Column: A billion times anything ... is huge!

Written by Renuka Bisht | Updated: Dec 10 2011, 06:01am hrs
Jayanthi Natarajan has done what she set off to Durban to do, made the point that India has a very small carbon footprint. With around 17% of the worlds population, we contribute only around 5% of its CO2 emissions.* The US numbers are almost exactly reversed: around 5% of the worlds population and around 18% of its CO2 emissions. Indias numbers are also much more healthy than Chinas, which accounts for 20% of the worlds population and 24% of its emissions. But an 85-strong alliance of the worlds most vulnerable countries is not buying into our small rhetoric. Why cant they see our point of view

Indias per capita emissions doubled between 2000-2009. When Jayanthi Natarajan cries that they will not exceed 3.7 tonne even in 2030, even with a growth rate of 8-9% per annum (compared to 17 tonnes for the US as of 2009), whats going through Tuvalus mind That India will be the worlds most populous country by then. The alliance of small island states is thinking, sure, India says its development before environment approach is justified on historical grounds. But they have suffered the same historical injustices. In yesteryears, colonisers would export their industrial pollution abroad. Without any such options available any more, with the dark winds of climate change blowing across national boundaries, Indias resistance to binding global action becomes somewhat indistinguishable from that of the US. Both countries are now part of the small club of 10 countries from which two-thirds of global emissions in 2009 originated. We could shout till kingdom come that 41% of these were produced by China and the US alone, but we still couldnt convince more vulnerable countries that they should now let us shrug off our responsibilities, just let us meld into a homogeneous pudding demanding sugar from the West.

But forget what outsiders are saying, just listen to the insiders. Heres what Nandan Nilekani passionately argued in 2008 in Imagining India: The arguments at Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen and beyond will decide what a just and equitable global arrangement should be. But India has to face up to its own challenges in adapting to global warming, meeting our energy needs, preserving our forests, cleaning up our cities, addressing soil degradation and restoring water resources that have already reached crisis levels. If we ignore these warnings and eventually see our growth rates tumble as our economy becomes unsustainable, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. Add on the dire warnings on glaciers descending, seas rising, extreme weather events increasing, etc. Then, its not just a question of how polluted our rivers and cities have become and how this will worsen with increasing urbanisation, but without a national policy to turn us in an alternative direction, there will be businesses and people that luxuriate in the the fuel-intensive habits of the richer countries while the rest of the citizens are just used as a pretext for business as usual, without accruing proportionate benefits.

As the Edge column (Decarbonisation of the economy) on the accompanying page argues, Indian ambitions can take comfort from the fact that GDP growth is usually accompanied by increasing energy efficiency. But this, in turn, is predicated on adoption of state-of-the-art technologies. On this barometer, we are not doing too well. As the accompanying graph illustrates, our energy efficiency rise falls far short of our per capita emissions rise. This is not to negate the many pro-active policy actions of the last few years, ranging from the Energy Conservation Act to the National Solar Mission. But the same impulse that made our policymakers backtrack from Jairam Rameshs voluntary commitment that India will cut its carbon intensity by 20-25% between 2005-2020 and enhance its emissions reporting is effecting our access to new technologies. By one estimate, CDMs in India amount to technology transfer only in 16% instances in terms of the number of projects and 41% in terms of annual emission reductions. If we remain sceptical of emission reduction mandates, why shouldnt the EU be sceptical of technology transfers

* All data, unless otherwise mentioned, is from the IEA 2011 report, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion