|India, projected by a recent study as the worst victim of climate change, needs to chart multiple strategies to cope with threats.|
India's coastal areas will be particularly affected. Policymakers must consider adaptation measures such as the construction of sea or flood walls to prevent erosion of the kind seen in this picture taken in Visakhapatnam.
THE earth's climate has changed on both global and regional scales, particularly in the last few decades. Climate change has emerged not only as an important environmental issue but also as a significant political issue at national and global levels. Scientists have warned the world community for the past 20 years that it is already occurring, that its impact is visible, and that it will only get exaggerated in the decades to come. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed earlier projections; robust scientific findings and more dire projections have ignited concerns. Further, the British government-sponsored Stern Report, which deals with the economics of addressing climate change, has added to the debate.
Climate change is a global problem and needs a global solution. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is likely to call an emergency climate summit of world leaders later this year to highlight the inadequacy of current efforts. Ministers from the Group of Eight rich industrialised countries (G8) plus five major developing countries (including India) will meet in June 2007 in Germany. They are likely to take important decisions on climate change and set the stage for global negotiations on how to address the issue.
The European Union announced recently that it would cut greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 if other nations, particularly the United States and possibly major developing countries such as China, Mexico, India and South Africa, were ready to join. It is the first drastic reduction measure announced by industrialised countries.
However, the news from the recent Climate Convention meeting in Nairobi is not encouraging. Negotiators there, including Ministers from all the U.N. member-countries, made little progress on future strategies for the post-Kyoto Protocol period. The U.S. and the developing countries still oppose any discussion of binding commitments on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The two mechanisms for addressing climate change are mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to efforts to prevent further climate change. It involves technical and policy measures to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and stabilise their concentration in the atmosphere. Increasing energy efficiency and shifting to renewable sources of energy are examples of mitigation strategies. Adaptation is adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change. Examples of adaptation measures include shifting to drought-resistant crop varieties, conserving soil and water, and constructing sea walls or flood walls and salt water intrusion barriers to protect coastal settlements and agriculture. Addressing climate change effectively requires both adaptation and mitigation.
Shockingly, greenhouse gas emissions have risen at a faster rate after 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed upon. Worse, they have increased at an even higher rate after 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon. Emissions from developing countries will surpass that of industrialised countries by 2010. China may soon overtake the U.S. to become the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The Kyoto Protocol is one of the most important global initiatives to address climate change. Thirty-five industrialised countries (Annex I) are expected to cut emissions by 5 per cent from the 1990 levels during 2008-2012. The Kyoto Protocol is a mere beginning. It is considered to be an example of the commitment of the global community in addressing global warming. It is well known to experts that the level of emission reduction agreed upon is not likely to make any significant impact on the concentrations of carbon dioxide (the dominant greenhouse gas) or on temperature rises. Thus, any agreement to continue emission reduction at the Kyoto Protocol level after 2012 is of no solace to the human communities or natural ecosystems that will be affected by climate change.
The principles and approach should be agreed to by 2008 and the new arrangements should be concluded by 2010.
India, like most developing countries, is committed to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in addressing climate change. Indian policymakers also swear by the principle of "equal per capita entitlements of global environmental resources to all the countries", including the entitlement to pollute the environment.
There has been no change in the position of the Government of India on the principles agreed to under the UNFCCC since 1992.
Women carry water to their homes in Badshahpur village near New Delhi. Poor communities in dryland areas will be the hardest hit by climate change. India needs to pursue a sustainable development model that includes water conservation measures.
No one can dispute this rationale since industrialised countries are responsible for about 83 per cent of the rise in cumulative fossil-fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions since 1800. Even in 2004, industrialised countries, which account for only a fifth of the global population, contributed nearly half of the annual greenhouse gas emissions. The contribution of India to global carbon dioxide emissions is around 4 per cent, but it is growing fast owing to a high economic growth rate.
It is not clear whether India has any alternative proposals if the global negotiations to raise the targets for reduction of emissions for industrialised countries, which are scheduled to conclude by 2010, fail. Some of the following scenarios are worth considering: i) Industrialised countries agree to raise emission reduction targets, with no commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries; ii) Industrialised countries agree to continue the emission reduction targets at around the same level as under the Kyoto Protocol, with no commitments from the developing countries; iii) The negotiations fail and the Kyoto Protocol dies. All the three scenarios are possible with or without the participation of the U.S., more likely without.
To reduce the rate of climate change by stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at, say, 450 parts per million (ppm), a commitment of 60-80 per cent reduction in emissions over the 1990 level is necessary in industrialised countries, including the U.S. and Australia. Many industrialised countries may also consider adaptation in their own countries as a lower-cost strategy compared with mitigation; no farmer in Texas will die because of drought and no families in coastal settlements in the Netherlands will drown even though extreme events (such as Hurricane Katrina) could be devastating, even in rich countries, particularly for the poor.
Unfortunately, the growing rates of greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries may offset any reductions achieved by industrialised countries. Global negotiations may fail over the demand of the U.S. to involve large developing countries such as China and India in any reduction commitment.
Even the E.U. is likely to insist on the participation of countries such as India and China in any emission reduction scheme. Countries such as China, Mexico, Brazil and India will also come under increasing pressure from many poorer developing countries, particularly the small island nations that are the most vulnerable.
There is no doubt in the minds of many policymakers from developing countries that at some stage the participation of developing countries is necessary to make any significant dent on the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and the impending climate change.
Failure to come to any new agreement for enhanced reduction commitments or even an emission reduction commitment at the rates agreed under the Kyoto Protocol is bad news for all, particularly for the poor in India and elsewhere.
IMPACT ON THE POOR
In all the political debate and hard negotiations on climate change, the poor are most often forgotten. The focus is only on how any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may impact economic growth. Recent scientific evidence suggests that India will be one of the countries that will suffer most from climate change. Food production and food security, fresh water supply, forest biodiversity, coastal settlements, fishing and more will be adversely affected. Unfortunately, the burden of climate change will fall disproportionately on poor communities, namely, dry-land farmers, forest-dwellers and fishermen. According to a recent report of the Lehman Brothers, India will be the biggest loser; it projects an estimated gross domestic product loss of 5 per cent owing to climate change. This is twice that of the cost to the E.U. and over one percentage point higher than the cost to Africa.
The impact of climate change on the poorest people, which may exceed 500 million in India, is rarely the central issue in all the debates on climate change. The central issue for policymakers seems to be the likely impact of any climate mitigation measures on economic growth. However, economic growth alone will not insulate the poor against the adverse impact of climate change. High growth rates in the past decade have not made any significant impact on the quality of life of the poor. The poor in India are already exposed to severe water scarcity, water pollution, fodder and fuelwood scarcity, land degradation, desertification, droughts and floods. Unable to cope with the current environmental stresses such as drought and water stress, the poor will be vulnerable to climate change and will find it difficult to adapt.
India, like many other developing countries, is insisting on large-scale transfer of funds to developing countries in order to enable them to adapt to climate change. Let us assume that a few billion dollars are transferred to the Government of India and in turn to the State governments. In all likelihood, these funds will be administered through the development departments of the Centre and the States. What percentage of these funds will reach the poor is anybody's guess. A former Prime Minister many years ago remarked that only 10 per cent of the development funds allocated reached the poor. Any amount of adaptation funds may not reduce the vulnerability of the poor to the impact of climate change or enhance their adaptive capacity. This is not to say that poor people should be left to fend for themselves, and all efforts must be made to enhance their capacity to cope with the environmental stresses. The only permanent insurance against the adverse impacts of climate change is mitigation aimed at stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, at the earliest.
India needs to chart multiple strategies to cope with the impending threats of climate change, which are additional to the existing environmental stresses. This should include i) research for an improved understanding of climate change-related issues; ii) the adoption of sustainable development pathways; iii) increasing the adaptive capacity of the poor; and iv) working towards a global arrangement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases at the earliest.
The paucity of research undertaken on climate change in India, particularly on climate modelling, makes it difficult to make robust regional projections of climate change and its impact. Most climate change research in India is funded by external agencies. Despite the presence of expertise, Indian institutions are constrained by the lack of advanced computers and financial resources to undertake long-term research. There are hardly any interdisciplinary research institutions working jointly on aspects of climate change. India should work towards developing its own global circulation and regional climate models.
Pursuing a sustainable development model is critical to addressing climate change in India and elsewhere. India should adopt strategies for sustainable development irrespective of the climate change debate. Sustainable development involves economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability. A few examples of sustainable development strategies that also promote mitigation and adaptation to climate change include adopting cost-effective and clean coal power generation; using energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies; soil and water conservation measures for dry-land agriculture; halting land degradation and desertification; promoting forest conservation; investing in an efficient public transport system; creating advanced climate warning systems; constructing salt water intrusion barriers; and so on. These options are win-win opportunities. India has had many programmes in these areas for decades, but the penetration and success rates are still low.
The synergy, or trade-off, between addressing climate change and economic development from the long-term perspective needs to be understood. India should not focus only on short-term financial gain from climate change-related global institutions and mechanisms. The government should treat it as a fundamental problem with potentially serious adverse socio-economic and environmental consequences. It should seek long-term solutions to mitigate climate change to reduce its adverse impact on the poor.
Industrialised countries have an obligation to lead developing countries by shifting to sustainable development paths that would lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; promoting aggressive research on environmentally sustainable technologies; transferring such technologies to developing countries; and making large investments in climate-friendly technologies in developing countries. Industrialised countries may have to accept emission reduction targets of 60-80 per cent, which may require technological advancements, adoption of sustainable lifestyles, and large-scale adoption of energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies, particularly in power generation, transportation (automobiles) and buildings.
In India, according to newspaper reports, there is a proposal to set up a panel or task force on climate change to address the two major issues - reduction in human activities that cause climate change and adaptation to climate change. Such a task force should be supported by a large body of experts from various fields including physical, biological, environmental and social sciences. There is a need for mission mode research on climate change, similar to that on nanotechnology and space missions.
An informed public debate involving all the stakeholders, such as policymakers, experts, environmental non-governmental organisations, industry associations, mass media, farmers and fishermen's representatives, is necessary. The national climate change policymaking process should be broad-based, given the urgency, scale of impact and differing implications for different stakeholders.
Developing countries such as India are more vulnerable to climate change than industrialised countries and hence have a greater stake in the success of global climate negotiations and strategies for greenhouse gas stabilisation. Any delay in action to address climate change will make future actions more expensive and even more difficult to agree upon and implement. If climate negotiations fail, the poorest in India will be the first to suffer. The impact would be severe because of their low adaptive capacity. Eventually, the whole population would be affected in one way or the other.
In this context, what Mahatma Gandhi said should guide policy: "The acid test of right action is to bring into your imagination the poorest man you have ever seen and decide if your policy is going to benefit him."
N.H. Ravindranath is Chairman, Centre for Sustainable Technologies, and Associate Faculty, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.