The writing on the wall

Written by Dr P K Vasudeva | Updated: Sep 29 2008, 03:33am hrs
In the midst of the current international debate on global warming, it is instructive to note that it has taken the United Nations and the international community some two generations to reach this point. In 1949, the UN Scientific Conference on the conservation and utilisation of resources (Lake Success, New York, August 17 to September 6) was the first UN body to address the depletion of those resources and their use. The focus, however, was mainly on how to manage them for economic and social development. Held in Stockholm, from June 5 to 16, 1972, the UN Scientific Conference, First Earth Summit, adopted a declaration that set out an action plan containing recommendations for international environmental action.

In 1992, more than 100 heads of state met in Rio de Janeiro, for the first international Earth Summit and created Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to monitor and report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements in 1997 to review the response to the challenge of the Earth Summit. The Earth Summit 2002 took place in Johannesburg to discuss sustainable development by the UN without much result. Subsequently, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), then the World Bank; and now United Nations Industrial Development Organisation cautioned about the consequences that global warming entails for India.

As industrialisation advances, the environmental costs are sure to be high given the extent technology that relies heavily on fossil fuel. Already fragile and facing a stubbornly sluggish growth, agriculture may have to counter newer challenges in the form of extreme weather, unpredictable rainfall patterns as also more intense and frequent pest and disease attacks, all of which are sure to hurt yields and output over the medium-to-long term. Crops such as wheat and maize are already at the limit of heat tolerance. Even a small rise (1.5-2 degrees Celsius) in average temperature during the growing period can affect yields, and in turn compromise food security.

Environment hangs like the sword of Damocles over large economies such as India and China that need to take significant steps to avert the disaster of climate change. Policies that encourage adoption of eco-friendly technologies including exploitation of renewable energy sources should be put in place; and if need be, provided incentives for large-scale adoption.

As for agriculture, adaptation and mitigation strategies have to be put in place. Land constraints and water shortage are already looming large. Heat-tolerant and moisture-stress resistant varieties of vulnerable crops need to be evolved. It is a challenge that must be met squarely given that a majority of the population still depends on farm incomes.

Leaders of 16 of the worlds major economies meeting at the venue of the G-8 summit at Tokyo in northern Japan found enough ground to take forward their negotiations on how to mitigate the challenge of climate change.

The declaration issued by the major economies noted that all countries recognise that deep cuts in global emissions will be necessary to achieve the (UN Framework) Conventions ultimate objective, and that adaptation will play a correspondingly vital role. The declaration noted that the size of the cuts would take into account the principle of equity.

Recently, the leaders of the G-8 had affirmed that they would stick to the long-term goal of reducing global emissions by 50% by 2050. In fact, Dr Manmohan Singh, Indian Prime Minister, told the meeting that we have not seen demonstrable progress on even the low levels of agreed GHG (greenhouse gases) reductions from developed countries and indeed, the prognosis is that their emissions as a whole will continue to rise even in the years to come.

Reiterating his stand he said, Sustained and accelerated economic growth is critical for all developing countries and we cannot for the present even consider quantitative restrictions on our emissions.

In the end, his stand was not sustained as the declaration confirmed that the developing economies in this group, on their part, would pursue, in the context of sustainable development, nationally appropriate mitigation actions, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, with a view to achieving a deviation from business as usual emissions.

India is home to a sixth of the worlds population but its carbon emissions are less than 5% of that of the globe. Chinas emissions are much higher, about 19%, but notwithstanding its huge population, are still less than that of the US, which has a billion fewer people.

In a statement on the eve of his departure, Dr Singh said, In our view there can be no solution without taking into account the developmental imperatives and aspirations of developing economies. For us, the foremost priority is the removal of poverty, for which we need sustained rapid economic growth. Economic growth is directly related to climate change hence all out efforts by the countries especially the industrialised ones should be to adhere to Kyoto Protocol for the reduction of GHGs.

(The author is senior trade professor at IBS Chandigarh. He can be contacted at vasu022@gmail.com)