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Errors of emission

After UNAIDS announced that HIV/Aids figures are stabilising, climate change and global warming is, well, hot: the flavour of the season. Supriya Bezbaruah tells us more.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2007 22:38 IST

Like platform heels or skinny jeans, every age has a fashionable cause. For the past two decades, HIV/Aids wore that mantle, with every two-bit celebrity speaking for it, every word on it making headlines. Now, with Unaids announcing that HIV/Aids figures are stabilising, climate change and global warming is, well, hot: the flavour of the season.

The dangers of climate change and global warming are not new. Back in 1992, this was the basis of the Earth Summit in Rio, and the UN Framework on Climate Change, the first international treaty where countries agreed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The Kyoto Protocol, which first set mandatory targets for industrialised nations to reduce emissions of GHGs that are considered responsible for global warming, was adopted in 1997, though, tellingly, ratified only in 2005, and without two key countries, the United States and Australia.

Today, few can doubt that the world is getting warmer or that humans are responsible. We believe it not only because of the cogency of the reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but because we can feel the impact: heat waves and floods, the Katrinas and the Sidrs.

With ‘carbon footprint’ a part of popular vocabulary, Bali, where the 13th UN Conference of Parties is being held this fortnight, promises to be a crowded place. Finally, we all agree the Earth is heading for environmental apocalypse if we continue with business as usual. So what’s being done? Frankly, very little except talk.

According to IPCC, if the annual emission of GHGs remains at today’s levels, by 2050 it will be 550 parts per million (ppm). This means a potentially catastrophic mean global temperature increase of 5º Celcius. That would imply seas rising and submerging half of Bangladesh. Glaciers would melt, leading first to floods and then droughts as rivers run dry. There would be more dengue, more malaria, more diarrhoea. And South-east Asia and Africa would be vulnerable.

Limiting emission levels to 480 ppm by 2050 would mean a temperature increase of 2º Celcius — still dangerous, but feasible. That would,
however, require a global emissions cut of 50-80 per cent over 1990 levels. That’s neat mathematics, can it be done?

The UNDP’s Human Development Report 2007/2008 argues for a multilateral framework that combines a long-term goal of 50 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 with medium-term benchmarks. Consider though that the Kyoto Protocol asked developed countries to commit to only 7 per cent reduction in emissions at 1990 levels by 2012. In reality, between 1990 and 2005, rich country emissions went up by 11 per cent.

That’s almost inevitable, as the world has nothing to replace the fossil fuels that power its economies. As one government insider put it, “If, for example, we put solar panels across several hundred kilometres of the Rajasthan desert, we would probably have enough energy to meet our needs. but it is currently not cost-effective.” Making it cost-effective, then, is the technology challenge. A lot is being said about who should cut emissions and by how much, there is not enough focus on how to do it.

India has stressed the issue of equity. To the argument that growing economies like India should also have emissions targets, its answer is that it cannot afford to do so and still tackle poverty. Indeed, India’s carbon report is not bad so far — per capita carbon emission is approximately one tonne per annum, compared to a world average of four tonnes. In June, at the G-7 meet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised India’s per capita GHG emissions would not exceed those of developed countries. A similar case was argued at the Asean meet in November.

Diplomatic energies are being used to ensure targets are not imposed on India. An admittedly clever coinage is that China is a ‘developed developing’ country and India only a ‘developing developing’ country and so India need not be expected to do even what China does.

But beyond words, what is our stand? While energy efficiency policies have been put in place, such as the labelling programme for appliances, a long-range plan of clear-cut, achievable goals is missing. A draft Strategic Action Plan has reportedly led to so many disagreements among ministries that it has to be reworked. For a country likely to be one of the worst affected by climate change, this is quite amazing.

Developed countries have got to where they are by the cheap and dirty industrial path, followed by clean-up acts later. This is a model India simply cannot afford. It has to think differently and leapfrog to and invest much more in clean technology. It has been estimated that to maintain the current 8-9 per cent rate of GDP growth, our energy needs will increase by 4 per cent per annum. At present, India is the world’s fourth largest energy consumer. More than half its needs are met by coal, and about 30 per cent by oil. Less than a third is met by renewable energy, mainly hydropower. ‘New’ renewable energy plays a minuscule role.

In all the hype, it is important not to delink climate change from the larger issue of environmental pollution. The GHGs are also part of toxic air pollutants that lead to diseases ranging from asthma to cancer. According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution is among the top 10 causes of death and disability worldwide. Quite apart from climate change, the health cost of pollution would be phenomenal.

Introduced in March 2007, mandatory energy audits for large industries are a good idea. But to be effective, India’s 4.5 million small and medium industrial units also have to be brought into the fold. These units contribute 70 per cent of India’s industrial pollution, largely due to obsolete technology, while being responsible for 40 per cent of industrial production. Yet, they are a major source of employment, and, therefore, political influence.

Even if we could implement our current environmental norms it would help. But India’s agencies are grossly understaffed. According to a World Bank report, the Central Pollution Control Board has around 500 employees. The China Environment Protection Agency has 1,647 and the United States Environmental Protection Agency has 18,000 nationwide. At India’s state pollution control boards, a quarter of sanctioned posts are vacant.

Either we act quickly, or prepare to join the dinosaurs. Alternatively, find another planet. Anyone bound for Earth 2.0?

(Supriya Bezbaruah is based in New Delhi and writes on science and health)