Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cancun: A Climate Meet With a Difference?

Yet another UN Climate Conference came to an end at Cancun, Mexico, ten days ago. amidst the customary climate of 'cautious optimism' invariably relenting to 'an agreement to talk further' on the Kyoto protocol.

In light of the Copenhagen conference that proved a fiasco with climate talks falling through, the Cancun conference is regarded in a favourable light even by sceptics. For Cancun has achieved the commitment of rich countries to "the goal" of creating a fund, that starting in 2020 would spend $100 billion a year.

However, as I see it, this basically boils down to the clichéd pledge to 'help poor countries develop on a cleaner path', that has become nothing more than a rhetoric.

It is now a blatantly obvious fact that the largest emitters, U.S.A. and China, are more keen on adopting the laidback policy to climate change issues, by assisting 'poor' developing economies to adopt cleaner technologies, rather than going ahead with its Climate Bill or undertaking serious commitments towards a self-sustained greener economy.

It is not a surprise that "the details—such as where the money would come from" were left "for another day", an uncertain date in the future, for another global conference, attended by representatives and media persons burning up thousands of more air-miles(read energy), and spending taxpayer's money at a resort for yet another insignificant round of talks.

Robert Orr of U.N feels "progress was made on all fronts". he actually refers to 'the agreement' on climate change mitigation commitments, and 'the system for monitoring, reporting and verifying those commitments'.

Let's see what different Govt. spokespersons have to say

"It's really complicated stuff, talking about trying to regulate entire economies, trying to get economies onto lower-carbon paths," Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate negotiator, said in a news conference after the conclusion of the meeting Saturday. "If you can take good steps every year, that's a better way to make progress" than trying to solve the climate problem in a single agreement”.

It would be "neither fair nor effective" for Japan to pledge deeper emissions cuts without more action by the world's largest emitters," Shinsuke Sugiyama, Japan's top climate negotiator, said.

US climate envoy Todd Stern's remarks about "climate bribery" have been analysed in context to its arrogant spirit, when he said, countries asking for aid were in no position to accuse the U.S. of bribery.

"you can't on the one hand ask for and make a legitimately strong case for the need for climate assistance and then on the other hand turn around and accuse us of bribery".

This comes in the wake of evidence of US strong-arm tactics and bribery to force countries sign a voluntary agreement at the Copenhagen climate summit, just prior to the Cancun conference.

With respect to the Kyoto Protocol.

The 1997 international treaty that obligates rich countries that ratified it, to start cutting their emissions, is still on hold, as the Cancun talks did not address any specifics to cutting emissions by the major carbon emitting nations.

"The Cancun document urged rich countries to sign up for a tougher round of emissions reductions after 2012, when the Kyoto treaty's current mandates are set to expire," Japan has indicated it doesn't intend to take on deeper emission-cutting obligations under a future treaty unless China and the U.S., too, pledge to shoulder a big chunk of the cost of a climate cleanup".

Neither country is subject to a requirement under the Kyoto Protocol to cut its emissions by a specific amount, the major catch that continues even in the aftermath of the Cancun agreement for formal talks.

Analysing the Cancun Agreement

While the Copenhagen agreement did not restrict the largest carbon emitters, U.S. and China, to abide by emission restrictions, Article 20, paragraph 2, and Article 21, paragraph 7 of the Kyoto Protocol, is the key clause that reminds no country is obligated to take targets under the second phase of Kyoto. The fact that the insertion of this clause was essential to winning Japanese support for the Cancun Agreements, is a foregone conclusion.

The cleverly drafted Cancun Agreement has sops for many nations, while avoided the commitment centred Kyoto talks completely.

Carbon capture and storage projects (CCS) are made eligible for carbon credits under Kyoto's Clean Development Mechanism, a placate for Saudi Arabia, Australia, Kuwait and Venezuela, with special recognition for Turkey and other nations "still transitioning to a market economy".

The spirit of the Cancun accord itself pursues the lines of 'provision' without any 'mechanism'. Although a Green Global Fund has been instituted under the Cancun Agreement, with World Bank as trustee, no mechanisms have been laid down for control and funding.

Even while allowing for a market mechanism to help wealthy nations prevent tropical deforestation in developing countries, the actual ground rules have not been covered.

All in all, the agreement, while saving the Kyoto protocol by not making any denouncements, did not make any commitments or provide for emission targets whatsoever. It has been largely hailed as a legal finesse, that neither commits nor deters, but defers important issues while ensuring escape route for the highest emitting nations.

The Guardian analyses the intangible fallouts and concludes very aptly, that there is no future to these climate change talks.

At the same time, must one be glad that while there was danger of talks faltering at Cancun, the climate negotiators did not go ahead with any geo-engineering ideas?

So what next? Do we have time to ponder upon the geo-political nuances of climate issues, while climate change continues its path of erratic and extreme weather patterns, with the potential for untold damage, costs and disaster-in-the-waiting?

While 193 nations debated on how to adapt to climate change, the villagers of Tabi some 120 miles away from this resort town of Cancun, are already grappling with climate change and extreme weather conditions.

Ironically, Cancun’s own beaches are threatened by erosion, with rising sea levels and increasing hurricanes already destroying the beaches of this resort town, that contributes a significant portion to Mexico's economy.

So while climate changes continue making its indelible mark across the world, the Cancun Climate Meet has defintiely made a difference in the political mindset of emerging economies and think-tank groups, if not bent the aloof stance of the U.S., the largest carbon emitting nation.

Friday, July 23, 2010

How Relevant is Meltwater in River Basin Hydrology?

Much has been written about the disappearing glaciers that will lead to the drying up of the Himalayan-fed river systems. Which has also been disputed subsequently by our Indian scientists, who claim there is no sign yet of a Himalayan meltdown. However, as we know only too well, our river flows are indeed reducing at an alarming rate.

None of the above or related studies factored in, the percentage component of glacial melt in these riverine systems, or the extent of dependence on glacial run-offs and seasonal snowpacks. Nor was any attempt made to separate and analyse the hydrological elements in the cryospheric changes or the mechanisms at work.

So this peer paper in Science Magazine, makes for an interesting study, as it focuses on the core of a riverine system, the upstream basin, and its impact on the entire river basin. The paper is a comparative assessment of the hydrological processes in the upstream areas, vis-à-vis the five major river basins in the Asian sub-continent fed by the Himalayan glaciers - the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Indus, Yangtze and Yellow River basins. The three components analysed are a) importance of meltwater in river basin hydrology, b) cryospheric changes, and c) effect of climate change on water supply from upstream basins and on food security.

So changes in the upstream precipitation and melts have been analysed with respect to their effect on downstream basin.

While a negative trend of –0.22 ± 0.05 m year–1 was observed in snow and ice storage particularly for the Ganga basin, with no discernible trend for Brahmanputra, it was noted that melt parameters were different for both Ganga and Brahmaputra. Discharge by snow and glacial melt was found to be 10% for Ganga but higher at 27 % for Brahmaputra.

Upstream water supply is critical for sustaining the upstream reservoir systems. Any changes thereon affect the dams that store water for release to downstream areas, affecting irrigation and lives of people downstream.

Though the models applied for the study, show a decrease in mean upstream water supply (-17.6% for Ganga, -19.6% for Brahmaputra), this is partially offset by increased mean upstream rainfall (+8% for Ganga, +25% for Brahmaputra). Which still means a net decrease in the upstream water supplies that will most certainly affect downstream basin, notwithstanding the fact that "most climate models have difficulty simulating mean monsoon and the inter-annual precipitation variation "

Alluding to the IPCC report, the paper mentions

it was suggested that the current trends of glacier melt and potential climate change may cause the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, and other rivers to become seasonal rivers in the near future.”

It moves on to argue that these rivers are already seasonal rivers, “because the melt and rain seasons generally coincide” but the “decrease in meltwater is partially compensated for by an increase in precipitation”.

While concluding that considerable cryospheric changes are expected, with a temporal shift in the upstream hydrograph patterns and a trend towards reduction in upstream precipitation, the mean monsoon and precipitation variation cannot be estimated precisely because of difficulty in climate model simulation.

The paper wraps up with

"We conclude that Asia’s water towers are threatened by climate change, but that the effects of climate change on water availability and food security in Asia differ substantially among basins and cannot be generalized. The effects in the Indus and Brahmaputra basins are likely to be severe owing to the large population and the high dependence on irrigated agriculture and meltwater".

This study is significant for emphasising the relevance of snow and glacial melt in upstream flows, the parameters of upstream river basin that directly affect the main river system. In other words, irrigation, cropping, aquifer recharge, drinking and other water requirements of man, that are essentially met in the downstream basin.

Although glacial thawing and retreat has been studied at random, the changes in snow cover patterns and seasonal melts also need to be embedded for empirical studies and applied to hydrological modelling. As this report says, scientists have discovered the Himalayan snow melting in winter as well.

It is an established fact that downstream water availability is dependent on upstream melt water and precipitation, though not uniform for all river systems. However, for rivers that depend substantially on glacial melts and seasonal snowpack run-off, such studies are quiet relevant for effective water-resource planning and short-term cryogenic feedback, to enable lower basin impact mitigation.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Climate Policy watch is now habit forming

Climate change has been denied, labelled as a myth and a political manoeuvre, or synergised with individual weather events.

While there has been a marked turnaround in the stand of climate deniers and sceptics, it has definitely been used as a political tool by the U.S. to bring pressure upon fast developing nations. Albeit, in the wake of the Copenhagen fiasco of December 2009, it remains to be seen how much the U.S. Policy makers can succeed in their delaying tactics. President Obama has got into the habit of clinging to the arm of one muse or the other, the latest being the BP oil spill. Climate scientists however continue to be doubtful about any future global consensus, despite U.S.‘s recent flip to a hangdog stance.

It is also amazing how stand-alone weather changes are often cited as proof of climate change existence or nihility. It is actually ‘natural variability’ that comes to play, and adapting to this in the long run will help insulate communities against the variable impacts of climate change.

While the U.S Government still dithers on a meaningful climate and energy policy, extreme weather events are wreaking widespread havoc all over U.S. and the world at large.

Political leaders whether in India or U.S. need to connect the dots between these unprecedented weather events and rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, as warned by climate scientists for long. In fact as the leading emitter of CO2, U.S. needs to get out of “lobbying politics” and effect measures immediately, keeping on mind that measures taken eventually would bear results only at a future date.

Dr. James Hansen has unveiled his own set of proposals in the People‘s Climate Stewardship, wherein he advocates a steadily increasing fee on carbon at source - wells, mines and ports of energy, so clean energy becomes competitive with fossil fuel within a decade. He envisages, revenue from these would be returned to citizens to offset the higher energy costs.

With an eco conscious tech savvy Minister at the fore of the Climate Change policy making, India could very well emulate some of these proposals while drawing inspiration from our Vedic heritage, that has always advocated a sustainable green way of life.. Why wait for a global consensus or a joint accord when we can make our own choice for a better tomorrow. move away from fossil fuels to more advanced levels of sustainable self-sufficiency?

On the national climate front, there is plenty of ongoing drama with many States even failing to come up with an appropriate State Action Plan on Climate Change despite repeated extensions from the Centre. Notwithstanding, there are a couple of States like Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh that are much advanced in their forward planning, climate monitoring and policy making on the ecological front. Of course, they also happen to be the States already affected by climate change, occupying one of the most eco-fragile regions of the country. One can easily draw the conclusion, that a State does not need hand-holding by the Centre or reprisals for non-submission of documentation, if its intentions to do pro-active work exists, as exemplified by the State of Sikkim. On the other hand, the series of decisions on the part of the Sikkim Government on the hydel projects front is a looming disaster with possibly high fallouts that I shall talk about in my further blogs.

The ENVIS centres nationwide are in particular doing commendable work, in research and think-tank policy implementation, taking into its fold community participation at both micro and macro levels, besides publication and information dissemination.

It is to be seen how 2010 unfolds vis-à-vis climate change policy making and implementation, both in India and the US, the principle emitter. The poser put forth by Climate Revolution that reveals lack of strategy on the part of Indian Government to push the West on climate is actually not much of a shocker. Anyone who has followed the events closely the past two years would know that each time India has taken an aggressive stance, it has been met with a backlash or 'ostrich' attitude on the part of the West.

It is simple.

Till the U.S. Government can get around the strong oil and energy lobbyists, there can be no meaningful climate and energy policy. However, the British Government with its UKCIP initiative has jogged miles ahead with its climate mitigation strategies. What is then stopping India from pursuing its own climate and energy policy at hard-liner levels independent of what the West is up to?