India must combat climate change

Published: Sunday 15 April 2007

-- How do we develop economically without degrading our environment? It is necessary to address this question because a large part of environmental losses is not factored into calculations of the Indian government and opinion-makers who shape policies. These costs are growing fast, especially in terms of quality of life. Unmitigated air, water and land pollution are already poisoning us.

Abuse and overexploitation of environment resources are threatening food security and increasing losses in work time, income and productivity. These constraints are exacerbated by a denial of India's contribution to carbon emissions. The clean development mechanism put in place under the Kyoto Protocol can only have a limited impact and may delay course correction.

In the present milieu, the top 2-3 per cent bracket, economically, of the Indian population is amongst the highest polluters in the world.The national average is misleading because a large proportion of people are not in a position to pollute. It also misses out on those who lead environment-friendly lifestyles, influenced by traditional cultural habits. Yet, an apathy to these fuels aspirations for highly polluting and environmentally indefensible lifestyles amongst a class that hides behind misleading averages. But for how long? Will it be too late when we wake up?
Flaw of averages Obsolete technologies, fuel adulteration, poor maintenance of vehicles and their longer life cause significant pollution. Air-conditioning and other forms of power consumption, compounded by poor building design, have led to over consumption of electricity, often generated in highly polluting ways. Except for a few green workplaces, office spaces are among the most culpable. Malls, which are emerging as more than shopping destinations, being in equal measure places to hang out, are also huge consumers of, usually, 'dirty' electricity. Not surprisingly, much of urban India suffer up to 10 hours of power cuts in summers, creating a demand for generator back-ups, which may already be rivalling the transport sector in their polluting potential. The thin slice at the top accounts for more than a third of total consumption--and a high proportion of pollution.

It is obvious that our low 'average' energy consumption, and, by implication, pollution, is just statistical legerdemain, which has to be countered by pricing and tax strategies that factor in greenhouse gas emissions. It has to be acknowledged that India is a leading polluter to clear the way for corrective action.
Global flows A key point, which economic analysts overlook, is that clean-up and pollution-prevention costs are high and we may discover that the country's 'net economic value' has been falling at over 20 per cent, though the illusion is that we are growing at more than 8 per cent.

The irony could, however, be that the economy would grow better and become sounder, if environment was factored in. It would create many more jobs and lead to higher quality of lives by leveraging traditional knowledge. The immediate outflow on cleaning up and preventing further pollution could be covered by global financial transfers.

The us, says Paul Volcker, former chairman of the us Federal Reserve, is "delinquent" with respect to climate change issues and countries like India should make it pay for environmental crimes. Referring to the environment impact forecast by a un report, Volcker recently said the argument that taxes on oil or carbon emissions, for example, would ruin the economy was false. It would be up to developing countries to push for punitive measures against environmental crimes.
Steps forward The first step towards a solution has to be a recognition of the indisputable link between environment protection and socio-economic benefits. The Nicholas Stern report says global warming could shrink the global economy by 20 per cent. The worst affected will be the poor in developing countries. But acting now will cost just 1 per cent of gdp.

The next step will be to keep pace with developments in alternative energy, which are not distant possibilities as recent government reports, including the integrated and renewable energy policy report of the Union ministry of new and renewable energy, seem to suggest.

We can think of incentives for the alternative energy sector. This requires a comprehensive policy and increased government outlays, funded by taxes on polluting activities. New and renewable energy must be recognised as a sector of strategic importance.

Chandra Vikash is ceo, TEN Systems & Services, a research and consultancy services firm focused on transport, energy, environment. These views are personal

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