The stupidity of India’s carbon policy

India recently re-affirmed it’s stance on climate change when external affairs minister S M Krishna addressed a round table at the climate change summit organized by the UN. The minister said that India’s carbon emissions will never exceed that of the developed countries in per-capita terms. He also slammed the west for leading “unsustainable lifestyles” that caused the problem.1

In simple terms, India’s stance is “climate change? Ain’t my problem!”.

It is our problem!

But, the fact remains that climate change is eminently “our problem”.  Here are some reasons why it is:

  1. The issue of poverty is  linked with subsistence farming and rural communities. 68% of land under cultivation in India is rain fed. 2 There is some evidence to so support the claim that climate change is making monsoons more erratic and is increasing the severity extreme events. 3
  2. What is the effect of climate change on the gangetic plain that is home to some 500 million people? The Himalayan glaciers that feed the mighty rivers are retreating at the rate of 10-15 meters a year, the effect of which could be massive flooding followed by drought events.4
  3. In general, agricultural production in India of rice and wheat is projected to drop between a massive 40% to 52% if temperatures were to rise by 2.5  to 4.9 degrees centigrade.5
  4. In particular, rice is very vulnerable to climate change. Rice is a very important staple crop in India.6  It is estimated the rice production will fall 10% for every degree rise in temperature. 7
  5. Sea level rise is another climate change induced menace that India can ill afford. Apart from ecological destruction of important natural resources such as sundarbans8, it can disrupt coastal economies by flooding, damages by extreme events and intrusion of saltwater in freshwater and groundwater resources. 9
  6. Sea water acidification and general temperature increase puts stress on marine ecosystems causing events such as coral bleaching.10 India should be concerned about the sustainability of the fisheries resources that it depends on.

These are big problems that will affect us no matter who puts up more carbon dioxide in atmosphere.  We share the planet with all the people whose unsustainable lives have “caused the problem” and we aren’t “helping” even if we keep well below the global per-capita average!

There is an upside, an opportunity.

A saner position for India is to acknowledge this global problem and demand that the developed world help us cope.

If we are going to move to  a carbon neutral economy sooner or later,  does huge investments in carbon tainted infrastructure make sense?

Let us look at one sector responsible for carbon emissions – power sector.  There are several things in this sector that are unique to India.  Our losses in transmission and distribution, for example, stood at 33% in 2005 11, in other words we have a very inefficient grid. We also have a huge power theft problem.12 I guess this is partly motivated by our ethic that stealing from government is okay. Moreover, considerable section of our country still remains off-grid.

On the flip side, India as also very well endowed with natural energy resources such as sunlight and wind. We receive about 5,000 trillion kWh/year in solar energy.13 All these make up for a case that creatively funded (with some subsidies from developed countries), community run (because, while stealing from government is okay in our culture, stealing from our neighbors is most certainly not), off grid electricity generation near the place of consumption could solve multiple problems by creating sustainable (both economically and ecologically) energy infrastructure and eliminating inefficiency of  centralized grid.

India also has huge potential in terms of carbon sequestration, for example, using the Terra Preta or Biochar method.14 This method involves converting biomass that is agricultural byproduct into charcoal and using it to fertilize soil, thereby also achieving sequestration of carbon. This could potential be paid for by some sort of carbon trading scheme, providing triple benefits to farmers involved – provide an additional source of income, increase soil fertility and also reduce global warming!

With regards to our policy, we could act like a stubborn child and refuse to move ahead. We could demand for our share of “right to pollute” on a per-capita basis and slam the west for ruining the world before we could. The saner option, however, remains that we recognize the need to change and do it in a way that is both politically savvy and economically advantageous for us in the long run, which inevitably involves keeping our growth sustainable ecologically.

References & Footnotes
  1. India asks developed nations to change their lifestyle, Business Standard, Thursday, Sep 24, 2009 []
  2. Rainfed Farming Development []
  3. Climate change: India’s Monsoon Predictions More Uncertain, Ranjit Devra []
  4. Himalayan meltdown catastrophic for India, The Times of India, 3 April 2007 []
  5. Climate change: India’s perceptions, positions, policies and possibilities by Jyoti K. Parikh and Kirit Parikh,  Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research []
  6. http://www.unctad.org/infocomm/anglais/rice/market.htm []
  7. Peng, S. B., J. L. Huang, J. E. Sheehy, R. C. Laza, R. M. Visperas, X. H. Zhong, G. S. Centeno, G. S. Khush, and K. G. Cassman. 2004. Rice Yields Decline with Higher Night Temperature from Global Warming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101:9971–75. []
  8. Climate change threatens Sundarbans, The Times of India,  14 April 2007 []
  9. The Economics of Climate Change in Southeast Asia: A Regional Review, Asian Development Bank []
  10. http://www.isse.ucar.edu/staff/kleypas/index.php []
  11. Power T&D loss in India among the highest, The Hindu Business Line, Saturday, Dec 03, 2005 []
  12. India struggles with power theft, By Mark Gregory, BBC World Service international business reporter in Rohini, Delhi, 15 March 2006 []
  13. India’s solar dream []
  14. Biochar Soil Management, Cornell website []

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5 thoughts on “The stupidity of India’s carbon policy

  1. Rajesh,

    Even though what you are telling is correct, I do not see any conflict in India’s stand on Carbon emissions control. In countries like US, Western Europe & Australia carbon emissions are due to heavy industrialization and increased usage of fossil fuels. While in India largest source of CO2 emissions is burning of wood in rural India (In fact, there is a report that indicates that ozone over Bihar region is thinner due to burning of wood).

    However, this cannot be controlled until we provide an alternative source to generate heat required for cooking, heating water, etc. On the other hand, emissions by industrialized nations is completely controllable. Hence, the pressure on developed countries to reduce carbon emissions. Further, I don’t think China & India have told that they’ll not cut carbon emissions. Instead, what they are telling is that the rate at which they’ll have to reduce must not be same as industrialized nations which I believe is reasonable.

  2. @Pradeep Venkataraman

    Pradeep,

    Thanks for visiting and for the comment.

    Any sustainable use of wood is, by definition, carbon neutral. This is because wood would have grown by taking in carbon dioxide from atmosphere and when you burn it, you release it back. This is carbon neutral. When you burn a fossil fuel, you are taking out carbon trapped in earth’s crust in the form of oil (or coal) and releasing it to atmosphere. This adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Therefore, in theory, if you let as much wood grow back as you cut, you don’t add to the problem.

    Look at the following study: Greenhouse gas emissions from India: A perspective . It is clear that GHG emission by agriculture and forestry is dwarfed by industrial and energy related emission by orders of magnitude. Also observe that agriculture is adding methane (CH4), mostly. While this is a more potent GHG it is also short lived in the atmosphere as it is oxidized eventually. So, India’s carbon dioxide emissions comes from people like us. The total per-capita emission is low because the poor and rural communities don’t put up as much GHGs! More to this point, agriculture has the potential to be a GHG SINK, while our urban economies are growing increasingly dependent on carbon tainted energy infrastructure.

    While China has publicly committed to do something about the problem and is seeking alternatives, India is stubbornly fighting ANY request of it to reduce. So we can’t group the two together. This critique doesn’t apply to China.

    The rate at which we should reduce, what industrialized economies should do and the question of fairness are all valid questions. We must make the west help us cope, that is one of my core points. However, it is not the time for bickering and finger pointing but the time for decisive action.

    -Rajesh

  3. You have rightly said that Why India is looking for west to reduce its environmental liabilites. But this is a must required thing to check on emission rates of so called developed economy. This will force them to reduce their own GHG emissions, which is possible only when there a group of developing economics. This economic group will present a picture to the world that how poors in asia and africa are threatening from food security and other basic utilities required for servival.

    The approaches in which west is talking to reduce emission from populated developing conutries will not only put a check on GDP but also on food production.

  4. I agree with your detailed analysis. I think India should do its part in cutting Carbon emission rather than speak like a typical politician blaming someone else.

    I don’t understand much of the technical details you’ve written about. But I am quite convinced that India emits significant amount of Carbon owing to the large population usage of traditional sources of fuel for cooking.

    And the consequences India can face are really scary. A small change in climate can mean a huge loss in a country like India. So better do our karma and not compare with others.

  5. Good stuff and right thinking Rajesh! Treating Climate Change as an Us-vs-Them problem is going to lead to mutual ruin. Acknowledgement of the problem might just help us create truly innovate solutions.. who knows we might end up developing methodologies we could sell to the rest of the world!

    What department/ministry in India is primarily supposed to be tackling this problem btw?

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