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India must show leadership on climate change

BY PRAFUL BIDWAI / 17 December 2005

THE world can breathe a sigh of relief that more than 150 countries agreed at the Montreal climate conference to hold further talks to counter global warming. So the Kyoto Protocol, agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is secure — despite opposition from the United States, which accounts for 24 of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Under Kyoto, 36 industrialised countries must reduce emissions by 5.2  (over 1990 levels) by 2008-2012. At Montreal they agreed to make deeper cuts post-2012. China and India, with their gargantuan appetite for energy, agreed to play an active role in future talks, but accept no targets.

Montreal’s message, that the world’s future lies in clean and sustainable technologies, was so powerful that even the US blinked and returned to the conference after walking out. Washington now says it’ll join exploratory talks for a non-binding agreement.

While significant, Montreal’s gains shouldn’t be exaggerated. It took the best of the world’s climate scientists and environmentalists a quarter-century to highlight the significance of climate change. The Kyoto targets are so meagre that it would take 30 such protocols just to stabilise GHG concentrations at twice their level at the time of the Industrial Revolution! The Protocol also exempted developing countries from emission cuts, including large polluters like China, India and Brazil. Major Northern emitters like the US and Australia stayed away from Kyoto altogether.

Drastic worldwide GHG emissions cuts are an absolute imperative. Humanity has been living off the globe’s natural capital and has wrought enormous environmental changes. The potentially most destructive change is the rise in the globe’s average temperature by almost 10C since the Industrial Revolution. The resultant melting of polar icecaps has generated more heat and raised sea levels.

This has altered the world’s complex climate, including different streams, winds, submarine currents, circulation systems and rainfall. The effects are already visible-through the 2003 heat wave, which killed 35,000 in Europe, not to speak of last winter’s freak snowfall in Dubai, and a doubling of the ferocity of hurricanes everywhere over 30 years. South Asia too has been affected — witness Mumbai’s extraordinary 944 mm rainfall on July 18, and more frequent cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that in 2005 alone, global warming caused damage equivalent to $200 billion. Indian scientists say that climate change wrought a drop in India’s agricultural output in 2002-03 and 2003-04. Wheat yields fell 20-40 , and mustard yields by 50-70 , in 2002-03. The World Health Organisation says climate change annually causes five million cases of illness and more than 150,000 deaths. Some of the world’s poorest countries will suffer a doubling of deaths from malaria, diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition by 2030 owing to climate change. Low-lying countries face the grimmest prospect. The FCCC’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global temperatures will rise by 1.4 to 5.80C by 2100. This will raise sea levels by 88 cm. Entire countries like Maldives will disappear. Tragically, the worst-affected will be the world’s least polluting countries: island-nations on the Pacific and Indian Ocean coastlines and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Alarming forecasts for India come from a recent Indo-British scientific study. This predicts a temperature rise of 3 to 40C in India, causing droughts in the North and Northeast, and floods in the Ganga, Godavari and Krishna basins.

The worst threat to the subcontinent comes from the rapid melting of icecaps on the Tibetan plateau and the receding of Himalayan glaciers. That’s where seven of Asia’s greatest rivers, including the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra originate. The likely effects — floods, followed by long-term droughts — will be devastating.

All this calls for urgent measures which go far beyond Kyoto. Kyoto must be defended against ecologically irresponsible governments, like Washington. But Kyoto is both grossly inadequate and flawed. Besides mandating paltry GHG reductions, it encourages carbon trading-through a system of "credits", which polluting Northern corporations can buy cheap through "clean development mechanism" projects in the South. Most such projects are unworthy. A Dutch study indicates that they will at best reduce GHG emissions by 0.1  — well below even the Kyoto target!

The world must reduce emissions by 80  over 30 years. To achieve this, it must shift to non-fossil fuel, renewable and environmentally sound energy; move away from energy-intensive agriculture; and conserve water. This means huge cuts in consumption in the North, but also in fast-growing Southern economies.

It’s simply dishonest for major Southern emitters like India and China to argue that the North accounts for three-fourths of GHG emissions; their own per capita emissions are below the global average (4.1 tonnes of CO2); and so they needn’t undertake reductions. The global average is unacceptably high. China and India are fast approaching it — although they are below the US’s criminal level of 20 tonnes.

There are huge consumption disparities between rich and poor in the South. The Indian elite is increasingly adopting Northern consumption-intensive lifestyles. It’s unethical for it to hide behind the poverty of the people — only to feed its monstrous appetite for SUVs (fuel-guzzling sport-utility vehicles with their truck-level emissions) and air conditioners, shop in glittering malls, and generate US-level per capita wastes.

India must change its unsustainable growth-model. Each time its economy grows by 6 , GHG emissions rise by 8 . This must stop.

India had seized the initiative at the world’s first major conference on the environment, at Stockholm in 1972. It must now show leadership in rolling back climate change. It must rescind the odious environmental deal it signed in July with five high-emission countries like the US, China, Japan and Australia. It must try to bring "environmental rogues" into the FCCC process. And it must set a positive example by proposing emission-reduction standards for the South with due regard to an equitable sharing of global environmental resources.

The Indian government’s domestic task is clearly cut out: ban SUVs, steeply raise taxes on air conditioners and other high-energy gadgets, discourage private transport, and promote renewables. That’s the way India can make a worthy contribution to the world.

Praful Bidwai is veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at bidwai@bol.net.in
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