January 29, 2010 (From my weekly syndicated column which is carried in rediff.com, 'The Kashmir Times', 'The Assam Tribune', 'Lokmat', 'Madhyamam', 'Rashtriya Sahara', 'Navhind Times', 'Rajasthan Patrika', 'Deshbandhu', 'Kalantar' and other papers.)

by Praful Bidwai

The conference outcome was the so-called Copenhagen Accord—a flimsy, ineffective, non-binding agreement between less than 30 countries among the 193 present. It undermines many gains made in the UNFCCC process, including the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) and the Kyoto Protocol. Instead of a compact to make greenhouse emissions peak by 2020, and then fall sharply so as to limit global warming to 1.5° to 2° C, the Accord absolves the major polluters of their climate-related obligations and will probably lead to a 3.5° to 4° C rise.

This is a massive setback. But not to be discounted are recent disclosures about flaws in the scientific data and conclusions underlying expert assessments which have shaped opinion among climate negotiators and the public. One of these was the Global Climate Project, based at a British university, which concluded that climate change is happening much faster than thought earlier.

Climate change-deniers hacked into the project researchers’ personal emails to claim that they deliberately manipulated data to suit predetermined conclusions. Although the claim is based on a certain interpretation of colloquial expressions such as “fix”—which might mean fitting different observations into a curve, rather than a straight line—these disclosures showed the researchers in an uncomplimentary light. But so strong is the evidence from numerous laboratories, institutions and scientists the world over that “feedback” effects like melting of polar ice-sheets and glaciers are accelerating climate change, that the disclosures didn’t cause grave damage.

More serious damage was wrought by the disclosures that certain statements about the melting of Himalayan glaciers by the supposedly authoritative Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are unsupported by robust facts. The FAR, released in 2007, draws on the work of over 4,000 scientists worldwide, which is meant to be subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. All its assertions must be supported by references from peer-reviewed journals.

The Working Group-2 FAR states that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world and … the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 … is very high” at the current global warming rate. This, turns out, was not drawn from a scientific journal, but from a report from the advocacy group WWF, which based itself on a 1999 British popular-science magazine New Scientist report quoting Indian glaciologist SI Hasnain. Prof Hasnain is an established scientist with more than 30 papers in international journals. He says he told the New Scientist that the glaciers are melting rapidly, but didn’t mention the year 2035—which is “speculation”. The New Scientist reporter is quoted as saying he stands by his story.

Whatever the truth, four things are clear. First, Prof Hasnain didn’t contradict the report until now. He referred to it in some of his recent presentations. Second, the “speculation” originates in a paper by Russian scientist VM Kotlyakov, which suggested that the Himalayan glaciers are likely to disappear by 2350. The figure was transposed as 2035. Third, the IPCC failed to cross-check the source. Finally, the Report contains a grossly erroneous statement on the area of the Himalayan glaciers—500,000 sq km, 16 times higher than the scientifically-accepted figure.

These may be the only errors in the 3,000-page FAR. But they are significant. The IPCC has issued a retraction. But some damage has been done. This only underscores the need to tighten IPCC peer-review norms. It’s absurd to claim, like IPCC chairman and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) director RK Pachauri, that the retraction has “strengthened” the Panel’s credibility. The claim that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 is unconvincing. Some major glaciers are 300 or 500 metres thick. Even if their thickness is annually shrinking by 5 metres, they won’t vanish in 25 years. The melting rate may also change in the future.

Scientists simply don’t know enough to make such predictions. The Himalayas are not as well-studied or -photographed as, say, the Alps. Scientists use various methods to study glacier behaviour—visual imagery, remote-sensing, measurement of glacier length, snout positions, and discharge volumes, and changes in mass. Mass balance is the most reliable measure. But very few Himalayan sites have been studied with new mass-balance measurement techniques. So scientists cannot confidently predict the precise behaviour of even some of the Himalayas’ 12,000-15,000 glaciers. Climatology, glaciology and mountain science are still evolving.

This doesn’t mean that the Himalayan glaciers aren’t receding. Numerous solidly-researched studies by Western, Indian, Chinese, Pakistani and Nepalese scientists show that they are shrinking. A study of 1,317 glaciers in 11 places documents a 16 percent area loss since 1962. Another study of glaciers including Pindari, Gangotri and Dokriani says the retreat ranges between 5 and 49 metres. Their mass balance too has declined. Water discharges from many have decreased.

This stands to reason. Glaciers everywhere are shrinking. In the Himalayas, warming is two to four times higher than in the plains. As glaciers shrink, black rock is exposed. This reflects back only 5 percent of sunlight, compared to 80 percent for snow/ice. This accelerates melting. The consequences of glacier melting in the Himalayas—the world’s Third Pole and Asia’s Water Tower—are frightening. They feed seven of Asia’s greatest river systems, including the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Mekong.

Further studies are necessary. But that’s no reason for not urgently beginning to address some of the causes of rapid glacier melting. Among the causes is Black Carbon or soot generated from the incomplete combustion of diesel, coal and biomass. Black Carbon, according to one estimate, accounts for one-third to one-half of glacier recession. In South Asia, cookstoves burning fuelwood, twigs, vegetable residues and cowdung are a major Black Carbon source, and cause respiratory problems among women who use primitive chulhas in unventilated kitchens. Such indoor pollution is estimated to kill 400,000 annually.

Yet, the vast majority of rural households use biomass-based cookstoves with a thermal efficiency of 1-2 percent because they are poor and have no access to clean fuel like liquefied petroleum gas. There’s an imperative need to shift to efficient cookstoves—by redeploying the existing subsidy on kerosene, largely burnt as a lighting fuel (Rs 30,000 crores) to provide LPG to villages. Biomass-burning cookstoves too need improvement. Simultaneously, kerosene lamps must be displaced by solar home-lighting, which is cheaper than extending the grid to the 1-lakh-plus unelectrified villages (of a total of 6 lakhs). This is a complex and daunting task.

However, instead of innovatively addressing the task, Indian policy-makers are playing blame-games. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has launched a broadside against Dr Pachauri. He claims that the IPCC’s retraction “fully vindicates” his position.

It’s hard to accuse Mr Ramesh of holding only one position on anything. On Himalayan glaciers, he has three: they aren’t melting at all—it’s all Western propaganda; two, some glaciers are retreating, but some are expanding, so there’s no clear trend; and three, the glaciers may not be retreating, but they are in “poor health”. The science runs against the first two propositions and doesn’t vindicate the third. “Poor health” is related to glacier recession.

Mr Ramesh made a mess of India’s climate negotiations. At Copenhagen, Prime Minister Singh and he signed the collusive Copenhagen Accord along with other leaders of BASIC (Brazil, South Africa and China). Last week, BASIC decided to reaffirm CBDR and the Kyoto Protocol and demanded deep cuts from the developed North in a binding new agreement. This effectively means rescinding the Accord. But the US is unlikely to do that, having secured what it wanted. India committed a blunder by yielding to the US and its own myopic anxiety not to take on climate-related commitments either now or in the future.

India shouldn’t see the glaciers or Black Carbon issue as a Western conspiracy. These are real phenomena whose worst victims will be India’s own people, especially the poor. India rightly criticises Western climate change-deniers. It should stop practising its own form of denial in respect of the Himalayas and quickly move toward effective remedial action.

As for Dr Pachauri, he has been charged by two major British newspapers with abusing the IPCC to get favours for TERI and himself. One of these papers is sympathetic to climate change-deniers. But that’s no argument for refusing to disclose all relevant information pertaining to contracts about which questions have been raised by the media and by Britain’s Department for International Development which makes grants to TERI. Transparency, and the spirit of scientific inquiry, which the IPCC is meant to uphold, demands nothing less. The Himalayan glaciers badly need healing. We can fail them at our own people’s peril.—end—