Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

Changing course on climate

The official position that has been articulated on behalf of India at various international fora is built around the....

The official position that has been articulated on behalf of India at various international fora is built around the following four propositions:

n On a per capita basis,emissions from India that harm world climate — CO2 and the rest — are much,much less than those from the developed countries;

n India is affecting perceptible,indeed substantial improvements —- in area covered by forests [that is,in sequestering carbon,in energy efficiency [for instance,in energy-intensive industries like cement and steel,in improving the quality of air,etc.;

n Several of the measures and protocols that are being suggested will curb India’s growth rate,and,thereby,perpetuate India’s poverty;

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n And it is poverty which is the greatest pollution,it is also the greatest polluter: hence,India shall continue to strive to eliminate poverty and maximize growth. As they are the principal doers of harm,the developed countries must do their bit first before compelling countries like India into curbing their growth.

Even as the fragments of data are correct,the position,if sustained,will inflict grave harm on India in the coming twenty years — both in exacerbating problems — problems that it will be extremely expensive and difficult to remedy later — and in foreclosing the enormous opportunities that remedial measures taken now hold for India. There are several reasons for this.

First,that others have problems,that others are exacerbating their problems and ours,is little consolation: the deterioration that has taken place in India’s environment during the last 30 years because of things happening within India inflicts grave harm on Indians,here and now. Rivers like the Yamuna became rivulets; by now they have become toxic drains. The alarming increase in arsenic in North Bengal,the ailments that befall Indians because of polluted ponds,or because of smoke and fumes within hutments,from the woeful condition of sanitation,from the air in metropolitan cities getting affected because of the sharp increase in vehicular traffic — these have nothing to do with what the developed countries are doing,and are not going to abate by anything that the latter may undertake to do.


Second,neither the draft on environment nor the pattern of development which underlies it are sustainable:

n India’s per capita energy consumption is one-tenth that of OECD average,it is one-sixteenth of that in the USA; at even the optimistic forecasts for nuclear and hydro power projects,coal-fired power plants are expected to generate 60 per cent of India’s electricity in 2030. What would be the effect on air-quality were India’s pattern of growth to take it near the per capita power consumption of the developed world?

n Only 10 in a thousand Indians own a car; 700 of 1000 do so in the OECD countries. What would happen to availability of space were India to aspire to meet the transportation needs of a billion people through the private automobile?


n Underground fires in India’s coal belt — in particular,in the Dhanbad-Jharia landmass — constitute the highest incidence of such fires in the world. Apart from the danger such fires present,do the fires not represent an avoidable loss of resources?

n Were India and China to aim at attaining the levels and pattern of consumption typical of the OECD countries today,what would be the draft on the world’s resources? Would India be able to hold its own in the race that would ensue for resources? Look at the strain to which it is already being put in attempting to secure oil as against China.

n If things continue as they are,between now and 2050,close to five hundred million people will be added to our cities. Seeing what the condition is of our cities today; seeing what will be required to provide the infrastructure that just the existing urban population needs; given how much will be required to renew the proportion of existing infrastructure that would require replacement over the next thirty years; will we have the resources to provide the infrastructure that another five hundred million — that is,half the total population of India today — will require by that date? And there is another factor: as a recent report of the Emerging Markets Forum points out,by that time our per capita incomes may be what that of Spain are today. As a result,the quality of urban services demanded will be higher.

In a word,India must do its bit — both for itself,and also for the world: while the amounts of emissions and pollutants that it releases per capita are lower than those of the developed countries,the totals of these are large,and,were it to persist in acquiring consumption levels and adopting production processes of the developed world,they will become fatally large because of the size of its population. As Lester Brown has pointed out,the ecological footprint of the developed world is 32 times that of other countries. Were China and India to make the same draft on resources,it would be as if the population of the world had tripled; were all countries to do so,it will be as if the population of the world had increased to 72 billion. The time to correct our course is now.

Third,it is far more expensive to remedy the environment after damaging it than it is to take preventive action. The former Soviet Union is a recent and vivid example of the costs that mindless “development” entails. The fate of an Aral Sea is also a reminder that a society must change course early — the longer its gestation period,the earlier must the remedy be instituted.


Fourth,far from arresting growth,steps to preserve and restore the environment present a great economic opportunity for India. The nearest opportunity is afforded by the two-trillion dollar market in carbon trade under the Clean Development Mechanism. But this is the lesser  opportunity. Each solution that India develops for its own problems will be something that it can either market or gift to other countries as they also face the same problems. Alternate fuels; microbes that break up pollutants; processes and equipment to desalinate sea water using solar and wind energy; an efficient and hygienic composting toilet; organic and bio-fertilizers,insecticides and pesticides rather than chemical ones; technologies to recycle waste and water. Each of these alternatives would provide sustainable employment. And for many of them the very areas that are today “backward” have the greatest advantage: for organic farming,the “backward” states of Madhya Pradesh,Chattisgarh,Jharkhand,eastern UP,slow to use chemical fertilisers,insecticides and pesticides — have a head start.    

Fifth,it isn’t that we just have to accommodate another five hundred million in our cities in the coming thirty years,and,therefore,that we just have to build the infrastructure that that level of urbanisation will require. There is another way: instead of going on locating economic activity in urban conglomerates,and then expending resources in alleviating the condition in slums,why not strive to provide urban facilities in rural areas,and thereby stem migration in the first place?


Sixth,as much as other countries,India will be confronted with massive,perhaps insuperable problems if climate does change to the degree it certainly will if little is done to reverse course: the melting of Himalayan glaciers will,after a temporary burst of increased water supply,leave the entire North Indian plain in the grip of acute water famine; similarly,if China continues to denude eastern Tibet,the pattern of monsoons will be affected. Moreover,ecological deterioration in our neighbours will have direct repercussions for us. What happens if each country keeps putting off remedial action till the others begin to take it? To take just one instance,forty six per cent of the population of Bangladesh lives within 50 miles of the coast. If,following India’s lead and that of China,each country keeps putting off remedial steps till the others have taken them,and global warming proceeds apace,how will India cope with the inundation of scores of millions from Bangladesh? But how can we persuade others to act if we do not act ourselves? By example,not by hectoring.

Seventh,successes have been registered everywhere — within India as much as in Europe and elsewhere. These have not curtailed growth: quite the contrary,they have saved the countries from the resources they would have had to expend to deal with the consequences of “growth”. Within India itself,the swiftness with which land has regenerated itself the moment elementary steps have been taken to cordon it; the substantial increases that have ensued in the incomes and assets of the community once local water-bodies have been restored,are for all to see. Considerable amelioration in pollutants discharged has been affected even in traditionally notorious polluters like the leather and paper and pulp industries. Similarly,individual corporate firms have shown how they can benefit society as well as improve their bottom-lines simultaneously: for almost five years now,ITC has been storing and sequestering twice the amount of CO2 than it emits; over the last seven years now,it has created rainwater harvesting capacity that is thrice the amount of water it consumes; and by now it recycles all its waste. Such examples abound. When these firms can execute these beneficent programmes and simultaneously improve their profitability,why can these solutions not be made a feature of the general pattern of the development of India over the next 20 years?  


For all these reasons,and for sheer survival,India must take several steps to preserve and improve its environment — from the kitchen in the hut to its once-mighty rivers.

The first requisite is to stop striving for ever more accurate measurements,to stop being satisfied with ever better descriptions of the problem — both being almost the reflex actions of researchers and academics in India.  Instead of getting yet another — even if it be a demonstrably more accurate — measurement of air pollution,India’s scientific institutions would serve India and the world better by developing a better filter for the automobile exhaust. Few remain in doubt that the climate is changing,and that man-made actions are making an entirely avoidable contribution to that change. And there is Pascal’s wager in any case: even if it is not deteriorating at the rate at which a host of studies show it is,the prudent thing to do is to rectify our ways now so that fifty years from now we do not have to alter our ways even more drastically.

The second imperative is enforcement. On environment as on so many other subjects,India has a plethora of laws and regulations. The problem is that they are not being enforced — instead,so many of them have been converted into “octroi posts”,obstacles that are placed in the way only to be lifted after pockets have been filled.

The third set of steps that need to be taken are on the fiscal side. Ecologists estimate that the world spends $ 700 billion each year to damage the environment,in terms of harmful subsidies. India contributes its share — it subsidises chemical fertilisers,coal and the like. Their fiscal burden cannot be sustained for long. But the greater injury is that they help congeal consumption and production patterns that injure public health even as they make India more dependent on resources that will soon be exhausted. These subsidies should,therefore,be weeded out. On the other side,India has the opportunity to pioneer green taxation — to tax commodities and processes by their ecological footprint and by the quantum of non-renewable resources they use,and to go on reducing individual and corporate taxes as revenues from these green taxes flow in.

Again,given the Indian penchant for “paralysis by analysis”,it will do well not to defer action till it alights upon the ideal rates of taxation of different commodities and processes. The level that will actually make the commodities and processes expensive enough to make consumers and producers actually switch to alternatives is what should be mandated. 

(To be concluded)

The writer is a BJP MP

First published on: 02-07-2009 at 10:29:01 pm
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