Home / Opinion / Columns /  Dear ‘The Economist’, climate change is a global predicament
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In journalism, the formula used to make a long and a complicated story more readable is to humanize it, by starting with the example of some individuals and how they fit into the overall scheme of things. In a section of a recent special report on the issue of carbon emissions and global warming, The Economist (issue dated 30 October-5 November), starts with the story of Mihir from Durgapur in West Bengal. Mihir gathers “sacks of coal slipped to him illegally by conniving workers or security guards". He then sells it illegally.

Later we are told how vested interests that include millions like Mihir “whose lives are mixed up in fossil fuels purely through force of circumstance" are likely to slow down the process of cutting down carbon emissions.

In its weekly issue dated 6 November- 12 November, The Economist says, “Emerging markets belch out… much of the world’s greenhouse gases." Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, trap heat in the atmosphere and result in the Earth’s temperature going up.

If one were to believe much of The Economist’s recent reports on greenhouse gases, global warming and the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, people like Mihir and countries like China and India are responsible for much of the problem.

That, however, is a very simplistic picture. There is no denying that China is by far the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. As per Our World in Data, China emitted 10.67 billion tonnes of this gas in 2020, through the burning of fossil fuels. The US, Europe and India emitted 4.71 billion tonnes, 4.95 billion tonnes and 2.44 billion tonnes, respectively.

Hence, in 2020, in absolute terms, China and India emitted more carbon dioxide than the US and Europe. Nonetheless, we also need to take into account the per capita carbon dioxide emissions of different countries, which The Economist ignores.

In 2020, the per capita carbon dioxide emission of the US was 1.9 times that of China and eight times that of India. Clearly, an average American emits more carbon dioxide through various activities than an average Chinese or Indian resident. It needs to be said here that this ratio has been falling over the years. In 2010, America’s per capita emission was 2.9 times that of China and 13.5 times that of India, telling us that the American figure has come down whereas that of India and China has risen. But this comes with a corollary. In 2020, per capita carbon emission in the US was 14.2 tonnes. It was at 18.4 tonnes in 2010. Nonetheless, a significant portion of this fall happened between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, its per capita emission was at 16 tonnes. The fall in 2020 would have been primarily because of the spread of the covid pandemic.

Clearly, the energy guzzling ways of an average American continue to be a problem and need to be cut much more rapidly. Labelling carbon emissions as a chiefly India-China problem does injustice to the truth and doesn’t help solve it. Further, as Adam Tooze writes in Shutdown: “In 2020 China was responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than the EU and the U.S. put together, but it was also the world leader in solar and wind power, EV cars, and high-speed rail transport."

Finally, as the old cliché goes, the world’s developed nations have emitted much more in the last few centuries than India and China, and so it is now our turn. This is not the right argument to make, given what is at stake.

In the Indian case, we need to look at structural changes. Take the case of coal-based power. While the production of solar power has been rising, coal-based power continues to rule the roost. In 2010-11, it formed 54% of the power produced. By 2020-21, it had fallen marginally to 53%. In absolute terms, coal-based power capacity has more than doubled in the past decade.

Further, the government has bet big on electric vehicles to reduce India’s dependence on petrol and diesel, and reduce emissions in the process. The trouble is that if the electric power used to run these vehicles comes from coal, we will just end up moving a large part of the problem elsewhere. If solar-power capacity expands fast, as it needs to, then many coal-based power plants will end up in further financial trouble than they already are, and this will create problems for banks which have lent them money.

It has been argued that in order to bring down the consumption of fossil fuels, these need to be taxed at a higher rate. As Tooze writes: “The British economist Lord Nicholas Stern once remarked that climate change results from history’s greatest market failure—the failure to attach a price to the costs of carbon dioxide emissions."

In India, the government already taxes petrol and diesel at a very high rate. So, the market failure argument doesn’t hold. Also, if electric vehicles become popular, tax collections from petrol and diesel are likely to come down. How does that the government plan to make up for that? Clear answers are needed for all these questions.

To conclude, while Mihir and others like him need to see value in doing other things, they are still only a tiny part of a huge global problem.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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