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Sunday, 10 January 2010

Why India cannot deliver on climate change

Sunday, January 10, 2010
Aakar Patel

Last month, the world failed to agree on a process that would slow down the rate of climate change. Scientists believe that the world is heating up because of an increase in three gases in our atmosphere: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing due to human activity. It is already at its highest in 650,000 years; we know this from analysing ice that has remained frozen during this period with bubbles of air trapped inside.

There is 35 per cent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than before the industrial revolution 200 years ago. This is because our recent burning of carbon-based coal, petrol and diesel releases the gas into the air. Because it is a good insulator, the atmosphere's carbon dioxide does not let the sun's heat escape the earth as fast as it comes in, leading to a rise in the temperature.

This warming of the atmosphere causes climate change, since weather is quite volatile and a small change in conditions can result in a storm or a drought.

Recent weather phenomena, like hurricane Katrina or last week's unusually heavy snow in Europe and America, are thought to be the result of our actions. The second effect of the air's warming is the melting of ice in the north and south poles, raising the level of the ocean waters. Low-lying nations like Bangladesh and the Maldives, which have little land and almost all of it by the sea, are vulnerable to this rise of the waters because they are in danger of being submerged.

If the release of carbon dioxide is so serious, why did the nations fail to agree on some solution?

Primarily because America believes it still has time before the problem becomes a crisis. Scientists think that big trouble is a century or more away. America wants to pass on the climate change problem to its next generation, or the one after that, because they will be better equipped with technology; certainly they will have more at stake. But also because those generations cannot vote in current elections.

There was another reason for the failure at Denmark, and it was that China, India and Brazil do not want to slow the pace of their industrial growth. The economy of China, the world's biggest polluter, has been growing rapidly, helping pull its people out of poverty. China does not want to stop doing that soon. India says it will slow the rate at which its polluting is increasing, but adds, for the same reason as China, that it cannot commit to a reduction of overall pollution.

Whether human activity is responsible or not for climate change, and there is debate over this, the fact that the world is warming is not in dispute.

This means that at some point, not far off, the world's nations will have to agree to do things to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide. There are two ways in which emissions can be restricted by a nation. The first is through government and legislation. This means the passing of laws that limit, say, the carbon dioxide emitted per ton manufactured of steel, or the banning of certain industrial processes, like electricity generation by burning coal.

The second way is through civil society and personal sacrifice. This can happen if a society acknowledges the danger to the world and a majority of individuals in that society voluntarily change their behaviour; by switching off lights, not heating their homes too much in winter or driving smaller cars. These two ways can also coincide, for instance if the government legislates to ban the manufacture of large cars.

There is a problem in India with both these ways, and if it commits to a reduction in emission, the Indian government will not be able to effectively deliver.

The problem with the first way, legislation, is implementation. We have many laws in India, but they are difficult to enforce. When they are violated, it is difficult to have the violators prosecuted. This is a problem with most poor nations, but it is remarkable in India because we are also a democracy and have been making laws under one constitution for six decades.

Unlike Europe, which can legislate a law and make it effective, in India legislation does not necessarily mean a change in the way things happen.

Returning from some future climate summit with an agreement, India's government might have to legislate some change in the way that, say, steel is made. But because of corruption and inefficiency it is certain that any manufacturer, who wants to violate this new law, will be able to do so by paying people off locally. Since restrictions on manufacturing processes usually mean an increase in cost, it is also likely that most factories would have an incentive to violate the law.

Let's look at an example. The industrial city of Surat has 300 dyeing and printing factories. These are serious polluters and often the ground around them is stained a brilliant purple or pink because the manner of disposal of the waste water is simply to release it in the land around. The effluent looks pretty but it is pure poison.

There are laws which make this release illegal and there are processes that the plants must follow to keep the environment safe, but because treating the water is expensive, it isn't done. And though the legislation might be quite good, it is also quite useless.

Twenty years ago, I worked in a factory in the industrial area of Ankleshwar, which is next to the port city of Bharuch. Every evening, at 6 pm, the chemical factory next door would release fumes of acid so powerful that the roads would empty at that time. The gas corroded thick metal pipes all around and will have affected the health of many people working in and around it. Why did the factory release the gas at six? Because the pollution control board's office shut at 5:30.

Now let us look at the second way in which a nation can reduce its carbon emissions, through a change in the behaviour of civil society. Many Indians are now middle-class and consume energy and resources at levels similar to those in the west.

If these Indians are observed in traffic, we can understand that sacrifice will not be easily forthcoming in our nation. This is because we are a low-trust society and have little faith in collective well-being. Simply put, we do not trust the other person on the road to behave and so we have no incentive to change our own behaviour. Culturally, the Indian is inclined to think of himself and ignore the world around him. It is safe to say that there will be little voluntary change in our behaviour because it affects the rest of the world.

A rich Indian, if asked to sacrifice his large garden which consumed much water, would not understand why he had to do that. And a lecture on conservation would do little good.

The other problem is that the world cannot tell its poorest, of whom many are Indian, that they must sacrifice something now for tomorrow because they have so little for today.

This is not to say that no conservation happens in India. We have raddiwalas, people who deal in scrap; and glass and plastic in India is always recycled. However, this is because scrap has value here, unlike in the west, where recycling is expensive and so is disposal. The test will come when this no longer has value in India.

All of this becomes academic if the levels of the second dangerous gas, methane, increase. And some believe that this is already happening. Global warming is slowly melting long-frozen lakes in Russia. Below these ice sheets is thought to be trapped billions of tons of methane, formed by the rotting of aquatic vegetation. If this is really methane, and it is released, the carbon dioxide debate might become meaningless because the methane will accelerate global warming to a point where we cannot really change it.

So perhaps already some disaster has been set in motion. In the Book of Genesis, Noah records a rise in the water by 20 feet and that is enough to wipe out all life.

The writer is director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: aakar @hillroadmedia.com

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