Climate Change and Economy: In search of a fine balance
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Last Updated: Friday, April 16, 2010, 16:36
  
Stanly Johny

"The most vulnerable country in the world to climate change is India," said Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh a few days ahead of the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change held in December 2009. This was more than a candid statement of an “emerging power”. The government of India seems fully convinced of the danger climate change poses to its great dreams.

The emerging countries including India seem to have got stuck between growth and green growth. These countries, given the economic challenges, cannot afford to make radical changes in their industrial policies to reduce the carbon emissions. On the other hand, if they do not join the fight against global warming and take greater responsibility, their populations will be left as the worst-hit in the years to come. A fine balance is what required.

The Indian establishment, it seems, has taken a serious view of the situation. New Delhi traditionally held that it was the responsibility of the advanced countries, the leading emitters of green house gases, to fight global warming. It has long declined to take bigger responsibility in and refused to oblige mandatory cuts in emissions.

Though there is no paradigm shift in India’s policies vis-à-vis climate change, the country now appears to be ready to take a bigger role globally. This was visible at Copenhagen.

Is India vulnerable?

Most of the studies conducted on the climate change impact on India say the country’s fast-growing economy stands vulnerable to global warming. The surface air temperatures in India are going up at the rate of 0.4 degree Celsius per hundred years, particularly during the post-monsoon and winter season. Some studies predict that mean winter temperatures will increase by as much as 3.2 degree Celsius in the 2050s and 4.5 degree Celsius by 2080s, due to greenhouse gases. Summer temperatures will increase by 2.2 degree Celsius in the 2050s and 3.2 degree Celsius in the 2080s.

According to experts, India will experience a decline in summer rainfall by the 2050s -- summer rainfall accounts for almost 70 percent of the total annual rainfall over India. Relatively small climatic changes can cause large water resource problems, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions such as northwest India. This will also have an impact on agriculture, drinking water and on generation of hydro-electric power.

India is home to a third of the world’s poor, and climate change will hit this section of society the hardest. Set to be the most populous nation in the world by 2045, the economic, social and ecological price of climate change will be massive.

The impacts are already being seen in unprecedented heat waves, floods, cyclones, and other extreme weather events. With its long coastline, India is experiencing sea surges and salinisation, affecting infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, livelihoods, and human health. Food security is being compromised through reduced crop yields and water security is under threat everywhere with declining water tables, conflicts over rivers and basins, and the prospect of severely diminished freshwater resources due to glacier retreat in the Himalayas.

The government’s National Communications (NATCOM) admits that erratic monsoon will have “serious effects” on rain-fed agriculture, peninsular rivers, water and power supply. Even one degree Celsius rise in temperature could cause drop in wheat production by 4-5 million tonnes.

If the predictions relating to global warming made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come to fruition, climate-related factors could cause India's GDP to decline by up to 9 percent, reported the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research,

Rice production could fall by 40 percent and around seven million people are projected to be displaced due to, among other factors, submersion of parts of Mumbai and Chennai, if global temperatures were to rise by a mere 2 degree Celsius. By the end of the century, global temperature is expected to rise by 4 degrees Celsius, says IPCC.

What to do?

The rapid economic growth of the boom years has increased India’s share of carbon emissions. As the economy is expected to grow by around 8-9 percent in the coming years its emission levels are also set to rise. According to the International Energy Agency, India will become the third-largest emitter by 2015.

India imports large quantities of fossil fuels to meet its energy needs, and the burning of fossil fuels alone accounts for 83 percent of India’s carbon dioxide emissions. Nearly 70 percent of our electricity supply comes from coal. To maintain the growth rate above 8 percent, India needs to produce more electricity. To produce more electricity, India will have to burn more fossil fuels. Though efforts to shift to green energy gaining momentum, it will take years if not decades for India to become a major green energy generator.

What India can do in the fight against climate change? It should, of course, join the world leaders in their efforts to bring down carbon emissions. At the same time, it should also take precautionary steps so that the country’s growth prospects will not be affected. Before the Copenhagen summit, India announced that it would cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 20-25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, but rejected legally binding target. This was a welcome step.

India is traditionally not a major emitter of green house gases. According to per capita emissions, India stands 66th in the world. The policy makers in New Delhi should keep this fact in mind while making any major commitment before the international community.

The issue here is who will bell the cat? If carbon emissions are not brought down, an economic and social catastrophe is awaiting the globe. India, as Jayaram Ramesh put is, stands vulnerable to these risks. It should fight for a collective global response to the issue. It should press the advanced developing countries to take bolder steps to cut down their emissions even while continuing its own efforts to shift to green energy and cut emissions proportionally.

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First Published: Friday, April 16, 2010, 16:36


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