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There’s more to life than GDP

In many spheres,technologies that can affect major savings are already at hand. The Integrated Energy Policy...

Written by Arun Shourie |
July 3, 2009 3:16:18 am

In many spheres,technologies that can affect major savings are already at hand. The Integrated Energy Policy prepared by the Planning Commission estimates that India can generate negawatts — watts saved — up to 15 per cent of its electricity consumption just by better demand management. In the same way,to continue with the example cited earlier,major savings in energy consumption can be affected by more thoughtful design of buildings. Similarly,the least expensive way for fixing carbon still remains forestation. It is necessary,therefore,that these better practices be pursued — through pricing,through enforcement,through introducing them in curricula: to continue the buildings example,for instance,through more thoughtful curricula in schools of architecture.

But it is just as evident that in many areas new technologies have to be developed — and that,what with its large and grossly underutilised technological manpower,there is a great opportunity for India to develop these technologies. India will be well-advised to set up national research missions to develop items such as the following:

• A cheaper and more efficient photovoltaic cell;

• Cheaper and more efficient wind turbines;

• The entire range of technologies and construction techniques that would enable us to set up off-shore wind farms along our extensive coast;

• Technologies to harness tidal power;

• An efficient hydrogen fuel cell;

• Clean coal processes;

• Desalination of sea water using solar and wind energies that are available in virtually endless supply along India’s long coastline;

• Fast breeder nuclear reactors;

• The thorium cycle for nuclear power

Few steps would repay as handsomely as effort by government and industry to harness India’s technological and engineering talent for affecting breakthroughs in products and processes such as these. The pioneering work that Japan’s MITIE did in bringing industrial firms,government laboratories,technological personnel together is the example that India should emulate.

We should be doing each of these things on our own. Yet the civil society,and that includes the media,as well as the international community can take steps that would induce a country like India to act faster than it is otherwise likely to do.

Measures that would induce India to take these steps

First,given the ease with which discourse can be derailed — “The demands to cap our emissions are a conspiracy to cap our growth”; given the weight of inertia,of just going on repeating our oft-stated position,given the comfort that intellectual laziness provides,we must multiply manifold the efforts to inform people of the opportunity that climate remediation presents for India. One aspect,of course,is that as a country that has a vast reservoir of engineering and technical talent,as a country that has developed capacities in these fields,we are well positioned to develop solutions — that we can adopt for our own benefit and also market to others the world over. But there is,in addition,an immediate financial windfall that we can gather. Today,even an alert reader of newspapers is unlikely to know that,once the US also comes on board,the market in carbon trade will rise to almost two trillion dollars,that we can earn billions of this vast amount by adopting green practices. Few would know of the financing that is becoming available for adopting energy saving technologies. Few would know the current moves to craft regimes that would allow green technologies to be transferred with greater ease. Once benefits such as these,benefits that are available here and now,get better known,it would be that much more difficult to scare people away from the course corrections that we would be required to make in the wake of new international agreements.

Of course,the higher the price that is put on carbon emissions,the larger the funds that are made available for technology transfer,the larger the funds that are made available for adopting more energy efficient among existing technologies,the easier it will be to induce India and other countries to do right. Hence,every step taken towards raising the price of carbon,of increasing the funds available for technology transfers,for adoption of better technologies,will accelerate the change we all want realised.

Next,it is imperative that the measures that are prescribed and the targets that are set are fair and transparent. Just as it is wrong for India to peg its negative stance on the fact that our per capita emissions are as yet low,it is just as unwarranted for others to use the rate at which emissions will increase to urge tough measures to India: with a low base,a given increase will register as a high rate. The fair way would be to use the share that a country has in the increase of total emissions and prescribe measures that it must adopt accordingly? Similarly,clubbing China and India — as is done often when presenting data on likely increases in emissions as a result of new coal-based power plants — is misleading: China is adding a multiple of megawatts from coal-based power generation every year than India is adding. To club the two,pronounce them equally responsible,and thereby urge curtailments of the same magnitude can only provoke resistance.

Fairness includes transparency for,in addition to being fair,the measures must be seen to be fair. Non-proliferation provides a ready lesson. One of the reasons on account of which agreements such as NPT,CTBT,FMCT have not made the progress they might have is that there has not been in place a verification mechanism that is under international control. When verification is left to individual countries that,at that time have the technical capacities to verify,things come to hang on their convenience. To cite just one instance,that the US agencies knew about A.Q. Khan’s bazaar for years has by now been well documented. They shut their eyes to it; indeed,they squashed investigators among their own staffs who unearthed the evidence and were insisting that it be acted upon. Therefore,for a regime of measures necessary for climate remediation to be acceptable,the methods of prescribing the obligations of individual countries,and of assessing the extent to which the countries are adhering to them,must be under international control.

Fourth,while in the first instance obligations have to be prescribed country-wise,for concrete action plans to be drawn up,it is necessary that we disaggregate. After all,the extent to which the formal,organised industrial sector is contributing to the total emissions emanating from,say,India is very different from the extent to which the vast numbers engaged in the agricultural sector are contributing. Disaggregation will help twice over — it will help acquire the critical constituencies that are required to back the requisite measures,and it is necessary to devise actionable plans. We should,therefore,prescribe steps industry-wise,sector-wise. Doing so will also show that the entire programme is manageable — in that drastic reorientation is required of a few,not from all.

Fifth,prescriptions need to be better tuned. Every conference these days ends with the declaration,“India must spend much,much more on infrastructure.” The infrastructure that these conferences urge India to spend more on,the infrastructure with which such advisors get satisfied with,is the conventional energy-intensive one: the materials used,the methods of construction,the end-product have all the hallmarks that the very same advisors,when they are talking of climate change and the like,urge India to avoid!

Sixth,few things would help as much as international collaboration in research and development of green technologies and products. One aspect of this,of course,is that a country like India has the talent to be an effective partner: that over 300 of the world’s leading firms have set up R&D centres in India is testimony. But there is another aspect also: few things will persuade Indians to adopt beneficent technologies in general than the fact that other countries have adopted technologies and solutions that have been developed here in India.

Seventh,in our concern for the large things that need to be done to forestall climate change,we must not forget run-of-the-mill pollution — the chemicals that paint or textile or pulp and paper or leather factories discharge into our rivers,the noxious fumes that cause respiratory diseases in our cities. A great deal of work had been done to bring these,and the corrections that were necessary into the public mind a few years ago. With everyone having been gripped by climate change,the earlier concerns have receded. Yet the malpractices remain,as do their ill-effects.

Finally,the question of what our position should be in the forthcoming negotiations at Copenhagen is too important to be left to the government. Ever so often leaving such a matter to “government” means in effect leaving it to three or four officers. And the easiest thing for them to do is to look up what the position has been in previous rounds,and find half a dozen more reasons by which to fortify it. That would be a gross mistake,as we have seen. Hence,organisations,experts,groups that are not adjuncts of government should take up the task: draw up alternative positions that the country may take on each of the elements that are liable to come up at Copenhagen,and set out the relative merits of each alternative.

A reassessment that goes deeper

Each of these steps is necessary: each will restore and preserve the environment; each will spur growth. But we require to rethink at a deeper level. Today,our entire discourse is centred around whether we will be growing at 6.7 per cent or 7.6 per cent. Quite apart from the fact that the way our GDP,etc. are estimated,such discourse places a concreteness on these numbers that is just not warranted,obsession with such growth rates obscures what is growing at these rates. Even a little reflection shows that were India to continue to pursue western consumption patterns and production processes,twenty years hence all the steps taken together would have proved inadequate. There just aren’t the resources that could sustain that energy intensive,high consumption,fossil-fuel dependent “growth.” Nor is it evident that higher and higher consumption and production of those commodities and services is what will contribute to what the Bhutanese have correctly identified as the goal towards which societies should strive — Gross National Happiness.

India produces more and more automobiles today; and that is growth. As a result,traffic moves slower and slower in its cities,burning up more and more petrol; that is even higher growth. Pedestrians and passengers inhale the fumes; they contract respiratory ailments; as a consequence,they spend more on doctors and medicines — thereby they contribute doubly to growth. If,as a result of illnesses and expenses,their marriages come under strain and fall apart,they make another contribution to growth by the amounts they spend on lawyers and courts… Assume for a moment that the persons in question are industrialists and,driven out of their minds by these traumas,they wind up their establishments in Delhi and set up industries in the NorthEast. They cut down all the trees,and start shipping the processed timber back to Delhi — that is growth thrice over: the destruction of wealth,the forests,does not count; the value they collect for the timber,including the amounts expended on transporting it all that distance,is what counts,and the value of buildings which the timber would have facilitated.

Is this the “growth” that India will be celebrating twenty years from now?


The writer is a BJP MP

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