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Chandrashekhar Dasgupta: Dealing with climate change

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta  |  New Delhi 

Two recent reports of the paint a vivid and stark picture of the expected extent of global warming in the coming decades and its impacts on life on our planet. The latest scientific "best estimates" indicate that on an average, temperatures will rise within a range of 1.8 to 4.0 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century. Among the expected impacts of global warming on this scale are a reduction in the thickness and extent of glaciers, sea-level rise, inundation of low-lying islands and coastal areas and variations in rainfall patterns, among other impacts.
In south Asia, increased glacier melt in the Himalayas will initially cause floods but in the long run, as the glaciers shrink, water flows in the northern Indian rivers will suffer reduction. Together with changes in rainfall patterns, this will have major implications for our agricultural sector. Low-lying areas in the heavily populated Ganges-Brahmaputra delta will be prone to inundation on account of sea-level rise, leading to the loss of cultivable land and posing a threat to villages and towns.
Climate change is caused by excessively high levels of the emission of "greenhouse gases", among which carbon dioxide is the most important. Mankind has been consuming ever-increasing quantities of hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, causing a progressive increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. The industrialised, or developed, countries are thus responsible for causing human-induced climate change. If all countries had the low per capita emission levels as India, the climate change problem would not have arisen. The emissions would have been well within the carrying capacity of the atmosphere.
A global response to climate change must encompass two approaches "" reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate or restrict global warming; and adapting to or coping with climate change.
UN agreements on climate change "" the Framework Convention and its Kyoto Protocol "" recognise the need to differentiate between the respective responsibilities of the developed and developing countries, as well as their differing financial and technological capabilities. The developed countries are required to reduce their emissions and to provide the finance and technology needed to implement climate change projects in developing countries. The climate change convention rightly recognises that the "first and overriding priority of the developing countries is economic and social development and poverty eradication". Developing countries are only required to moderate increasing emissions where these do not entail additional costs "" unless, of course, the additional costs are met by the developed countries.
Nature is unfair. Even though the wealthy, industrialised countries are responsible for causing climate change, the main victims will be the world's poor. Developing countries are more vulnerable because they lack the financial and technological resources needed to cope with and adapt successfully to climate change. Traditional farmers, in particular, are highly vulnerable to variations in temperature and rainfall patterns. Adaptation will require a wide range of responses, including a shift to drought resistant plant varieties, economical use of water resources, water conservation measures, watershed management, protection of coastlines and disaster management. Low-income countries will be unable to implement these measures on an adequate scale. In the final analysis, an effective climate change strategy for a country like India can only be based on rapid, sustained development and poverty eradication. This is essential for reducing our vulnerability to climate change.
We should, of course, also moderate greenhouse gas emissions wherever this is possible without diverting resources from development. There are many areas where such possibilities exist. Cost-effective energy saving and energy efficiency programmes serve our development goals and also result in lowering emissions. Policies designed primarily to reduce local environmental pollution (such as the substitution of diesel by cleaner fuel in some of our major cities) can also lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The promotion of nuclear, wind and solar power not only serves our energy security interests but also results in lower greenhouse gas emissions. In all these cases, measures designed primarily to promote our developmental objectives also yield important co-benefits for climate change mitigation. Moreover, we can implement mitigation projects involving additional costs, provided we are fully compensated for the additional expenditure under the provisions of the climate change convention or the Kyoto Protocol.
However, this is no longer an approach favoured by most industrialised countries. Ignoring the provisions of the framework convention, these countries are bringing strong pressure to bear on us to accept new commitments involving huge costs. This is an attempt to shift to our shoulders a part of the burden rightly assigned to them under the convention. Their argument is that India is one of the "big emitters" of greenhouse gases since its total emissions are large, even though its per capita emissions may be very small. Moreover, these emissions are rising because of India's rapid growth. Hence, India should limit its rising emissions even if this entails the diversion of funds from development priorities.
This is like arguing that India should restrict its food consumption because its total calorie consumption is very large, even though the per capita intake is inadequate! India's per capita carbon emissions are only one-eighth that of the EU and one-twentieth that of the US. The total figure is high only because India is a very large and populous country, with a population exceeding the combined total of the US, the European community, Russia and Japan.
If the demands of these developed countries are conceded, funds will be diverted from our national priority goals of development, poverty eradication and progress on local environmental issues like air and water quality. The rate of growth of the economy will be slowed down, with the result that India will remain highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
India's climate change strategy should rest on three pillars.
First, we should be prepared to meet the impacts of climate change by implementing appropriate adaptation programmes. The key to success in achieving this goal is rapid and sustained development.
Second, we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions wherever this can be achieved without diversion of resources from our development, poverty eradication and local environmental priorities.
Third, we must firmly resist attempts by affluent countries to shift their own responsibilities to our shoulders. These countries are responsible for precipitating climate change. They must, therefore, reduce their emissions sharply and bear the incremental costs of introducing low-carbon technologies in developing countries in conformity with the universally accepted Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The writer has been involved in climate change negotiations and is currently a Distinguished Fellow at TERI