The clock is ticking

Climate change

The clock is ticking

Climate reports from around the world suggest that the baneful effects of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon-dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, are hurting many counties earlier than forecast.

The United States under George Bush was in denial about climate change. President Obama is not but may be unable to commit to joining a global treaty, because of legislative roadblocks. India and China for years blamed the rich countries for fouling the environment to reach their present lifestyles. Both have comprehensive and ambitious plans in place to reduce their CO2 emissions accompanying their rapid economic growth. Both need to burn coal to power their growth. Rich countries must sharply reduce emissions. India and China must moderate emissions but sustain economic growth.

Economic growth for China and India requires them to catch up with the lifestyles of ‘rich’ countries. We have no alternative path to growth. So we have rising electricity generation, soaring automotive traffic, industrialisation, glass fronted buildings, urbanisation, infrastructure construction, depleting ground water, deforestation and so on. These are major causes of CO2 emissions and we will rapidly add to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere produced by the ‘rich’. To produce fewer emissions the ‘rich’ must change lifestyles, politically a hazardous act.

More than internet, communications and entertainment, climate change is the first true sign of globalisation. Governments might control the movement of goods, people and ideas, but cannot prevent CO2 emissions from affecting climate, hurting people in innocent poor countries and citizens of the emitting countries. Beijing and Bangalore may be far apart in infrastructure, but Bangalore is catching up on pollution and carbon emissions. London and Tokyo were unlivable but prosperity helped them clean up. They had time but we cannot wait for prosperity to take actions for reducing emissions and pollution.

We must moderate our demands for more carbon emitting products and services. We could use the market, taxes and the price mechanism to achieve this end. Small cars like the Nano will expand the car owning population, further raising production of high carbon emitting industries like steel, aluminum, rubber, electronics items, etc, overload road networks add to smog and increase the rapidity of global climate change. We must make usage of high carbon emitting products expensive, whether petrol or vehicles or others, by taxing them heavily.

Encouraging more public transport and non-polluting vehicles must accompany improvement in energy efficiencies of highly energy intensive industries.

State governments must imitate Delhi by stimulating use of compressed natural gas instead of petrol, phasing out aging vehicles, and as in Europe, pedestrianise congested urban centres, use synchronised traffic lights to reduce cars stopping and starting and burning more fuel; levy congestion taxes on vehicles in densely crowded parts of cities.

Shun ethanol

While we must encourage wind and solar energy, we must abandon the misguided effort to produce ethanol from sugarcane. We will cause food prices to rise as land is diverted. The USA is hurting millions of the world’s poor by subsidising corn for producing ethanol, and reducing production of wheat and soybean. Technological advances are predicted to use agricultural wastes, for producing bio fuels.

Fiscal measures must restrain airlines growth, another carbon emitter. Green and ‘clean coal’ technologies, alternative fuels for automobiles and airlines, setting and enforcing strict pollution standards, investment in research and development for cleaning the fuels in use, can help us give future generations a safe environment. Rationing the use of ground water, more efficient agricultural pumpsets, controlling urban ground water extraction, conserving rainwater through check dams and harvesting structures, can reduce electricity use and carbon emissions.

Our national renewable energy policy has targets and plans for supporting and accelerating power generation from renewables. It proposes a supportive fiscal regime, single window clearance, leveraging additional budgetary resources from other departments of government, preferential prices for renewable electricity, etc. But the targets are too modest. We need  specifics, such as social cost benefit calculations to discount higher renewable energy costs for their lack of damage to climate to make it more competitive in price to coal.

Climate change, mitigation (not reduction) of emissions, and renewable energy, are connected. They need dissemination, publicity and more ambitious targets. They require measures of taxation of emitting industries and energy sources, incentives and tax breaks to renewables and reworking earlier incentives. India has many pressures on limited resources like security threats, health, sanitation, water supply, irrigation and education. But mitigating climate change should not get short shrift.

There is yet no proven way to reduce carbon emissions from coal, nor coal usage. Better boilers, more efficient generation and use of energy, less use of petrol and diesel, more renewables usage, can reduce our carbon footprint. To counter climate change, the world must reinvent itself to new energy efficiency paradigms. India can innovate and build global leadership on renewables. We must balance economic growth and employment against the damage we cause to our local environment.

If we are to save the world from climate induced disasters, India (and other countries) has to resolve the dilemma of growing emissions, unaffordable cleaner energy costs for the poor and inadequate available alternatives.

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