Last Chance To Save The Planet!

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 21

May 27,

Last Chance To Save The Planet!




SO this is it! No more excuses, no ifs and buts, this
is definitive. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released
the Report of its Third Working Group (WG3) on May 4 in Bangkok. The Report has
been carefully vetted not only by scientists and climate experts but also went
through the usual line-by-line nit-picking by governmental representatives from
105 nations who have thus put their seal of approval on the Report’s highly
significant findings.


The bad news is that man-made climate change is very
real and is on the verge of reaching irreversible levels at which all life on
earth could perish. The good news is that the process can be halted mostly
through available technologies, and at much lower economic and social cost than
fear-mongers had earlier portrayed, IF (and this is a big if) necessary steps
are taken immediately.




The Report forms part of the latest fourth series of
Assessment Reports (AR4) by the IPCC, the previous round being in 2001. Three
Working Groups of the present AR4 series have submitted their reports. The first
report in Paris in February 2007 asserted the harsh reality of anthropogenic
climate change and elaborated the scientific basis for this understanding:
perennial doubters and climate change deniers such as US conservatives and
right-wing think-tanks, are now equivalent to those who believe the earth is
flat! The second report in Brussels in April this year brought out the likely
impact (such as increase of temperatures, rising sea levels and changing
cropping patterns besides possible more frequent extreme weather phenomena such
as storms, drought or floods), vulnerabilities (such as of coastal communities,
small island nations, farmers especially poor peasants) and necessary adaptation
strategies. The much-awaited WG3 Report was on the key issue of mitigation, that
is, how climate change can be checked or controlled.


Science now shows that, from a baseline level of
greenhouse gases (GHGs) of around 300 ppm (parts per million) of carbon-dioxide
equivalent in the pre-industrial era, we have now reached levels of around 425
ppm which, if current rates of GHG emissions continue in a “business as usual”
mode, will reach around 475 – 490 ppm by 2030 causing a catastrophic rise in
global temperature by 2.0-2.8 degrees Celsius, reaching 550-600 ppm and a rise
of 4-5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century spelling doom for all life on


Growth rates of GHG emissions have been particularly
high in recent times, levels having risen by 70 per cent during 1970-2004 and as
much as 24 per cent during 1990-2004 despite the Kyoto Treaty which came into
force only lately. It is well known that there is a time lag between changes in
emission levels and their effects. The Report therefore states that, if major
impact of climate change is to be avoided, total GHG emissions should reach peak
levels then start declining within the next 10-20 years, stabilising at around
450 ppm for which drastic action is required at once.




In order to understand how GHG emissions may be
reduced, it is important to identify the major sources of emissions globally and
the potential for emission reductions in them. The report presents detailed
findings and reduction scenarios in respect of the different sectors.


Energy consumption in buildings for heating, cooling
and lighting is identified as one of the large contributors to GHG emissions.
The report projects that 30 per cent reduction in emissions from this sector is
possible by 2030. Experience has shown that re-designing of buildings to reduce
heating requirements (such as reduction of energy consumption by as much as 10
per cent in Germany by passive solar architecture, mainly trapping solar heat
through glass frontages), use of energy-saving devices and renewable energy
sources can make major contributions to emission reductions. Unfortunately
insufficient work has been done as regards cooling of buildings: in India, for
example, rising incomes of some sections and a boom in some corporate sectors
has resulted in enormous increase in use of air conditioners, but no effort has
been made to evolve, leave alone enforce, building codes that would keep indoor
temperatures naturally low.


The report highlights the need for substantial shifts
in decision-making regarding energy infrastructure if GHG emissions are to be
kept at present levels by the year 2030 despite the obviously enormous increase
in energy demand by that time. It is estimated that about US$ 20 trillion (Rs
840 lakh crore) would be invested in new energy plants between now and 2030. Of
these, the report projects that energy from renewable sources such as solar,
wind etc could be increased from the present 18 per cent of electricity
generation to about 30-35 per cent even after making allowances for the
currently higher costs of renewables as against fossil fuel. Indeed, with
expected rising prices of oil, renewable energy is expected to get more
competitive. While the report includes nuclear energy among the options for
reducing GHG emissions, it projects that globally nuclear electricity generation
as a proportion of total global electricity production will increase only
modestly from the present 16 per cent to 18 per cent by 2030.


The transport sector is of course another major
contribution to GHG emissions. The report finds that, while there are many
options for reducing emissions, their cumulative effect may be considerably
offset by growth in this sector. The report calls for a structural shift in
transport modes from road to rail or inland waterways, from low-occupancy to
high-occupancy passenger transport and better urban planning to reduce
transportation demand. The report also makes the point that leaving issues of
vehicular fuel efficiency to market forces will not suffice, thus going against
neo-liberal dogma and implicitly supporting calls for greater regulation.


The report also adds its voice to the growing
international concern, recently endorsed by a UN study, about increased use of
supposedly eco-friendly bio-fuels which, while growing in popularity and showing
potential to increase from 3 per cent to 5-10 per cent of transport fuel
depending on prices and improvements in technologies, also pose serious dangers
such as diversion of forest land, competition for use of scarce land and water
resources, and challenges to food security.


The report finds that as much as 50 per cent of
required emission cuts can be achieved by preventing deforestation, an issue of
contemporary significance, especially in tropical areas representing two-thirds
of deforestation-linked GHG build-ups. It must be noted that due to capitalist
globalisation, huge swathes of tropical forests such as in the Amazon and
South-East Asia are being cleared each year for timber and in favour of pasture
lands for the beef trade, or plantations of corn, sugar cane or palm oil seeking
lucrative bio-fuels markets.




Perhaps the most important aspect of the report is its
major conclusion that the challenge of urgently reducing GHG emissions can be
met at reasonable costs. Major industrialised nations, and even large developing
economies basking in a globalisation-driven surge, have for long resisted calls
to curb GHG emissions on the grounds that the costs would be too high, that
growth and development would suffer.


In what is a remarkable running theme of low
cost-implications, the report estimates that even significant changes such as
advocated in energy above, are likely to require only 5-10 per cent additional
investment contrary to popular notions, fuelled by status quoists, that major
shifts in energy policies would be too expensive to bear.


The report stresses that bulk of the required GHG
emission reductions can in fact be achieved through higher energy efficiencies:
“It is often more cost-effective to invest in end-use energy efficiency
improvement than in increasing energy supply to satisfy demand for energy
services. Efficiency improvement has a positive effect on energy security, local
and regional air pollution abatement, and employment.” Indeed, energy efficiency
will in fact save money and should therefore be a natural goal.


The IPCC Report endorsed by 105 governments including
both developed and developing nations estimates that if all the above mitigation
measures are taken so as to bring down GHG emissions to the target level of
around 450 ppm by 2030, it would result in a decrease in global GDP of a mere 3
per cent over the next two decades i.e. a drop of about 0.1 per cent or
one-tenth of a percentage point per year!


To emphasize the point, the report also states that
some models even show an increase in global GDP due to lower energy costs,
better market efficiencies and improvements in technology.




These findings have huge significance for future
international negotiations on climate change, notably the next Conference of
Parties (COP) in Bali in December 2007, especially since the report has also
been endorsed by governments. The Bali COP is to initiate discussions on what
needs to be done after 2012 when the present phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends.
It will be recalled that the Treaty at present requires advanced industrialised
countries (so-called Annex-I states) to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below
1995 levels by 2012 while not imposing any binding targets on developing
countries, this arrangement to be revised for the second phase after 2012.


The AR4 Reports acknowledge that measures under the
Kyoto Treaty have resulted in only marginal impact on GHGs, indeed hence the
urgency now in the recommendations of IPCC. The US with around 26 per cent of
global Carbon-dioxide emissions obstinately stayed out of the Kyoto Treaty
earning much international opprobrium and virtually rendering it a non-starter.


A cause of much heated debate in the Kyoto
negotiations, and used by the US as a major excuse for staying out of the
treaty, was the decision to exempt even large developing countries from any GHG
emission reduction targets, on the grounds that their per capita emissions were
far lower than those of advanced countries, which had clearly contributed most
to GHG build-up in the atmosphere, and that poorer nations could not be expected
to cut back on economic growth at this stage of their development.


In the lead up to the Bali COP, however, enormous
pressure is expected to build on emerging giant economies such as China, India,
Brazil, Mexico and other rapidly industrialising nations to somehow also
contribute meaningfully to the global task of rescuing our planet from climate
change, even within the Kyoto framework of “common but differentiated
responsibility”. Part of the pressure is undoubtedly going to be political but a
moral obligation will also be emphasised.


It is of potentially enormous significance that the
AR4 Reports have been endorsed even by the US, and also by China, India, ASEAN
states and other leading industrial powers in the developing world. Observers at
the meeting in Bangkok have commented that the US has been “unusually
cooperative” and even “constructive”, perhaps portending a change in the
official US position given the huge domestic political shifts such as the
transition from a Republican to a Democrat-controlled Congress and over a dozen
states in the US including the largest emitter California having adopted
emission reduction targets in line with the Kyoto Treaty. Will the US come on
board after Bali? Will China, India and other major developing nations also make
some moves as a price for bringing the US and actually make a difference to
impending climate doom?


China is now the world’s second largest GHG emitter at
around 10 per cent of global emissions, with galloping economic growth such that
it is poised to overtake the US in GHG emissions by 2030! India is at fourth
place at around 3 per cent and projected to soon overtake the entire African
continent! The Bangkok Report shows that developing countries hitherto outside
the Kyoto targets now account for 54 per cent of global GHGs! No doubt emissions
from these nations are still less than a tenth of those from advanced economies
on a per capita basis. But that may be little solace for the disastrous GHG
build-up in the atmosphere responding to total emissions rather than to
per-capita GHG molecules bearing country-of-origin stamps!


The Bangkok Report importantly brings out that
economic growth need not be affected beyond a small fraction of 1 per cent of
GDP for GHG emissions to be reduced. It is well-known, and even officially
acknowledged in major developing countries, that benefits of rapid GDP growth
through a globalisation-driven path of industrialisation are not equitably
distributed, so does a marginal drop in GDP with highly doubtful trickle-down
benefits need to be protected so ardently? Measures such as energy efficiency
and demand modulation may indeed also promote greater equity.


In the months to come all nations will be put to test.
Will they do what needs to be done? The message from the IPCC Reports is simple:
climate change must be tackled immediately in order to save the planet. And it
will not cost the earth to do so.