The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) on November 9 released a discussion paper, which, on the basis of existing evidence, argued that there was no sign of any abnormal retreat among Indian glaciers.
And, further, that it is “premature to make a statement that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating abnormally because of … global warming”.
Unsurprisingly, the paper left both laypersons and climate change policy experts wondering. It flatly challenged the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) fourth Assessment Report (2007), which said Himalayan glaciers were retreating faster than in any other part of the world; that they are likely to disappear by 2035; and attributed this receding and thinning primarily to global warming.
For policy experts, the stance of the government appeared to be another one in the lengthening series of flipflops on climate change. This may be an obstacle in the way of forming a consensus in the comity of nations. The issue is urgent because the Himalayan glaciers feed the rivers of the Indo-Gangetic plains.
On the one hand, in recent months, the government has released its National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC); it has announced plans to set up a National Institute of Climate and Environment (NICE) for climate research and it plans to shortly unveil the National Solar Mission. Add to all that, there have been the bold, forward-looking statements from Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment & forests, on the need to combat climate change.
Ramesh was recently quoted as saying that India "cannot hide behind any excuses and we have to be aggressively taking on voluntary mitigation outcomes". At the same time, however, he has also been issuing sceptical statements, such as the latest report. Earlier, he asserted that India’s per capita emissions would not rise above those of the west even by 2031.
This contradiction is baffling. Do we see climate change as a threat or not?
One part of the answer lies in Ramesh’s statements to the media expressing dissatisfaction with climate change statistics on India.
“Studies about Himalayan glaciers on climate change and its impact on India come from Western countries. Many of the Western sources are biased,” he said.
Ramesh and his ministry officials like citing a 1990 US study that was countered by an Indian scientist. The US study projected 38 million tonnes of methane gas emissions a year due to wet paddy cultivation in India. This was later countered by Indian climate scientist A.P. Mitra, who put it at 2-6 million tonnes — an estimate that won wider acceptance.
Similarly, in an interview to the Guardian shortly after this report was launched, Ramesh said: “It is high time India made an investment in understanding what is happening in the Himalayan ecosystem."
The report, it would seem, is part of the process of starting more local assessments on the impact of climate change on India.
But that explanation leaves several puzzles in its wake. If the idea is to demonstrate that IPCC data are weak, it is curious that the government chose to challenge the IPCC with a hurriedly published 60-page document.
In an interview to a TV channel, R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC and Director-General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), brushed aside the MoEF report saying it had not been subjected to a peer review. Others, like Shresth Tayal, associate fellow (Glacier Research Programme), TERI, are marvelling that the report ignores a lot of existing scientific research, drawing very different conclusions about the Himalayan glaciers.
Most importantly, given that the MoEF report is a recapitulation of existing Indian research on glaciers, why has it been
released now? Indeed, what does one infer if the Indian government starts casting aspersions on climate change data weeks
According to a former negotiator, it is likely that Copenhagen will result in nothing more than a political statement. One possibility, he feels, is that the Indian government is creating a cover for itself right now when the blame game over Copenhagen starts. Don’t blame us, it will say, and point at the NAPCC, the Solar Mission, the plan to set up NICE, our willingness to take non-binding targets, and use them to argue we take climate change seriously. In that context, this report could be used to question international commitments thrust upon India.
Perhaps due to the fear of being saddled with onerous emission reduction commitments, Ramesh and others are taking a new position. This prefers unilateral/bilateral agreements to multilateral ones and wants emission-reduction targets to be set by each country individually with domestic legislation on emission caps calibrated to those.
Seen in that context, most of the minister’s recent statements like challenging legally binding emission reduction targets, the desire to gauge climate change impact through local institutions, independent unilateral action, the delinking of reduction from negotiations, etc make sense.
This report too fits into that logic. It is another reason for us to “officially” doubt the IPCC data. And to not support a binding commitment.
Whether this move away from multilateralism can save the planet is another question.
The author is an independent environment researcher.