other countries in South Asia have.

Pakistan, for example, has pledged to make renewables 60 per cent of its energy mix in the next eight years even though it currently only contributes about 4 per cent to its total supply. To do this, Pakistan has asked for vast amounts of money, says Del Bello, much more than is currently on offer. “These transformations are very expensive,” she says.

It’s not about giving developing countries permission to do nothing, it’s about asking for a different approach, says Del Bello. The current emphasis in Western media on personal responsibility does not work for the Global South because many already have very low per capita emissions. A person in the UK, for example, produces three times more CO2 than the average person in India. So while going vegan or driving an electric car might help a bit, it will probably not solve the issue.

Decarbonising an economy like India’s requires large-scale systemic change, says Del Bello, and leaders in South Asia are already taking steps to make this happen. A new online system which makes bidding for government contracts more transparent for example, has helped kick-start India’s solar revolution and attract foreign investment for green projects. The country’s powerful private sector is also working hard to implement scalable green initiatives.

By highlighting the unique challenges faced by many countries in the Global South, Western media can help policymakers find solutions which work for everyone, says Del Bello. Poorer countries are prepared to introduce drastic climate policy, but they do not want this to come at the cost of hurting their own populations – journalists must make this clear to their readership.

“There has to be a better understanding that you can’t ask the same things to a developing country,” says Del Bello. “Demands will be equally ambitious – you don’t have to ask less – but you have to ask a different approach”.