The case against global warming was buried earlier this month in Germany. US President George W. Bush has joined 15 world leaders to sign an agreement that calls for “substantial” cuts in greenhouse gases by the middle of this century. They will also “seriously consider” a 50% cut in these gases by 2050.
Now these are disturbingly vague phrases, as some critics have quite rightly pointed out. But there’s also the fact that Bush has finally changed his earlier stance—when he first said that global warming is not an established fact and then argued that nothing needs to be done about it because it was not clear the temperatures were rising because of human action. There has been no scepticism on the science of climate change this time around from Bush. That the leaders of India and China, too, have been taken on board is also an indication that a truly global deal on climate change is a possibility.
The question is: what now?
There are several issues that will have to be tackled in the years ahead. First, there is the very valid question of equity. How should the burden of emission controls be shared between different countries, especially if these controls could initially hurt economic growth? China and India are already among the world’s largest polluters. And they are producing cars and building coal-fired power plants at a rate that is bound to worsen global warming problem. So countries in our part of the world, too, need to restrict their output of greenhouse gases. And more so since scientists predict that tropical regions will suffer from some of the worst effects of climate change.
But it is unfair to expect the poor to severely curb economic growth for a problem that has its origins in the development of Europe and the US over the past 200 years. In other words, total pollution over the past many decades, rather than incremental pollution, should be considered when allocating emission limits. And, in purely utilitarian terms, the welfare loss resulting from slower economic growth in Asia is far higher than the welfare loss in Europe and the US. China’s President Hu Jintao is quite correct is insisting on “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the climate control endeavour.
The other big issue is how the policy framework will develop. These things do not happen overnight, and shouldn’t. The consensus is that the world needs to act on three fronts. One, everybody needs to move to higher levels of energy efficiency. This entails a range of responses, from stricter building codes to the removal of energy subsidies. Two, the search for alternative energy sources has to be speeded up. The recent communiqué on climate change, for example, acknowledges the importance of nuclear energy in any long-term strategy to control climate change. Three, newer technologies such as carbon capture and storage need to be nurtured.
India can do a lot on each of these fronts. We have one of the worst levels of energy efficiency in the world, which means that we consume far more energy to produce a unit of GDP than most other countries. Improving energy efficiency means less tolerance of glass-fronted buildings that are so difficult to cool, fuel subsidies that encourage overuse of energy and potholed roads that increase energy costs. These are problems that can be tackled very fast, provided the right policies and market incentives are put in place.
Meanwhile, the successful completion of the Indo-US nuclear deal will help give India’s nuclear energy efforts critical mass. Despite the attractiveness of wind and solar energy, there is little doubt that nuclear energy is the most practical option right now for India in terms of a clean fuel. The nuclear deal is now limping, but it should hopefully get on track soon. It will undoubtedly help the cause of clean development.
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