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India doesn't want to pay for climate change, but it's already feeling the costs

Source:  Copyright 2009, Globe and Mail
Date:  September 7, 2009
Original URL: Status DEAD


In the village of Pujar in the Himalayas, the burans -- a species of rhododendron -- flowers each spring. And the tradition in Pujar, since time immemorial, is that no one picks and eats the flowers until after the spring Shiva festival. To do otherwise is to risk the anger of the gods, explains Himal Behan, who farms near the foot of the glacier.

"But this year, the tree flowered in December. Even people who are 80 or 90 years old in my village say they have never known this to happen. And everyone is scared.'

There is more to be afraid of than just one wonky flowering tree and its gods: Their environment has gone crazy altogether. The glacier is melting, she said, and huge chunks of ice break off and cause flash floods. At the same time, the traditional fresh water sources around the village have dried up, something else the old folks say they have never seen.

"It didn't get cold enough for us to even wear our winter clothes last year,' Ms. Behan, 32, said -- and that meant it wasn't cold enough to sow a wheat crop either. "We depend on agriculture to live. If there is no snow or rain in winter, there is no wheat, and we have no other way to earn an income. There are no jobs. We'll just die.'

Ms. Behan's is one voice among thousands being raised with growing urgency in a country that is, some say, increasingly, disastrously affected by climate change.

India is in the midst of a massive drought that could imperil basic food for millions of people; monsoon rains have failed entirely in parts of the country. At the same time, other areas have been hit with vicious cyclones that left tens of thousands of people homeless. And a giant impenetrable cloud of what's called "black carbon' is rapidly melting the Himalayan glaciers, with -- as Ms. Behan points out -- a host of dire consequences.

And yet, outside India, the country is known for what is perceived as intransigence on the subject of climate change -- a stubborn insistence that the problem has been created by the carbon profligacy of developed countries, and that India's right to economic development cannot be imperilled by emissions caps designed to make up for Western greed.

The next concerted push for a global agreement on climate action comes at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in early December. The United States, under its new administration, is perceived to be on side and willing to sign an agreement that puts restrictions on carbon emissions. Now it is India and its rapidly developing neighbour China that have moved into focus as the key players, whose agreement, or lack of it, will make or scuttle a deal.

China is, of course, a vastly greater consumer of energy, and a vastly greater polluter, than India. Yet India, in some ways, is a more challenging case -- because China has already engaged more pro-actively with clean-energy alternatives, and because its authoritarian government has shown itself capable of tackling this issue, when it chooses, in a way that India's never has.

Yet the rapacious pace of growth here, predicted to be back up to 8 per cent by the end of this year, and the rapidly expanding consumer class hungry for everything from cars to iPhones, mean that India's actions on climate have global consequences.

The Indian position, as articulated by J. M. Mauskar, a senior official in the Ministry of Environment and Forests who has negotiated for India at previous climate talks and will likely sit at the table in Copenhagen, too, goes like this: Global warming is caused predominantly by the stock of accumulated greenhouse gases, not current emissions.

The average stay on Earth of carbon dioxide, the most critical of these gases, is at least 100 years. The current stock has been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution, long before India was a producer. India is "resource-rich, brain-rich, but still a poor country,' and it is the obligation of any Indian government to expand the economy and extend development to citizens as quickly as possible, which inevitably will mean carbon fuel consumption.

At the same time, India is an energy importer and already extremely frugal in consumption compared with Western nations. It is too soon to say for certain that problems such as droughts and cyclones in India are anything more than standard climate variability. But if the developed world expects India to sign on to a carbon-reduction plan, it better be prepared to pay for it, in cash and technology transfer.

"A fact is a fact, which no one can dispute ... Who caused the stock to be accumulated, and who profited? No one disputes this,' Mr. Mauskar said.

And, he said, it isn't just India: "Indian 'recalcitrance' is that of all developing countries, and if it wasn't, the G77 would be the G31/2 or something.'

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change acknowledges the primary responsibility of developed countries in causing global warming, notes that poor countries have the dominant priority of eradicating poverty through economic development, and states that rich nations will assist developing ones with their mitigation efforts through both financial compensation and technology transfer.

But that, Mr. Mauskar said, has been slow to happen -- because the West has pleaded empty pockets since the onset of the financial crisis, and because Western governments claim that most energy-efficiency technologies are privately held and not theirs to transfer.

The Climate Action Network of South Asia says the price tag to help nations in this region adapt will be $150-billion (U.S.).

Mr. Mauskar said that, perceived intransigence notwithstanding, the Indian government has engaged significantly with climate change -- through a national action plan released last year, and by funding adaptation efforts (such as economic support for small farmers to switch to growing crops suited to warmer temperatures) all over the country. The government says 2 per cent of GDP is currently spent on coping with climate change.

The action plan calls for boosting solar power production; reforestation so that a third of the country is forested, up from 23 per cent; providing financial incentives for energy efficiency; research on glacier melt; and development of sustainable agriculture.

But it omits any hard targets, particularly on emissions. The government, in fact, has refused to discuss commitments. At the G8 summit last year Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would pledge only that India's per-capita carbon-dioxide emissions would never exceed those of the developed world.

The government has the rare support of many of the country's vibrant civil-society organizations for its position.

"It's developed nations that have to stop the catastrophe and make sure there is a fair deal in Copenhagen -- because of their historic responsibility,' said Aditi Kapoor, a climate expert with Oxfam India. "Instead of talking about what they will do today, developed countries want to talk about what India will or won't do in the future. It's a distraction.'

Two-thirds of Indians still live in villages, she noted; in Ms. Behan's village of 600 people, no one owns a car, or even a motorbike; they have electrical service for a few hours a day that each house uses to power a single light bulb; there is one television in all of Pujar. How, Ms. Kapoor asked, can the West, with its rapacious energy consumption, say that Indians such as Ms. Behan and her family are the problem, or that they do not have a right to this, or more?

Already, government is focused on developing in the least-destructive fashion possible, she added, following a low-carbon path wherever possible and "leapfrogging' some of the choices and technologies used in the West to move directly to cleaner alternatives.

Others here, however, feel the national plan is unrealistic about the twin goals of lowering environmental damage while maintaining or accelerating economic growth.

"It's devoid of rigour, clarity, depth, vision or urgency,' said Sudhirendar Sharma, a water expert who heads the Ecological Foundation in Delhi. The plan emphasizes the Indian right to economic development above all else, and it relies on the kind of co-operation between ministries that is rarely seen here.

Its goals are often impractical, he said -- such as producing 20,000 MW of solar power in 20 years compared with less than 200 MW now. "Where is the money and where is the industry producing solar panels?'

The report lists no economic activity that must change, does not discuss nuclear power, seen here as the clean alternative, or the end to subsidies on oil and gas for individual consumers.

In spirit, he added, it is bellicose.

"There is also a problem with labelling emissions as 'Indian,' 'European' and so on ... the atmospheric warming effects of carbon dioxide make no distinction between emissions from India and those from anywhere else in the world. Defending the 'Indian' right to economic development through carbon emissions may sound very gallant in the domestic arena, but it will do nothing for the actual problems that will ensue with climate change.'

Observers watching preparation for the Copenhagen talks believe China may be ready to make some firm commitments -- both because of growing domestic concern about the issue and because its reliance on Western markets makes China more susceptible to pressure than India, where the major engine of the economy is domestic consumption.

Mr. Mauskar said India will be quite willing to make a deal, if it's a fair one.

"It's not out of cursedness we want to peak [carbon production in future], because we will suffer for it. We want to mitigate because we will suffer most,' he said. "But the extent to which developing countries meet their targets will depend on what developed countries are willing to fund.'

Sayyed Iqbal Hasnain, one of India's leading glaciologists, who believes the Himalayas may be denuded of all snow and ice in as little as 20 years, despairs at the incompetent bureaucracy, the corruption and the short-sightedness of parliamentarians that, he said, is hampering any progress here. Just a few weeks ago, he travelled by train across China and returned depressed by how much was happening there -- from solar-powered communications towers to energy-efficient buildings to intensive research.

"We have all these grandiose plans, and yet nothing is happening in India,' he said. "I believe government is sincere, but we have a problem of implementation: Even if India makes commitments in Copenhagen, it's a separate story whether it can keep them.'

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