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By Commentarao - S.L. Rao The author is former director-general, National Council for Applied Economic Research
  • Published 22.11.07

Global warming and climate change are popular topics this year. After the wide publicity received by the award of the Nobel Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, headed by R.K. Pachauri, and the Stern Report on climate change, many attribute every weather anomaly to climate change.

The Indian and Chinese governments blame the ‘rich’ countries for most of the carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere that has led to global warming and the consequent climate change. Yet, the International Energy Agency estimates that China’s stunning economic growth accounted for 58 per cent of the increase in carbon emissions worldwide between 2000 and last year. India is also increasing its carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, however, allows both India and China to keep polluting the atmosphere by burning carbon-producing coal to generate electricity that enables their economic growth. But if the rate of increase is not controlled, climate change will accelerate.

Apart from thermal electricity generation, automotive traffic is another important source of environmental pollution. China and India are racing to catch up with the lifestyles of the ‘rich’ countries. As they do, they will produce vast additional emissions and add to the stock carbon in the atmosphere produced by the ‘rich’. To contain global warming, the ‘rich’ must produce fewer emissions, reduce the stock of carbon they have produced in the atmosphere and change their lifestyles. Although the people in the respective countries will resist the change, Lord Stern is confident that a 75 per cent reduction will occur. This, however, looks politically unfeasible.

India must realize that climate change reflects a truly globalized world in which one country’s emissions affect everyone else on the planet and itself as well. As India and China grow rapidly and add massively to carbon emissions, they contribute to global warming and the consequent rapid climate change. In their own neighbourhoods, they also produce smog, resulting in respiratory ailments, stress and other diseases, and reduce greenery. Beijing exemplifies the spoiling of the environment. Indian cities like Bangalore are swiftly catching up.

India must moderate its demands for more and more carbon-emitting products and services. This need not require forbidding consumption. It can use the market, taxes and the price mechanism. The Tata Rs 1 lakh-car, for example, will allow lower income groups to buy cars and enlarge the market for cars by an extraordinary amount. Huge pressure on an already overloaded road network, and smog in cities, will increase global climate change. The subsidies on petrol in India also stimulate automobile use. To check carbon emissions, India must reduce fuel usage by taxing petrol heavily.

As in the ‘rich’ countries, apart from giving the poor access to the comforts of the rich, cheap automobiles in India will stimulate growth on many fronts — steel, aluminium, rubber, electronics and so on. Slowing down the growth of the automobile industry will affect growth. But India can definitely moderate the use of private vehicles. More public transport and non-polluting vehicles like rickshaws need to be stimulated.

State governments in India have not learnt from Delhi the use of compressed natural gas and the importance of phasing out aging vehicles in order to reduce environmental pollution. Nor is any city considering an increase of pedestrian walks in congested urban centres or having a more synchronized traffic signalling that will reduce the misuse of fuel.

A new buzzword to combat climate change is biofuels, led by ethanol. The US is encouraging the use of ethanol. But some experts believe that biofuels would bring more hunger into the world. The growth in the production of biofuels has already helped push up the price of wheat and soybeans in the US to record levels as farmers switch to producing corn. Corn prices have also risen. Heavy subsidies to corn farmers mean that ethanol produced in the US is more expensive than if imported from Brazil, where there is no such subsidy. Except in countries with surplus arable land (or where it can be created by cutting forests as in Brazil), ethanol as a fuel is an ill-conceived policy. In a world with billions suffering from poor nutrition, diverting arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel is a crime against humanity.

Scientists predict that within five years, technological advance would enable the use of agricultural waste — such as corn cobs and banana leaves rather than the crops themselves — to produce fuel. That would be welcome. For India, however, ethanol is a crazy solution. Already, sugarcane prices are supported in some states, and sops like free electricity has diverted land from food crops to sugarcane. Going for ethanol as an additive to petrol in order to reduce imports of crude oil, will divert more land to sugarcane for making ethanol and further affect food production.

With liberalization, India has moved from unnecessary and poorly-planned and -implemented Central controls to an increasingly unregulated economy. The unregulated growth of an increasing number of airlines and many more vehicles has brought overcrowding, lack of safety at airports and roads and significantly increased pollution.

Of course, the production of more automobiles and other vehicles, or more air traffic, substantially stimulates economic growth and employment. India must balance this growth against the damage it causes the environment through appropriate pricing and regulation. Carbon and other emissions must reduce with use of ‘clean coal’ technologies. We must find alternative fuels for automobiles and airlines. The tax revenues from airlines, automobiles, fuels, and so on must be used for setting and enforcing strict standards, and in research and development for cleaning the fuel in use. India could save substantially on electricity consumption if there were stricter standards for its use for refrigerators and air conditioners, and for buildings under construction.

Introducing ground water regulation along with more efficient agricultural pump sets could make better use of electricity and thus reduce the relative growth of carbon emissions. Use of groundwater in urban areas is also uncontrolled and has already seriously depleted groundwater levels in major cities. But by using electricity to lift water, we are causing more carbon emissions. Surely regulation of urban groundwater could reduce the use of electricity for the purpose?

Governments in India function in an uncoordinated fashion. This leads to poor coal technologies and burning of more coal; or, subsidized petrol and many more cheap automobiles. As a result, the nation is heading towards an environmental disaster. This is of our own making, not of the ‘rich’ countries.