6 july 2013

Climate of Denial

Climate change is back on the US political agenda. Can India refocus its own efforts?

Sunita Dubey, The Indian Express, Jly 6, 2013

In a major speech last month, US President Barack Obama acknowledged climate change as a major challenge that must be addressed by the US and announced three major steps: cutting carbon pollution, preparing the US for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to cut global emissions.

Obama's plan specifically includes finalising the carbon emission limits on new power plants and, for the first time, imposing carbon limits on existing power plants. The plan also requires all federal projects to be able to withstand the heightened storms and sea-level rise associated with climate change. While his words have to be proven by actions, and it might take some time to see the results, the laying out of a climate strategy itself, particularly limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants, is a step in the right direction. The speech is expected to kick-off a national conversation and debate on what should be done in the US. Climate change, albeit quite late, has come back into the US political agenda.

India, like all other major economies, will have to alter its greenhouse gas emissions trajectory, despite the fact that India's energy economy will be strained by these efforts. India should also refocus its effort on climate change actions. Although it has fallen off the political radar, it needs to be brought back front and centre with the start of a constructive climate debate.

Climate mitigation continues to be seen as a responsibility of developed nations, and the notion that a country like India should be allowed to "grow" without any restriction is still persistent within political circles. However, it is this lack of leadership on climate-resilient development that will make India more susceptible to environmental and social risk. The impacts of climate change will spare no one, and will hit the vulnerable populations more severely.

It is particularly on coal that India needs to engage more proactively and move away from a reactive climate strategy. While initiatives taken by the prime minister under the National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008 are noteworthy, they have not brought about significant changes yet. India's power sector continues its over-reliance on dirty coal. There are no emission limits for sulphur dioxide or for nitrogen oxides for coal-fired power plants in India, let alone carbon emissions. The carbon emissions from the power sector contribute to about 60 per cent of India's emissions.

So, while the media and the political circles are focused on the coal scam, the real scam is that the impact of pollution from coal continues to be ignored. India needs to first impose and strongly enforce limits on particulate and smog-related pollution from power plants. A recent study done by Greenpeace India found that in 2011-12, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to total PM10 pollution. According to the same study, the monetary cost associated with such health impact exceeds Rs 16,000 to 23,000 crore per year. A Sierra Club research shows that Indian coal power plant emission standards are four to 20 times worse than the Chinese standards — while China has also taken a call to reduce coal consumption in some key areas, and is willing to seriously curb its carbon emission and air pollution.

Limits on carbon emissions will need to be considered — perhaps sooner than later. Carbon mitigation in India would certainly mean increased energy prices in the short term, but that would also force the deployment of more clean and renewable technologies, as well as distributed energy sources that can better address energy poverty.

One can only hope that the next administration will take these issues more seriously, with the recognition that addressing climate change requires strong political leadership.

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