Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Why are we ready to drive three miles to pick up 250 gm of jalebi?"

The latest report on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Brussels has set the alarm bells ringing. Among the report’s dire predictions: 30 percent of the species will be wiped out if there is a 2° C rise in temperature, up to 3.2 billion people will face water shortages, and large-scale melting of Himalayan glaciers will wreak havoc in the Gangetic Plains.

Dr RK Pachauri, Chairman, IPCC, spoke to Himanshu Bhagat on the subject.

The IPCC report was a joint effort by 2,500 scientists from 130 countries. That sounds a little unwieldy. No, it’s not unwieldy at all because it is very well organised. The core team that actually worked on the report consisted of little over 500 people. They have clearly defined chapters in each group and maybe five or six people were working on a chapter.

How was the study organised?
It is organised to draw in the best expertise. If you are talking about the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems, there is no one guy who knows everything. You have got to draw in people who have an understanding and knowledge of, say, the Arctic marine environment or the Equatorial system.

Climate change happens over thousands of years and involves far too many variables. Can we even go beyond informed guesswork?
There is no informed guesswork here. These are scientists who have spent their whole lives studying the subject. If they’ve been guessing for the last 30 years and publishing definitive papers on the subject, then I am afraid there is no field of knowledge where you go anywhere beyond guesswork.

But many question the idea of climate change induced by human activity?
They are bound to. Look, in any such endeavour there are vested interests. You have to look at the weight of the evidence. Look at the amount of consensus that has developed in the scientific community today. There is a very small segment of so-called sceptics. And I don’t want to question their motives.

Is the IPCC report projecting a worst-case scenario and exaggerating the perils of global warming? Saying, for instance, that floodwaters could claim seven million victims in Tokyo and New York by 2080?
Seven million is peanuts. Look at the major deltas in Asia, which we have identified as highly vulnerable. Look at Kolkata, at even Mumbai or the entire Mekong delta. These are areas where the rise in sea level can wreak havoc. We had the tsunami two years ago. If the sea level was even a foot higher than it is now, can you imagine the havoc it would have caused?
Same intensity but greater impact.
But, to answer your question, we are not developing a worst-case scenario. The IPCC does not do any research, nor does it do any projections itself. It looks at peer-reviewed literature and picks up what has been published in prestigious journals. On the basis of that, we come up with a balanced assessment.

So, it’s a compilation.
And an assessment. It has to be an informed assessment. At Brussels, we spent four days going through the report line-by-line, word-by-word. You have all the governments of the world lined up. Do you think they would accept anything that is exaggerated?

Were some predictions watered down because of pressure by governments?
No. Sure, some wording has to be changed, because, through this process of debate and discussions, what you get actually is a much better worded document. What you get is something that the governments have bought. So no government can say later, “Look, I don’t support this report.”
So there is an element of compromise.
It is what I would call “informed compromise”, because it is not arbitrary.

It seems to be less scepticism now that global warming poses a threat. Why? Better scientific data? Or, have all the calamities scared people?
It’s not merely science but observation. The scientific observations we have are so compelling that public opinion has turned in a big way.
India and China are emerging as big potential greenhouse gas emitters. Are the rich nations using this to make us pay for damage they have done?
This is a contentious issue. Fact is, the developed countries are responsible for the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere, which has taken place cumulatively over the last 150 years. Even today, if you look at per capita emissions, China and India are nowhere near the developed countries. As the framework convention says, there has to be “common but differentiated responsibility.”
By differentiated you mean…
That the developed countries have to assume a larger responsibility. But at the same time, I think it is a common responsibility and to the extent we can, without hurting our own economy, we should try to do whatever little is possible.

Can we lift 300 million Indians out of poverty without contributing to global warming?
If you look at the developed countries, there is no single unique model of development. In France, for instance, the emission of greenhouse gas per capita is substantially lower than North America. One reason is that they have much better public transport. They also use nuclear power on a large scale.
Look at the emphasis we have placed on private automobiles. It’s going to pose all kinds of problems. In India, there are huge opportunities for what can be called “no regrets measures”, whether it is energy efficiency or shifting to renewable energy sources. Delhi, for instance, has brilliant sunshine all year-round, but we use electricity for heating our water. If we had the right mix of policies, we would have solar water-heaters in every house.

The government is undertaking huge infrastructure projects, building dams, exploring for oil and natural gas. All this will contribute to greater greenhouse gas emissions.
There is no getting away from the fact that to develop and get rid of poverty we have to have economic growth. But at least in those areas where we can bring about a shift without compromising on economic growth, we should do something.
What is the government doing to address these concerns?
Not too much, I’m afraid. They better get going because, as it is, we have a severe problem when it comes to adapting to climate change.

You mean disaster management.
Not just disaster management, but anticipatory measures. For instance, we are faced with water scarcity. We are going to have problems affecting agriculture. We will have to come up with crops that are more drought-resistant and more salinity-tolerant. All this has to be clearly understood and articulated, before we can start adapting. We don’t have that in place.

Another instance of our political leadership’s failure?
I would say it is a failure of the Indian public. Leaders will do what the public wants them to do. The public has to be educated.

What about the corporate sector?
The private sector will only respond to signals they see in the market. Therefore, you really need incentives, you need disincentives, and you probably need taxes. And more than anything else, you have to have a policy regime, which requires regulatory measures.

Many companies in the West are proactively trying to minimise greenhouse gas emissions.
More and more, but it’s still a very small proportion. They see the writing on the wall. They know that low-carbon technologies are the future. That is what I mean. It requires policies so that they find it of value to take some of these measures.

You have to have the laws, which force them.
Laws or physical measures. A year and a half ago, Mr Chidambaram announced that larger cars would be taxed at higher rate. I immediately wrote to him saying, “Please don’t do that. Do it on the basis of energy efficiency.” He was good enough to immediately say “Please prepare a scheme for us”. Which we did. Some of that has been implemented.

Are you satisfied with the Finance Minister’s response?
Well, there is a lot more to be done.

What can middle-class and rich Indians do as citizens and as consumers?
I feel very concerned at the distortion of values among the rich and the upper class. We talk about corporate social responsibility but far more important is crorepati social responsibility. That’s a term I have coined. In the US or Europe many people at the top have a certain set of values. But in this country, the rich, who are getting richer, are so disconnected.

And the middle class?
All of us. I don’t exclude anybody.

Consumption drives the economy. Should people consume less to save the environment?
I wouldn’t say that. But I would say consume those products that don’t leave a major footprint on the ecology of the planet. You have choices. I wrote in an article that people are quite willing to drive three miles to pick up 250 grams of jalebi. Changes will be required, but that doesn’t mean that you start living in caves and move around in sackcloth.

Apr 28 , 2007
Source: Tehelka


Salik said...

Well, at last I figured out what we need to change in ourselves- the desire for luxury- for taste. Only that will help to make world safer.

Nepali Akash said...

Yes Salik,

They say everything comes at a cost. Our luxury came at the cost of environmental degradation. And we are living the consequences now.