Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Climate Concerns

Would India’s National Action Plan for climate change be able to make any significant contribution to the fight against global warming without compromising its development goals?

In the recent years, India has emerged as a major regional power. Its economic growth has sustained itself at an impressive 7-8 % annually since the late 90s. Greater economic yield, however, comes with a price – one that would be paid by the global community. Responsible for 4% of the world’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, India is currently considered to be one of the world’s top polluters.

Among the fossil fuels utilized by India’s power sector, coal is responsible for about 60% of generation. An appreciable increase in its use, directly proportional to the high development targets, is likely in the next five years. Other energy sources include hydroelectric, natural gas, renewables and nuclear power. The use of hydroelectric power is a useful source but for opposition to building new dams from local population. Natural gas, which is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, has always been considered more suitable than other energy sources because of the low cost of building gas plants. For a developing country, finding a cheap energy source is always welcome. However, the recent surge in gas prices has cast doubt as to the edge originally provided by this option. Among the renewables, wind, solar and biomass digesters have been used in rural and urban areas in India, but they are not expected to make a sizeable contribution due to various reasons. Nuclear power can ideally play an important role in reducing the emissions rate as it emits no carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, it is also very expensive and not easily accessible. Extensive cooperation in funds and transfer of technology is required to achieve any notable benefit from its use in the civilian sector.

India has an important stake in reducing emissions but like other developing countries it is wary that the high cost of easing the effects of climate change would affect its development goals. The National Action Plan unveiled by the Indian government on June 30, 2008 pledges to make India’s economic development sustainable and energy efficient with the use of renewable energy sources, but without making any commitment to emissions targets that might slow down economic growth. While there’s mounting pressure on the Indian government from environmental groups to cut down on emissions, according to available UN data the per-capita emissions of CO2 in India were 1.2 tonnes, compared with 20.6 tonnes for the US in 2004. As a developing nation, India is not yet required to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

On the occasion of unveiling the National Climate Plan, though, the Indian Prime minister was willing to make a concession, “we will pool all our scientific, technical and managerial talent, with financial resources, to develop solar energy as a source of abundant energy to power our economy and to transform the lives of our people.” The Prime Minister’s special envoy on climate change, Shyam Saran, who is accompanying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the G-8 summit later where climate change would be part of the agenda, stated that climate change, energy security and development were closely related and could not be taken in as separate entities. He criticized developed industrialized nations for asking more from a developing country while not doing enough themselves, saying: “Setting targets means nothing if one is not able to stick to it. We do not know by how much we will be able to reduce our emissions by taking the measures that we are contemplating. In particular areas where we know this, we would be willing to reveal targets. We cannot take targets when we don't know whether we will be able to adhere to it or not. The case of the developed countries is slightly different. They have knowingly undertaken targets and done nothing to stick to them.”

The chairman of the UN panel of climate change, Mr. Pachauri, who was also the joint winner of last year’s Nobel Peace prize for his work on climate change, has also defended his country’s position even though it means the emission rate is bound to increase in future. He asserted, “India is a growing economy with 76 million rural households still without access to electricity. How can we levy a cap [on emissions], when millions are living in a state of total deprivation?” He also argued that the report’s pledge to try and increase use of solar energy is a welcome step. Even though it is still in a phase where the cost of using it is very high, the limitations would be overcome with time as “for wind energy too, the initial cost per unit was very high, but now it is as competitive as energy derived from fossil fuels.”

The Indian government’s focus on exploring an environment friendly energy source is a commendable step since climate change is a major concern of the world nations. The effects of global warming as seen and as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) would be devastating for civilizations across the globe, but developing nations in particular. In its 2007 report, IPCC has mentioned the resource scarcity and environmental degradation resulting from global warming would include shortages of water, food scarcity, collapse of ecosystems resulting in destructive weather events, outbreak of disease, and migration. Conflicts of national and international level are expected to follow. Hence, these climate change challenges immediately raise security concerns in the developing countries that are most vulnerable to it. For India, the three most important factors affecting relations with other states are migration, sharing of food, water and energy resources, and trade. Due to the rising sea levels, the possibility of even small scale migration from neighbouring Bangladesh or other small islands in the region is a serious concern that could easily turn volatile given the political friction that exists in the region. Similarly, sharing water sources with Pakistan is already a sensitive issue and any shortage in supply could result in serious repercussions.

Recently, a computer model developed by German researchers at the Kiel University, as reported in the journal ‘Nature’, shows that the Earth’s temperature may stabilize for the next decade as natural climate cycles enter a cooling phase – just like the one in the 40s. After that breather of a decade, however, the temperatures would be rising fast, as also predicted by the IPCC reports. Many climate scientists have welcomed this report seeing it as an opportunity to plan better strategies for the future - a sort of time-out phase to be used to advantage. Unfortunately, there is a rising concern among environmentalist that it might also trigger a disregard for warnings about the serious consequences of further warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.

India, for one, has shown maturity and commitment by revealing its environment friendly future agenda. It remains to be seen how effective the plan would turn out to be, but any effort however small in the right direction can only be a welcome step.

SouthAsia Magazine, Aug, 2008.

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