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Climate change and the poor

The limited data is beginning to show that the poor demonstrate the best practice for mitigating and adapting to climate change, but policy makers seem to have a perspective that differs aggressively from this subaltern view.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:24 IST
Dunu Roy
Dunu Roy

Climate change, as is well known by now, is a result of the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, which act as a kind of a blanket around the earth and do not allow the heat to escape, so that the planet begins to warm up. One of these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2) and it was actually removed from the earth’s atmosphere and fixed as carbon into huge ancient trees and tiny marine organisms during about 130 million years of the earth’s geological history – while oxygen was also released into the air during that period. It took another 60 million years for these plants and organisms to die and be buried under layers of silt and rock before they could be compressed and heated to form coal and oil. Now human beings are burning up all that coal and oil and these non-renewable resources, which took roughly 190 million years to be created, will be consumed in a mere 400 years and all the CO2 restored back into the atmosphere, while much of the O2 will also have been consumed. It is this extremely rapid release of something that was accumulated over a very long period that is responsible for violently upsetting the natural cycle of the earth and is the key ingredient of “unsustainability”.

Logically, therefore, there are two ways of approaching this problem of how to bring the cycle back to some sort of balance. One could either try to minimize the requirement of energy and, therefore, the change from solid or liquid carbon to the gas carbon dioxide; or one could extract as much as possible from this conversion while finding other sources of energy. The first way would require that the use of energy is reduced drastically and lifestyles changed. The second would mean trying to get more energy out of the non-renewable sources, finding faster methods of re-fixing carbon, and developing renewable sources of energy. Obviously, this is quite a complicated business and there are many suggestions that have come from a variety of thinkers and researchers on the subject. But the word “energy” means different things to different people and many of the suggestions also contradict each other.

Thus there are two sets of responses to the crisis, and these responses seem to have much to do with the size of the nation as well as its place in the ladder of ‘development’. The larger more ‘developed’ nations or unions, call for a system of global governance that would try to build cooperation to use energy more efficiently and provide more equal access to new technologies. This is what is dominating international negotiations such as the forthcoming Climate Summit in Paris, even though these ‘developed’ nations are not quite ready to part with either more technology or more money. However, there is another response, generally from the smaller nations where ‘development’ is lagging, that has been based on understanding the exploitative nature of ‘development’ itself, and the realisation that consumption patterns cannot continue at the same rate by increasing productivity. The Indian government appears to fall in between, following the first response in international discussions, but not willing to treat climate change as a domestic challenge at all.

While India is the fifth largest emitter of CO2 in the world, its average per capita emission is less than half the world average of 5 tonne CO2 (tCO2). But there is considerable variation around this average. Our studies, supplemented by those by Greenpeace, Jackson and others show that the total per capita emission for land, water, electricity, transport, and cooking fuel for the rich, which is near the global average, is about 12 times that of the poor (0.35 tCO2), while it is only the lower middle class that is meeting the sustainable level of 2.5 tCO2 that needs to be achieved to limit global warming below the critical limit of 2°C. It is this factor that must be considered when the issue of sustainability is discussed, particularly in the context of addressing climate change in India. If 17 crore people who today earn more than Rs. 16,000 per month already emit more than 2.5 tCO2 per annum, then to create climate space for the remaining 110 crore people in the country to survive meaningfully with a better quality of life, India needs to find a way to reduce the CO2 emissions of the upper 17 crore.

Can this better quality of life be achieved at lower energy levels? The late eminent scientist, Amulya Reddy, had prepared plots of energy use against quality of life indicators in a range of 135 industrialised and developing countries. These show that at a level of annual per capita energy consumption of 1.2 tonne of oil equivalent (amounting to about 2.5 tCO2) globally, infant mortality can fall below 20 per thousand live births, illiteracy reduced to less than 10%, the fertility rate can come down to 2.5 births per woman, and life expectancy can rise to 70 years – as demonstrated by 13 of the 135 nations. In fact, El Salvador and Sri Lanka have achieved this feat at a per capita emission of 1 tCO2. None of these nations may be called ‘developed’ yet their human development indicators are better because of the creative policies they have followed to invest in human beings rather than economic growth alone. Any greater energy consumption has, at best, a marginal impact on these quality of life indicators.

Many of India’s policy makers, on the other hand, argue that development problems may be solved by moving people from the villages into the towns. For instance, the now-defunct Planning Commission predicted that India’s urban population will go up from 38 crore in 2011 to about 60 crore in 2031. It also argued that India’s urbanisation is smaller as compared to other large developing countries. In spite of the anticipated (and severe) shortages in housing, water, sanitation, energy, and transportation, the Commission wanted a faster rate of job creation through self-employment, and supply of services in the towns to accommodate the growing population. The strategy spelt out was to focus on strengthening governance, planning, financing, capacity building and innovation. The vehicle for carrying out this strategy was the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Reforms Mission (JNNURM), launched in December, 2005 for a period of seven years in 65 major cities, with the aid of a loan of US$ 6.4 billion from the Asian Development Bank, along with 23 ‘reforms’ to make the schemes attractive to private investors.

However, the Government’s own assessments at the end of 7 years show that the Mission failed in empowering local governance; distributing funds; benefitting the poor; preparing participatory plans; completing numerous schemes of water supply, sewerage, drainage, housing, slum upgradation, roads, flyovers, and ‘reforms’; as well as attracting private investment. Even the Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojna (SJSRY), covering about 4000 towns, has barely been able to generate 12 lakh jobs in 15 years at an average cost of Rs 30,000 per job created. Yet, without analysing the poor performance, the outlay for JNNURM-2 was almost doubled for the 12th Plan period, and is now being replaced by the idea of ‘Smart Cities’. It is recognised that urbanisation will almost double the per capita energy requirement, but the policy makers agree that it is the “poor people living in slums (who) are at particularly high risk from the impacts of climate change and natural hazards” and will suffer the loss of basic services, damage or destruction to homes, loss of livelihoods, malnutrition, disease, disability, and loss of life.

This vision, of the poor being the “most vulnerable”, runs like a bleeding artery through most discussions on the impacts of climate change. But if we look at the actual energy consumption figures for electricity, cooking, and transport for different income classes, we find that it is the rich who would have to bring down their total emissions by about half, while the poor could increase their emission load by 100% - and this would clearly impact on lifestyles. Specifically, on electricity, cooking, and transport the rich would have to cut down by 59%, 0%, and 64%, and the poor could increase by 125%, 41%, and 158% respectively, to remain within the boundaries of sustainability. The poor may not have access to good land, potable water, health care, appropriate services, adequate credit, and other resources, but will further impoverishment because of climate change really tip them over the edge? Instead of asking what would happen to the world if everyone were to consume energy at the level of the rich ‘developed’ American, we should enquire why everyone is not consuming at the level of the above-poor ‘developing’ Indian, or the average Indonesian or Bangladeshi?

Most analysts and theoreticians seem to forget that, in practice, the poor illustrate the most amazing capacity to survive. Over and above the resources to which they have limited access, it is their power to use their own labour that enables them to adapt, migrate, and progress in a manner that is not only sustainable from the view of climate change but also may be sustainable in terms of overall resource availability. Some of the data to support this view is only now beginning to emerge from micro-studies in the work of those organisations which are active in mobilising labour to demand their equal and fair share in the economic and ecological spheres, as distinct from the social and political equality that the Constitution of India bestows on them. Thus a study in Vishakhapatnam demonstrates that a slum-dwellers’ plan for low-rise housing costs almost one-tenth that of the municipal plan for four-storied structures in the same plot of land. Studies in Jaipur, Allahabad, and Kolkata show that the sustainable low-energy modes of walking and cycling suffer when development Authorities attempt to replace them by high-energy motorised vehicles.

Thus, the limited data is beginning to show that the poor demonstrate the best practice for mitigating and adapting to climate change, but policy makers seem to have a perspective that differs aggressively from this subaltern view. The vision of incessant growth continues to drive our society, without any consideration of the energy required to power this growth. Greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, climate change will, therefore, continue to haunt the earth as long as this vision persists. The curious thing is that the answer does not lie in a theoretical vision alone, but in the actual practice of the working poor – this is what needs to be grasped by those who wish to combat climate change.

(Dunu Roy is an environmentalist and director of a hazardous centre. The views expressed by the author are his personal.)

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