Archive for the 'environment' Category

Glacier Melting: An issue of Himalayn Proportion

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The debate on Climate change has taken a new turn in India with claims of a government report that there was no evidence that climate change has caused abnormal shrinkage of the Himalayan glaciers.

About two years ago The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), led by Rajendra Pachauri had warned that Himalayan Glaciers were receding at a fast pace, faster than those in any other part of the world and could altogether disappear by 2035, if not earlier. The IPCC’s forecast was based on Indian Space Research Organization data that said 1,000 Himalayan glaciers had retreated by 16 per cent between 1962 and 2004.

In addition, scientists have warned the river beds of the Gangetic Basin - which feed millions in northern India could run dry if the glaciers melt. At the same time, glacier melting in Himalayas may bring devastating floods in other parts of India

However, the new report claims that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to link global warming with what is happening and although some glaciers were receding, they were doing so at a rate that is not historically alarming. The report goes on to claim that the retreat of many glaciers in the Himalayas has in fact slowed down, with some glaciers even expanding. Geologists from Regional Centre for Field Operations and Research of Himalayan Glaciology, Jammu University, who have studied Siachen glacier to record changes reaffirm that the the glacier must have advanced and retreated simultaneously several times in the geological past, resulting in complete obliteration and modification of older evidences. They also point towards field and meteorological evidence from the other side of Karakoram mountains that corroborate the fact that glaciers in this part of the world are not affected by global warming

The counter claims about glacial melting are backed by a NASA study that suggests Himalayan glaciers are located at much higher altitudes and have not felt the impacts of global warming.

However, most of these studies have been on small scale- the Jammu University research is limited to Siachen and the government report is based on a study of a dozen or so glaciers, although there are close to ten thousand glaciers in the Himalayas. There are also issues pertaining to these works not been unsubstantiated, lacking sufficient citations and adequately peer-reviewed

Given that Himalayan ecosystem is very complex and the whole issue of glacier melting is extraordinarily complicated, it is important not to get complacent. While the need for further research of the subject is important to better understand the glacial movement, it is still very premature to dismiss the Climate Change perspective. If at all, we should err on the side of caution.

What should be the stand of India in Copenhagen vis a vis the issue of glacier melting?

Curtains Copenhagen?

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As the Copenhagen summit draws closer, many developed nations led by United States have started shirking their responsibilities. Once again, environmental concerns have been made subservient to short-term economic interests. Countries are not prepared to deliver the finance necessary for the adaptive technologies and are rather looking at economic opportunities by insisting on a rigid intellectual property rights regime as the basis for any climate change related technology transfer arrangement.

More dangerously, there is a proposal that all countries make their own commitments as they deem appropriate, which would then be collected in one single document. Further negotiations would then take place to convert these commitments into a legally binding agreement. This process would erase the difference between nations in terms of historical responsibility for emissions and undermine the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

In this context, the partnership between the major developing economies is a step in the right direction. The new group BASIC- Brazil, South Africa, India and China (building on IBSA, the same group without China), proposes that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that provides the only framework for mitigation action where developed nations have to take the lead and undertake legally binding commitments should continue to have an effect and the countries should assume the responsibility to cut emissions in accordance with the target set for the second commitment period that commences from 2013.

In line with the Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries need to take the lead with specific quantitative commitments for emissions reductions (without carbon offsets) consistent with the recommendations of the IPCC (25-40 per cent reduction of annual emissions below 1990 levels and 90 per cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050). Also, developed countries outside the Kyoto Protocol, like the US, need to be brought into the ambit of similar commitments by suitable means. (Source: http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article55388.ece?homepage=true). In this context, the new US offer to cut emissions 17% on 2005 figures equates to 6% at 1990 levels, which is rather unimpressive.

According to recent newspaper report, the IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) and China have agreed on a strategy that involves jointly walking out of the Copenhagen conference if developed nations try to force their own terms on the developing world. The idea is not to scuttle the negotiation process but to arrive at long-term cooperative actions on climate change that are sustainable and equitable.

What should be India’s priorities in the Copenhagen Summit?

Copenhagen and India

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The Copenhagen summit is undoubtedly the most awaited milestone in the Climate Change debate. With less than two months to go for the 15th Conference of Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to begin, countries are still debating over how to divide the burden of reducing carbon emissions to a sustainable level.

What are the issues for India?

For one, there is pressure on India for a cessation on coal-fired power plants. However, it is extremely difficult as more than half of the 800,000 megawatts of power India plans to produce by 2030 are to come from coal-fired plants. This is mainly because coal is abundant in India and other energy sources are relatively scarce.

Similarly, Obama’s call at the G20 for the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies is complicated in India because of the dependence of poor on fossil fuels to heat and light their homes. There may be a case for better monitoring of these subsidies but in the Indian context, there has to be a place for subsidies for poorer sections of society.

India, on its part, has been pushing for agreement of the global community on three areas — forestry for mitigating climate change effects, Clean Development Mechanism and technology cooperation in the Copenhagen UN summit.

In the area of forestry, India has proposed the “REDD Plus” mechanism, which aims to ensure greater fund to developing nations if they conserve forest areas, adopt sustainable environment management programs or plant new trees. India has also offered to report once a year to the United Nations on how successfully the country is curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

A dimension that is often missed is that CO2 emissions account for only about half of the global warming story. Ground-level ozone (from transport and biomass burning), black carbon (from motor vehicles) and methane production (from agriculture, cattle and wood burning) also play roles. And these are much easier to deal with in an overall growth framework using available technologies; indeed, reducing these should be an integral part of the development project because they are also human health hazards.

While the North-South debate is likely to get heated up in the summit, and the need for consolidation of developing countries cannot be overstated, India needs to be alert to its own needs and priorities. For example, it is wrong to club India and China in the same group of carbon emitters. China’s total emission is comparable to that of the US (according to some estimates it has surpassed this level), whereas India’s is only about a fifth of China’s. In terms of per capita emissions, China is close to the world average whereas India’s per capita emissions are less than a quarter of the world average.

It is important therefore for India to clearly strategies its negotiation. As the saying goes- we should never fear to negotiate, but we should never negotiate out of fear.

What should be India’s priorities in the Copenhagen Summit?

Copenhagen: Making it more than a North-South contest

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From 7th December environment ministers and officials will meet in Copenhagen for the COP15- the Copenhagen climate change summit — the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The idea is to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol. Copenhagen summit is seen as an important step in the annual series of UN meetings that started with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which aimed at coordinating international action against climate change.

One hundred and ninety-two countries have signed the climate change convention. More than 15,000 officials, advisers, diplomats, campaigners and journalists are expected to attend joined by heads of state and government.

The most important questions that are likely to be raised in the summit are:

· What would be commitment of the industrialized countries towards reduction of their emissions of greenhouse gases?

· What would be the commitment of the major developing countries such as China and India towards putting a limit to the growth of their emissions?

· How will the help needed by developing countries to reduce going to be financed?

The issues are complicated. The global discussion on climate change has degenerated into a north-south confrontation and the debate is likely to continue in Copenhagen. At the core of the argument is the fact that on average, carbon emissions per capita in the developed world are about five times those in developing countries.

The developed world has been and continues to be the basic cause of the problem. In the developing world the conclusion is obvious: rich nations must take on the basic burden of mitigation, consume less of the world’s resources and reduce their contribution to global warming absolutely. That is why attempts to declare common goals of emission reduction across all countries are seen not only as unequal and unfair but even imperialist. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green)

However, the issues are anything but straightforward. While taking a moral high ground, the developing countries should not try to defend the indefensible. In the last two decades per capita carbon emissions doubled in developing countries as a group, and nearly tripled in China. While protecting their national interest and especially those of the poor, it is important to realize that high level of emissions, ultimately will not take us anywhere. Finally, who suffers the most due to climate change- the poor, especially in tropical and semi-tropical zones.

More importantly-there is a need to re-orient the debate-it is not about conceding to the unfair demands of the developed countries- it is about negotiating support – financial and technology transfer related - to reorient growth in cleaner and greener directions. Are we negotiating hard enough?

What should the developing countries aim at negotiating in the Copenhagen Summit?

Recession and the Environment

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  • The official European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates showed a 1.5 percent drop in Greenhouse gas emissions.  The vast majority of the decline in emissions in 2008 was due to lower CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the energy, industry and transport sectors as a result of economic recession
  • Thousands of factories in China’s Pearl River Delta have shut their doors since late last year
  • Output of autos, electronics and other goods from factories in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey and Toluca has fallen sharply that the amount of cargo trucked across the U.S. border has dropped 40 percent. (Source: http://www.newsweek.com/id/188200)
  • In India, small steel-rolling mills around Delhi have closed down bringing down the levels of sulfur dioxide (which forms acid rain) by 85 percent in October 2008 compared with a year earlier. (Source: http://www.newsweek.com/id/188200)
  • According to the Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the rate of deforestation from last November through January, fell 70 percent from the same period a year before. About two thirds of Brazil’s 200 million head of cattle graze in the Amazon where virgin forest once stood, making cattle the single biggest cause of deforestation there. According to the climatologists falling beef prices combined with the shortage of farm credit has acted as a natural brake on forest destruction

To put things in perspective- economic recession is not an environmental strategy- it is neither desirable nor sustainable. It hurts the poor, the most. At the same time, it gives a pause, a time to think of consequences and of alternatives.  Recession puts a useful brake – from an environmental point of view – on consumption, waste and excess use of resources.

Over the last few decades there has been a transition of world’s manufacturing units from the developed to the developing nations that have milder environmental standards and poor implementation of what exists. Also, across the world, inefficient units tend to be the most polluting ones. At the same time, these are most vulnerable to recession in terms of a sudden drop in demand. The global recession has hit such operations especially hard. Under these circumstances the government supported bailout packages are unlikely to help major polluters forcing them to scout for more efficient and environmental friendly ways of operation, if they are to survive.

But a recession does not mean resource-exploitation or ecological destruction will stop, it will still have an impact on the environment. There is also a danger of companies reducing their investments into research & development as these do not produce short-term results. From a consumer perspective, with lesser purchasing power, one tends to go for products that cost less. Environment-friendly products, on the other hand, are typically more expensive, at least in the short-term.

Economic recession provides a short-term opportunity to deemphasize polluting manufacturing in favour of cleaner economic activity. Can we use the downturn to institute greener practices?