With the Copenhagen climate conference around the corner in December, all talk in domestic circles concerns what stand India should take in international negotiations. Instead, national policy should focus on how India should invest in the race for clean technology. There are huge advantages in getting there first.
The risk to the environment from unbridled development is clear enough. Global population has almost quadrupled in the last hundred years and development occurs at the expense of the environment.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
International negotiations stumble on how to collectively mitigate this risk. Adverse changes in one part of the world may not be so bad elsewhere, even if only in the short run. Siberia and Canada may actually become more habitable in a warmer world; Greenland has already begun growing crops. More to the point, the question of what to do inevitably becomes a question of whether all countries should be treated equally, especially since they may have benefited unequally from past misuse.
Any world treaty on climate change will inevitably have to involve a consideration of equity, if only because no treaty will be accepted without it. After all, in a binding commitment, developing countries must be allowed to preserve their right to choose the path and degree of industrialization they need to progress, especially since this path has proven fruitful in other places. This does not bode well for Copenhagen.
But the independent possibility remains that this path may be a mistake anyway. We are not industrializing in a clean world, but in an already heavily polluted one. While it may be in India’s national interest to preserve our right to choose to make this mistake, there is a lot we can do unilaterally to mitigate some of the adverse effects, without affecting our hard stance on international agreements.
What can be done? Slowing down our rate of growth is impractical, if not politically impossible, since it is hard to argue against providing people with employment and a decent living. On the contrary, India should focus on lifting as many people out of poverty as possible. And industrialization does reduce the direct dependence of livelihoods on weather. But we should nevertheless reduce pollution growth.
Moving to cleaner technologies, then, is the best way. Indeed, this already happens in a nearly continuous manner in several industries, including automobiles. A lot of other industries have much weaker pollution norms, and these could be tightened, at least to comparable levels. Developing electricity saving norms, using wires with less resistance, encouraging less energy-intensive light bulbs in homes and factories—there is a lot we can do easily.
All this involves a higher cost, either monetary or in terms of forgone output, which someone needs to bear. The question of how to distribute these costs is what holds up negotiations at the international level: For example, India and China want the West to pay for all of it. But like any other cost, this, too, can be tackled by approaching it as a business consideration—not internationally, but at the national level. This is where national policies on climate and technology can make all the difference.
At the production level, for example, a government may choose to subsidize research and development into the production of energy saving technologies, possibly through tax breaks. At the same time, strengthening patent law and enforcement might help. This implies forgoing tax revenue in the short run, but the aim is to steer the economy into productive channels, the long-term benefits of which far outweigh the immediate costs.
At the purchasing level, investment policy could also be made to account for this, such as by instituting efficiency requirements or technology standards in contracts awarded for public works. If such decisions are taken at the national level, the trickle-down effect is sure to be felt at all levels below.
In the very long term, the sobering thought is that no matter how much we improve, we are essentially stuck on the same carbon-intensive energy base. Cars may be manufactured in high-tech factories, but almost all of them still run only by burning oil. And no matter how far up the technological chain they are, the factories themselves run on someone else burning coal or wood somewhere down the line. The eventual target has to be to move away from carbon-based technologies altogether.
While solar and hydro-power work on small scales, it may take nuclear technology or a quantum surprise by physicists to provide energy on an adequately large scale. At a policy level, the key lies then in subsidizing and funding alternative energy research. Who knows, we may even get something new.
What makes it exciting is that in the past 400 years of industrial life, controlling oil and coal production and technology has meant controlling the world. The search for clean technology, too, will eventually become a race—and there are huge benefits to winning. Harnessing fusion to take over the world may sound like a James Bond villain’s dream, but it should not be far away from ours.
Madhav Raghavan is a doctoral student of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org