Changing attitudes on climate change

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Jun 5 2014, 06:55am hrs
The 21st century has seen a slew of extreme weather events, from tsunamis and hurricanes to heat and cold waves. The frequency of their occurrence is perceived to be rising, lending weight to the arguments of campaigners against global warming. In March, having paid due heed to these incidents, the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recalibrated its projection of the risks following from global warming, concluding that it had under-reported them earlier in 2007. What happened next This month, in a vote of confidence for alternative energy, Warren Buffet laid down $1.9 billion on his utility company MidAmerican Energy, which expects to generate half its capacity from wind farms in Iowa by 2017.

And this week, as America waited for President Obama to reveal a draft policy to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by a third, the sentiment was not dominated by the usual uproar of climate change denial. Rather, there seemed to be excitement about a new window of opportunity opening. New rules curbing carbon pollution, especially from power plants, were expected to spur growth in the alternative energy industry.

The politics of climate change has reached a new level, and Obamas unprecedented cuts will be used to gain leverage over growing economies. Never mind the naysayers, this was bound to happen, because climate change is inherently a political issue. Political authority faces the implications of extreme weather, shortages and the loss of habitats. And such disasters are not altogether remote any more. The financial crisis from which the world has just recovered had seen food riots in several countries. The commodification of water was predicted in the 1970s and growing competition for it featured in the literature in the 1990s.

It has taken about two decades to turn what appeared to be adversity into what appears to be opportunity. Appearances are often deceptive but even so, the present mood of entrepreneurial optimism is a pleasant change from the reading of emission reduction as the stifling of production. Perhaps the obsessive use of that word reduction in the literature was ill-advised. It suggested that dreaded term for fiscal prudencebelt-tightening. Something on the lines of correction or mitigation may have sounded less threatening.

Reduction is now being tentatively read as opportunity and if conversion to green energy can be lucrative, there is an even more valuable market yet: locations where there are no legacy energy systems to dismantle. The joke goes that when the Northern Grid collapsed, big chunks of North India did not notice because they had never had access to the grid anyway. Rural India has been starved of power in general, and withholding scarce electricity has become a political tool. Alternative energy can be especially rewarding in such places because the commercial and political cost of dismantling legacy systems does not exist. The political and commercial dividends would be immediate.

Very small-scale generation for local distribution is not a novelty. What remains unexplored is the possibility of hooking up meagre sources of energy to local grids. Interestingly, the NDA government has featured alternative energy prominently in Indias power plan. The sector had also featured in the promotional discourse of vibrant Gujarat. Multiple local grids, which distribute locally produced energy within the locality, can be conceived in parallel with the national grid. Local ownership of generation capacity would imply community policing, which would in turn curb the rampant power theft which causes outages. And the cost of parallel cabling would probably be far lower than the cost of waiting for a national grid which could do fail-safe load balancing without having to resort to load-shedding.

Oh dear! That terrifying term from the heart of darkness that clawed its way into the cities. Sudhir Dar cartooned about load shedding in the 1970s. In the next decade, middle class Kolkata made black jokes about it. The magazine Desh, progressive at the time, ran a satire series titled the Andhakar (Darkness) Supply Corporation, teasing the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation. But today, populations starved of access to legacy electric supply represent a commercial opportunity for alternative energy. While complete electrification from alternative sources would be unaffordable, the demands of these populations are quite modest. They decide how power-rich they are on the basis of very fundamental questions. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modis campaign had scored by asking precisely those questions: Do you have power at dinner time Do children have a light to study by

But the basic question is even more modest: Can you charge your mobile phone To change the answer from negative to positive costs very, very little, requires no government intervention and represents opportunity for private initiative. It isnt much, just to be able to charge a phone, but it is a beginning. And a phone is a great enabler.