Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why India needs to link Rainfall to Climate Change

Indians have long since felt the effects of the capricious monsoons. However, it is only in the recent years that the predictions of weather departments have gone haywire, with every year ushering in novel situations that have no precedence for study and analysis. While monsoons are getting widely spread over the months June to September since last year, flooding in arid or minimal rainfall zones are becoming increasingly frequent. Does this mean climate change has already affected the weather and rainfall pattern in India? Seems so.

A study released by Purdue University earlier this year has explicitly mentioned that climate change could influence monsoon patterns with reduced summer precipitation, delay in the onset of rains and longer gaps between rainy periods.

As Dr Vibha Dhawan of The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, says,

"We need to accept now that climate change is something that is bound to happen.”

"Not just high temperatures but fluctuating temperatures. Not just drought but also floods."

An expert at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre has attributed the recent South India floods to climate change. The recent flooding in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is portentuous of the times to come. As climate change accelerates, so will the unpredictability and intensity of the rainfall patterns, as is evident from the 600 % higher than normal rainfall in the driest river basin of the country.

Climate Change, essentially the domino effect of rapid industrialisation, is today a reality. It has already arrived in India A natural upshot of global warming, climate change has been visible in the marked shift in weather patterns in the past few years. Unpredictable monsoons, extreme climate conditions, increase in natural disasters, rise in sea levels and crop failures are some of the obvious impacts of climate change being felt here, besides emerging changes in glacier advances or retreats of the Himalayas.

One may recall the atypical case of Rajasthan, a historically drought-prone and arid State. If the floods of Barmer district in 2006 was a bolt from the blue, the situation in 2007 was worse when Rajasthan witnessed an unprecedented 2 month long flooding in five of its districts. Yet again, in August 2008, incessant rains led to the breach of the Jaswant Sagar Dam.

Contrarily, the North-Eastern States of Assam, whose lush green forests once owed allegiance to heavy downpour almost half the year, have been fraught with dry weather in various regions since 2004, while facing widespread flooding of Brahmaputra and intermittent flash flooding from breaching of embankments.

On the one hand the Himalayan river systems draining into the Ganga river basin are dying out, on the other hand glacier melting has resulted in recurrent flooding of Yamuna and Brahmaputra rivers. It is a disaster, waiting to happen, as the impact will be felt on human survival, agriculture, infrastructure, forest cover, hydel power and the general economy.

Then again, the village of Basahi village in Bihar has become a victim of climate change. Increased run-off from the mountain glaciers in Tibet and Nepal has meant consequent breach of the Budhigandhak river every year. Villagers think fixing the river embankment is the solution. Little do they know that the heavy floods are a visible sign of a climate flux. The monsoons they once welcomed is now viewed with trepidation, as it gets heavier and relentless every successive year.

In particular, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim are facing the heat of climate change the most. The effects of climate transmutation are more pronounced in these mountainous regions because of their fragile ecosystems. The melt-down of glaciers is already flooding river valleys. Flash floods are becoming the order of the day. Paradoxically, the prolonged drought conditions at other times of the year, are giving rise to a serious concern about water management, a hitherto unknown issue in this water-rich region. It is inevitable that such shifts in the environmental and geophysical attribute of this Himalayan region have a non-reversal impact on land-use patterns and crop production.

In such a situation, the continued construction of hydro-electric projects are worsening the imbalances that have already set in.

The livelihood of the people of India and the economy itself, largely depends upon the agriculture, forestry, wetlands and fisheries. The monsoon rains influence the land-usage, which is grossly dependant upon water-based eco-systems. Vagaries of rainfall patterns and changes in water cycle are also directly related to water borne diseases.

All of this indicates the immediate need to redress the problem of unpredictable rainfall and chalk up surrogate options to insure farmers against drought-like or flood conditions. Government needs to work closely with local movements and NGOs to seek possible solutions. While unpredicatability of rainfall needs to be linked to climate change in order to take suitable measures, appropriate water usage policies and regulations are increasingly required. The snail-paced 2 % growth in agricultural sector needs a fillip and impact of such disastrous floods and droughts lessened.

Water usage is extremely important in this traditionally agro-based economy. Otherwise very soon not only is India in danger of losing its capacity as one the highest wheat and rice providers, amongst others, but also pave the way for multinationals tol take over agricultural land from suicide-committing farmers, going the Mexico way !

Posted at INDIA WATER PORTAL at Sangeeta Deogawanka's Blog

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Indian approach to Climate Change

Unlike the rest of the self-righteous developed world that is more occupied with finger-pointing at less developed nations than examining its own defaulting positions of large carbon emitting status, India has been adopting a pragmatic approach.

The Indian minister in charge, Jairam Ramesh not only acknowledges the serious problems brought about by climate change in India, but has also approached the entire climate issue with a three-pronged tactic.

Recognising that climate change has of recent times transmuted from the geo-political to the political in the global arena, Mr Ramesh has tackled the ongoing climate discussions with suave diplomacy that will perhaps be a trend-setter in both international and national climate scenario.

First, even while acknowledging the need for India to take concrete steps in conjunction with developing nations, Mr Ramesh has stressed that India has two requirements for Copenhagen. Industrialized and developed rich nations must consent to steep cuts in carbon by 2020 and also provide monetary and technical help to the developing nations to effect a pro-actve green shift. Projecting itslef as a “deal maker” in the climate conundrum, India has set the tone for a fast-paced climate negotiation , with its own constantly evolving strategies and solutions in the climate talks.

At the same time, India has historically maintained that legal limits on carbon would stunt India's economic development. Though continuing to oppose mandatory carbon limits,t by adopting a soft-line realistic 'self-imposed' approach on the domestic front, Mr Ramesh has appropriately stressed that growth and development needs prime consideration, even while maintaining fuel emission and efficiency norms.

On the third front, steps are being taken to ensure an internal follow-up of the ‘per capita plus’ approach adopted vide legislations. As Mr Ramesh said, "without a solid domestic consensus, or even domestic constituency” India could not fruitfully work on Climate change without stunting growth.

As India places a self-imposed cap on its per capita emissions, this cements its seriousness of in climate mitigation programmes.. Notwithstanding India’s assurance that even while ranked 50th in the world per capita emissions, India would stay below per capita emmissions of other nations.

The message has gone across loud and clear, that India will not accept categorically the emission standards laid down. It will work on its own internal agenda to cap emissions. This has cleared up the fog surrounding India’s stance in climate politics, labelled that of nonchalance. India’s willingness to co-operate is now an established fact with the recent commitments made by Mr Ramesh on several global platforms.

While the U.S. is moving ahead with its climate laws at a frenzied pace on the eve of the Copenhagen Climate Meet, India herself has moved ahead with tangible reforms set to be laid down in the proposed Congress-led UPA legislation within the fortnight. It will log NAMOs, or Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Outcomes as coined by Mr Ramesh.. This legislation proposes accountability on the part of Governments towards maintenance of fuel efficiency standards. It draws inspiration from the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management regulations that make it mandatory on the part of governments to adhere to pre-set fiscal norms.

An additional provision of an external audit opening up the country’s mitigation programmes to international monitoring or even laying itself open to an annual UN sponsored review as proposed, is not entirely laudable. For this would put India in the delicate position of being answerable to external forces, compounding its already vulnerable status of a fast-developing nation that is walking the tightrope between carbon emission reduction and a historically carbon fuel based economy.

At the same time, David Victor (energy expert who researches India's Climate Change policies} believs that India will distinguish itself from nations like Mexico, Brazil and China that have mature economies and greater carbon emissions.

"The Indians need to be very careful that they are seen as a different kind of country."

Even as India is set to meet hold climate talks later this month with China climate analysts feel clubbing India with china is not on level. This fosters the impression of the two nations being equal emitters or at least functioning at similar levels. Albeit, the fact is that India emits a fifth of the carbon emissions of China, in both totality and per capita. China comprises 23% of all worldwide carbon emissions while India contributes 5%.

Mr Ramesh says in his own inimitable style,
“We (India) have to learn to conduct bilateral dialogue and negotiate multilaterally. That is what I call walking on two legs"

Minister Jairam Ramesh has some lessons for our Indian politicians. One needs more than the ability to rig elections and indulge in voter bank politics, to serve the nation’s needs best. It requires spontaneous ripostes and think-tank political game plays with constant improvisation for excellence in the international arena. For it was undoubtedly Mr. Ramesh’s initial rigidity about legalised emission caps, coupled with readiness to meet halfway and list of sustainable measures at the UN conference last month that finally clinched things! It compelled U.S. to come up with something fast and viable before December and has hopefully set in motion the wheels of a fast driven vehicle of climate solution.

The stance taken by India has been twice stressed in the past week. First, by a group of NGOs led by Greenpeace at Bangkok, formulating a draft 'Copenhagen Treaty' for Copenhagen, that bears similarities to actions drafted by India. Second, with the World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change report released this week, that says reiterates India's stand,

"High-income countries also need to act quickly to reduce their carbon footprints and boost development of alternative energy sources to help tackle the problem of climate change."

As Mr Soros said,

“The problem of global warming is primarily a political problem at this point. The science is beyond dispute, but how do we achieve the objectives we all know are necessary? That is a political problem.”

If India. plays the geo-politics game shrewdly, at Copenhagen and thereafter, she may emerge the ultimate winner with a sustainable and thriving economy to her credit, with a smorgasbord of green jobs and global energy investments lined up. Despite the pessimism in the wake of the Bangkok UN talks, India can look forward to a solution which sets it apart as a sustainable low carbon emitting developing economy, balancing all its fronts.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Round-off of the new U.S. Climate Legislation

After months of playing hide and go seek with the Climate and Energy Bill, the U.S. Senate Climate Bill has finally arrived. The world's biggest polluter finally got working to shape up their act with the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. Albeit, climate skeptics think that the new climate legislation introduced on September 30th barely holds any weight, falling short on various key issues. However, it can be viewed in a positive light, as a step finally taken in the right direction to slow down greenhouse emissions. So lets douse the voice of all naysayers and examine this climate legislation for what it is.

The Nuts and Bolts

The House bill formerly called the “American Clean Energy and Security Act” has now a new avtaar in the shape of the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act”.

The bill, more than 800 pages long, is typically vague in many of its particulars. Just as in the House bill, the words “climate change” and “global warming” do not appear in the title, suggesting just how politically difficult passing this climate legislation through the corridors of six committees is going to be.

The new bill calls for 20 % cuts by 2020 and a 80 % reduction by 2050. These percentages are based on reductions from 2005 emissions levels. A definite improvement, over the previous 17 % emissions target for 2020.

A key difference as suggested by the wording itself, is the inclusion of funding for nuclear power and carbon capture, with carrot like incentives for the coal companies to switch over to natural gas. It seeks to "mandate heavy investments in new job-producing, clean-energy technologies". In other words, steering investments towards cleaner technologies while raising cost implications of older, polluting fuels.

It also lays claims to “create clean energy jobs” and “achieve energy independence” while targeting “global warming pollution.” Senator Boxer emphasised the "great economic opportunity”, during a TV interview on C-Span’s 'Newsmakers' show.

If the Senators thought that the enormous green job opportunity would placate the U.S. taxpayers struggling in an already existing recession, they have a re-think here. Already fears are being voiced about jobs and cheaper energy options being outsourced. A serious implication, in view of the flagging economy.

While some like the Republican Senator Alexander fear that this would send jobs overseas (which is a positive thought for India, that I shall cover in a later post), others like Sen. James feel the only way to energy independence is “by doing what every other country in the world does, and that is, develop our own resources.” Then again, some dissenters call for “tariffs on polluting nations—such as China and India—to level the playing field and prevent jobs from heading overseas.".

It is glaringly evident that in a last-ditch effort to show itself in a good light in the wake of the Copenhagen climate meet, the U.S. legislation has gone overboard with its costly, unrealistic targets of a 20 % cut target in a 11 year time-frame, without addressing such meaningful issues as nuclear research or how the additional costs will be mitigated and passed on to manufacturers and consumers. The bill does not address how it intends to constrain carbon emissions either. The bottom line is that without the 'cap and trade' details, the Bill leaves itself open to attack from the Oil and Coal sectors and right wing radicals, thus meaningless till de facto.

The Climate and Energy Bill may have taken off on a strong note in June, but was put in the backburner for the past few months. The Obama administration was obviously reluctant to jeopardise the various opposing interests. It was perhaps India's aggressive yet constantly evolving protean stance that pushed President Obama to get something concrete going for a tangible offering at the Copenhagen table. It is to be seen whether the Bill comes through intact or gets caught up and defiled within the crossfire of a senatorial turf war.

As Daniel Weiss, director for climate strategy at the Centre for American Progress says,

"No one believes that the clean energy bill that will come out of Congress will address the threat of global warming in a single step. But we have to start.”

On a lighter side

Such has been the nail-biting climate conundrum over the past few weeks that it has inspired even the most die-hard cynics. We have homilies being evoked at random, with quotes from John Dunne being likened to the current climate change effect, "a bell that tolls for all of us".

There is the CEO Mr Kevin Tuerff, who has likened global climate negotiations to a poker game and a Grist blogger who has seen U.S.-China playing poker in his dreams.

Another eco blogger suggests

"Instead of wasting time throwing pies in peoples faces make a pie and give it to someone who needs it. And instead of making cutesie or provocative banners, use those sowing skills to teach someone how to make sustainable clothing. See my other posts on this and remember the story of the 100th monkey."

Then we have climate protesters in a fellow- sympathetic moment, with emotive statements like

"It’s an awkward position to be environmentalists working on climate change, but opposing a climate bill"!

Let alone all the crankery and tomfoolery afoot, wagers are also being laid about whether President Obama would actually make an appearance at Copenhagen …. when the time came for U.S. to deliver something concrete to the world to prove its honest intentions.

All in all, this entire climate quagmire leading up to Copenhagen shall probably remain in the minds of eco-activists, policy makers and cognizant folks for a long time to come, whether as the fiasco of the decade or the turning point for world climate graphs, we are here to see.

This shall be followed up with a mid-week update on "The Indian Approach"

Posted at INDIA WATER PORTAL as Sangeeta Deogawanka's Blog