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How India can reduce global warming

June 24, 2009 12:46 IST

The apple economy of Himachal is getting hugely destabilised. Lower snowfall and higher temperatures are making it difficult to grow apples at below 6,000 ft, where they have been grown for almost a hundred years.

The Gangotri glacier, which ensures a perennial flow in the Ganga, is melting. What will happen to the hundreds of millions in the Gangetic plains who live by the river, if it becomes a purely seasonal flow?

Where the river meets the sea, climate change is flooding islands in the Sundarban area. Two of them are gone, making their former inhabitants among the first climate change refugees.

Climate change is not something only 'they' have to worry about because it is 'their' creation. It affects India and other poor countries in the tropics intensively and their policymakers have to balance two opposite imperatives.

India has to do its bit to both mitigate global warming by reducing emission of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) and simultaneously promote economic development and growth to remove poverty, resulting in higher energy consumption and emission of greenhouse gases.

Time to resolve this contradiction is running out as, by the yearend, the world hopes to finalise a successor to the Kyoto protocol in Copenhagen where there will be tremendous pressure on India and China to make emission reduction commitments.

Even if we assume that developing countries will eventually not have to make binding commitments, there will be moral pressure to be seen to be responsible and laying down an agenda for action for the good of the world and ourselves too.

According to International Energy Agency 2005 data, in terms of energy intensity of income (in purchasing power parity terms), the global good boys (among countries which matter) are Denmark, Japan, Brazil and Germany.

On CO2 emission intensity of energy consumption, the top slots are taken by Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Korea and Mexico. Sweden, Norway, Brazil and Denmark lead in low emission to income.

The bad boys, according to all these measures, are Russia, South Africa, Australia, China and, to an extent, the US. India is way behind the rich countries and China. But India's energy consumption and emissions will be rapidly rising as high growth takes place.

So the mitigation will have to come from becoming more energy-efficient and reducing CO2 emissions to energy consumption. As long as the country does better than, say, the US on these measures, its slate should be clean. But that will not be easy as the US will be rapidly improving its own performance.

But this should not be enough. Global leaders in sustainable development -- Norway, Sweden, Japan and Brazil -- should be the role models.

In improving its performances, India will have both natural advantages and disadvantages.

With rising incomes the household use of biomass as a source of energy (the twigs village women use to fire the chullah) will decline, giving rise to the consumption of fossil fuels and tradable energy. Also as incomes and domestic costs rise, the difference between nominal and PPP income will go down.

A falling rate of growth of PPP income, other things remaining equal, will not make energy intensity (measured against PPP) look pretty.

On the other hand, there will be tremendous opportunities on two counts.

The modern parts of the economy -- manufacturing, transport, housing -- have made barely a beginning in seeking to become more energy-efficient. A low base will make good progress initially easier.

A key target will be acquiring and using clean coal technology for power generation. Not only is the technology available, international assistance to access it is already forthcoming, via the World Bank.

India's greatest asset is, of course, sunlight, which is free. The cost of solar power is going down and there is an enormous future in this, calling for a national programme of incentives (beyond what is already there) to make solar power more attractive and thereby offering economies of scale to the manufacturers of semiconductors for photovoltaic cells.

Plus, there will be tremendous gains from maintaining and strengthening the country's forest cover which acts as a carbon sink, while preventing soil erosion and water runoff.

India can, if it makes an effort, both pursue growth and demonstrate that it is behaving responsibly.

The author can be contacted at

Subir Roy