In the late 1960s, the developed world discovered non-proliferation. Suddenly, it became the issue of issues, signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty became the yardstick of good conduct among nations. The new climate deal being negotiated in Copenhagen has now assumed a similar status. For decades, the developed world spewed greenhouse gases. Suddenly they have discovered religion, and they want everyone to convert to their new faith.
Despite being reviled and punished for it, India stayed out of the NPT which has become a universal treaty. Perhaps that experience should guide our stance at the Climate Change Conference Copenhagen (COP 15) as well: India should agree to only that agreement that relentlessly serves its national interests, and not one that panders to the latest whim of the developed world.
This could be our new NPT moment, when we may have to decide to walk alone. India is no outlaw, but it does have some unique requirements. This writer is an agnostic on the issue of climate change. Not on whether the climate is changing; we have a great deal of anecdotal evidence for that, but whether human activity is what is leading to this change.
The science associated with climate change, as we have seen in the case of the recent email leaks, is in contention. There are something like 450 peer-reviewed journal articles skeptical of man-made climate change listed on populartechnology.net. Some 30,000 American scientists have put their names to a petition that notes that “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.”
The 1997 Kyoto protocol was not ratified by the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the US. COP15 looked dead too, but President Barack Obama’s announcement in late November that the US would move for 17 per cent cuts removed the final obstacle and opened the way for a deal. Within a day or so, China announced that it would cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP (carbon intensity) by 40-45 per cent by 2020, from 2005 levels. There is a bit of jugglery here. China’s carbon intensity is already quite high; in 2006 it emitted 2.85 tonnes of CO2 for every $1,000 of GDP, compared to 0.54 tonnes for the US, with some European countries achieving far lower rates. (India is about 1.82 according to 2005 figures).
This has generated pressure on India to do its bit. Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was not planning to go to the Copenhagen conference had to change his plans after a call from the US president. An informal new grouping has arisen, BASIC — Brazil, South Africa, India, China and New Delhi, too, has announced that it would be game for a 20-25 per cent cut in its carbon intensity by 2020 and 37 per cent by 2030.
Looked at either through the filter of carbon intensity or per capita emission, India is in a class of its own when it comes to the issue. The other three countries are actually developed in comparison to India. Perhaps the best indicator of this is the electricity consumption per capita. India’s is a pathetic 503 kwh, compared to China which is 2040, Brazil is 2060, South Africa is 4810. Going by the present trends, India could reach the Chinese/ Brazilian figures by 2030.
On paper 80 per cent of our population has access to electricity, but its quality is marred by poor supply, voltage fluctuation and is it a severe constraint on the country’s economy. The problems are not only with generation, which suffers because of regulatory delays in approving new plants, but with its transmission and supply. Many of the state electricity boards are insolvent because power is supplied at subsidised rates. While the government has eased rules relating to foreign investment in the sector, the financial infirmity of the state boards has prevented foreign investment from flowing in easily.
The fact of the matter is that India needs power, lots of it and from all possible sources that it can tap. This is not an automatic invocation for stepping up carbon emissions in a mindless way. Coal currently meets more than half of India’s energy demand —the electric power sector consumes 76 per cent of the country’s coal.
Though India has 7 per cent of the world’s total reserves, the quality of its coal is poor and its coal mines are unable to meet domestic demand which is climbing steeply as India races to meet its energy needs.
Coal and its resultant pollution is not where India’s future lies. But, this is not the moment for us to take the lead in showing the alternate path. As a Mint report of a World Bank study revealed on Thursday, India would have to pay a substantial price for increasing generation of environment friendly energy. India needs to work on its own time and pace and with some help from the world community to get on to the low carbon path. Part of the help is forthcoming through the path-breaking Indo-US nuclear deal, but more would be needed to take to a carbon neutral path.
The years 1990-2010 have been China's years of historical opportunity, the period 2005-2030 are India's. Unfortunately, they are now coinciding with the developed world’s new received religion — the need to curb greenhouse gases. We have already tarried too long and too far from the high growth path and now there are indicators that we are on it. This is not an opportunity that will come our way again, in this century at least. These are the years of our demographic dividend, the years that will decide whether India will be a future world power or a failed state.
As Kaushik Basu has explained: In the year 2004 India had a population of 1,080 million, of whom 670 million people were in the age-group 15 to 64 years which is considered as the “working age population.” The rest, comprising the very young and the old, some 400 million, were seen as the dependent population. So the dependency ratio, or the proportion of the dependent population to the working age population works out to 0.6. Today, India is not different from other developing countries like Bangladesh which is 0.7, Pakistan’s 0.8 or Brazil’s 0.5.
What is different about India is that the dependency ratio will see a sharp decline over the next 30 years or so. India's fertility rate — that is, the average number of children a woman expects to have in her life time — used to be 3.8 in 1990. This has fallen to 2.9 and is expected to fall further. Since women had higher fertility earlier, we now have a sizeable number of people in the age-group 0-15 years. And since fertility is falling, some 10 or 15 years down the road, this bulge of young people would have moved into the working-age category. And, since, at that time, the relative number of children will be small (thanks to the lowered fertility), India's dependency ratio would be lower. It is expected that, in 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan; and, by 2030, India's dependency ratio should be just over 0.4.
This huge bulge of young people is both an opportunity and a threat. An opportunity if we are able to shift them to productive jobs; a threat otherwise. And for this we need all the electric power we can generate. This is not the time for us to save the world, but to save ourselves. We are not talking about the rich, but some of the poorest people in the world.
This appeared in Mail Today December 11, 2001