Falling back on pseudo-science?
Frontline, April 23, 2008
by Praful Bidwai
Indian policymakers are clutching at straws to duck their responsibility to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
AS Indian policymakers come under growing pressure from global scientific and political communities on climate change, they are increasingly resorting to disingenuous, devious or downright specious arguments to avoid taking purposive action to cap and reduce the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are rising three-and-a-half times faster than the world average. Indian policymakers are clutching at straws to duck their responsibility to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
AS Indian policymakers come under growing pressure from global scientific and political communities on climate change, they are increasingly resorting to disingenuous, devious or downright specious arguments to avoid taking purposive action to cap and reduce the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are rising three-and-a-half times faster than the world average.
Instead of acknowledging the universal responsibility that devolves on all states to contain and reverse global warming and demonstrating a strong will to seize the initiative, they are preoccupied with averting or deflecting that pressure.
Three of their arguments are by now familiar. One, hide behind the poor and claim that the developing countries cannot afford to give up on poverty reduction by controlling carbon emissions, which are low in per capita terms and need to increase if all their people are to have access to, say, electricity for lighting. This hides huge (and growing) differentials in consumption, and in GHG contributions, between their own rich and poor and makes blanket per capita comparisons meaningless.
A second argument makes any Indian effort to control GHG emissions conditional upon something else: for instance, emissions trading under the clean development mechanism (CDM) agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol; grants from the rich to develop less carbon-intensive technologies; and incredible as it might seem, international support for the United States-India nuclear deal.
The recent appointment of former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on climate issues has been described in official briefings as signifying India’s intention to “use the climate change argument to push forward its nuclear deal”. As a newspaper reported: “The government is working on the argument that the deal is important for India and good for the world because it addresses the issue of climate change. If India is not to burn the world out of the galaxy sic with fossil fuels, it is in the global interest to let India go through with the nuclear deal.” This argument will come in especially handy if a Democrat becomes the next President of America.
However, as this Column has argued (Frontline September 7, 2007; August 12, 2005), nuclear power can at best make only a marginal contribution to reducing GHGs. Besides, the “give-us-the-deal-or-we’ll-spread-the-plague” line sounds more like a threat from an irresponsible nation than a logically persuasive argument. It is unlikely to find many buyers.
The third argument is that India is already doing enough. As another daily put it: “Saran’s first job” is to “get the record right”, and declare that India is “already clean”. Saran is quoted as saying: “Nationally, we are already doing a lot. While our economy has grown by 8-9 per cent, our energy intensity has only grown by 4 per cent.” Similarly, he contends, India recycles 70 per cent of its waste and is among the leaders in wind energy. It cannot be asked to do more.
This reasoning is dubious. The 70 per cent recycling (of what?) figure has been bandied about without a remotely systematic, let alone rigorous, study. This factoid is probably of the same quality as former Environment Secretary Prodipto Ghosh’s claim that even the affluent in India, with their hugely energy-intensive lifestyles, fuel-guzzling cars and armies of servants, live frugally because they sell off old newspapers.
True, India is the world’s Number 4 in wind energy, but this contributes less than 2 per cent to its power generation. More important is India’s other Number 4 rank: among the world’s biggest GHG emitters, a position from which it has just displaced Japan. Equally, India is already the world’s Number 2 as far as the expansion of coal-based electricity goes.
Much of India’s recent GHG increases have come from the “luxury consumption” of the rich, related to privatised transport, posh housing, air-conditioning, water overuse, and so on. There is huge scope for reducing the energy and carbon intensity of output, which only an irresponsible and profligate country would ignore.
And now, Indian policymakers seem to be seeking solace in outright denial of the need to do anything about global warming at all, in particular, undertake major GHG reductions. On April 2, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia called for a “comprehensive debate on the issue of climate change” because, reported The Hindu, there is “an element of uncertainty” on whether climate change is as serious a threat as projected.
While releasing a report by the Civil Society Coalition on Climate Change (CSCCC) and its Delhi-based affiliate, the Liberty Institute, Ahluwalia said: “It the report needs to be thoroughly discussed, and if it is true, then it is for the developed countries to mitigate the damage caused to the environment while the developing countries can resort to adaptation to prevent global warming.” Significantly, other members of the establishment, including former Environment Minister Suresh Prabhu and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry secretary-general Amit Mitra, besides Liberty Institute office-bearers, were also present at the release.
The report (available at http://www.csccc.info) attacks the principal conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and rejects any capping of GHG emissions as this would be “counterproductive”: undermine economic development, “harm the poor”, and probably fail to address climate change problem “in a meaningful way”.
Instead, it advocates “economic development” (read, limitless market-driven growth) and yet more consumption, denies a link between climate change and the growing incidence of diseases, and zealously demands privatisation of water and other resources and the lifting of all taxes, tariffs, subsidies and entry barriers – to promote “free enterprise”.
Some Indian newspapers gave the report prominent coverage, virtually equating the CSCCC, despite its lack of expertise or scholarship on climate issues, with the IPCC, which has 2,500 scientists from the world over and whose deliberations lasting 20 years led to four detailed peer-reviewed assessment reports.
The CSCCC was only established in February 2007 and has 40-odd member-organisations, which function as industry-friendly think tanks or corporate lobbyists, and have names like the Institute for Free Enterprise, Institute for Market Economics, Hayek Institute, Free Market Foundation, Minimal Government Thinkers, and Liberty Institute. Earlier, the CSCCC was based mainly in western Europe and North America and was coordinated through the so-called International Policy Network; now these groups are trying to spread their influence to India and China. Articles by their members are carried in Indian newspapers.
The CSCCC comprises hard-core libertarians of the Ayn Rand variety, who dogmatically advocate the free market, including “tax freedom”, minimal or no government, unrestricted individual liberties and strong intellectual property regimes. Libertarians are even further to the right than neoliberals. Many CSCCC constituents are funded by big corporations such as ExxonMobil. (See http://www.exxonsecrets.org, and some interesting facts in Manu Sharma’s blog, http://orangehues.com/blog/2008/04/climate-change-in-media-ht-reaches-ne...)
Such libertarians have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to all social, economic and political problems, regardless of context or content. They subordinate democracy, or the rule of the people, to the rule of property. They do not deal with specific issues. For instance, it is irrelevant to them whether and what kind of human activity may have led to global warming and what the multifarious consequences of a rise in the earth’s temperature would be. (In fact, they are anti-environmentalists or are climate change deniers, like Bjorn Lomborg.)
In the past, CSCCC members have questioned the existence of global warming on spurious or frivolous methodological grounds, argued that people should adapt themselves to climate change rather than prevent or stop it, and lobbied governments against signing the Kyoto Protocol and participating in its follow-up conference in Bali.
The CSCCC report is utterly flimsy and fails to grapple with the issues at the heart of the climate debate, including the extent of global warming and its relationship to GHG emissions; the likely physical, ocean-related and climatological effects of a rise in global temperatures under varying scenarios and their consequences for different biological systems, human habitats, health and economic activities; and different ways of stabilising or reducing emissions, their differential costs and the distribution of these costs across different countries.
It only looks at one minuscule aspect, disease, and summarily rejects the World Health Organisation’s detailed findings on the climate–health link. It concludes on the basis of vague, uncorrelated numbers that deaths from climate-related disasters have fallen dramatically since the 1920s as a result of economic growth and technological development. But that is like saying that one should not invest in new medical discoveries because some of the biggest gains in health indices have occurred because of better sanitation and nutrition.
The report is an exercise in charlatanry and sophistry, which adopts a sanctimonious tone in speaking of the poor and their stake in not combating global warming.
What is astonishing is that Ahluwalia should have bestowed respectability upon such a junk-science- based, dogma-driven, fact-free report. True, he “wondered aloud whether …the IPCC could go so horribly wrong as the current report” makes out. But this criticism was oblique and mild, within a general commendation of the document. This stands in sharp contrast to his scathing attack on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, which too he released last year, for asking India to make GHG cuts. In any case, it is doubtful whether he would have lent his weight to a radical (as against corporate or free market) environmental agenda.
It is sad, embarrassing, even shameful, that our policymakers should countenance giving any quarter to libertarianism and fall back on its pseudo-science to resist the eminently reasonable demand that fast-growing, big economies such as China and India must stop using resources profligately, limit elite consumption, adopt energy-efficient technologies and move towards capping their emissions.
Deeper cuts needed
What makes this even more deplorable is the evidence emerging from solid scientific studies that suggests that the world needs to make much deeper cuts in GHG emissions than suggested by the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, or rather, its politically negotiated, widely circulated “Summary for Policymakers”, which has influenced policymakers and the media.
The prestigious science journal Nature (April 3) published a remarkable article entitled “Dangerous assumptions” by Roger Pielke, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green, which argues that the IPCC’s Summary holds that the world economy is moving towards decarbonisation (reduced use of fossil fuels per unit of production) and that energy efficiency (the amount of energy needed to produce, say, Rs.10 crore worth of goods) is falling.
Under this trend, the world will spontaneously achieve about three-fourths of the reduction in GHG emissions needed to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at around 500 parts per million without policy intervention such as tightened regulation and incentives and disincentives. Such reductions are built into the IPCC’s reference scenarios. Thanks to this “free ride” provided by decarbonisation, the world will only have to bring about a much smaller GHG reduction under different scenarios.
“In all scenarios, the IPCC assumes that most of the challenge (between 57 per cent and 96 per cent) of achieving stabilisation …will occur automatically, leaving a much smaller emissions-reduction target for explicit climate policies,” say the authors.
Alas, this is not to be! In reality, the world is recarbonising, “thanks to the economic transformation taking place in the developing world, especially in China and India. As development proceeds, rural populations move to high-rise buildings that consume energy and energy-intensive materials. This process is likely to continue… all over populous South Asia, and eventually Africa, until well beyond 2050.”
The IPCC assumes that Asian carbon dioxide emissions will rise by 2.6 to 8.4 per cent a year between 2000 and 2010. But more realistic estimates, based on actual observation of energy intensity and efficiency, are much higher, as high as 13 per cent for China. Therefore, much deeper GHG cuts will be needed in developing Asia as well as the developed West. These will demand improved efficiencies not just across countries but “in individual energy-using sectors”, especially, heavy energy consumers such as electricity generation, construction and cement, chemicals and metals production.
The IPCC will no doubt revisit these scenarios but is not due to do so until 2013. The world cannot wait that long to start the process of decarbonisation. It has become imperative to break the link between poverty reduction and carbon emissions and recognise that GHG emissions cannot be adequately controlled by setting binding output targets and relying on CDM markets, as Kyoto does. What the world needs is a combination of GHG reduction targets and massive plans for new technology development and technology transfer to developing Asia.
The sooner our policymakers accept this, the better for us.
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