Days Are Numbered

Combating Climate Change

I Satya Sundaram

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) began on October 31, 2021, at Glasgow, Scotland, and ended on 14th November. The Summit was attended by nearly 200 nations. The focus was on reducing emissions, working on expansion of renewable energy capacity, and increasing the share of non-fossil fuel sources in energy generation.

The COP27 was held at Shrm El Sheik, Egypt from November 6 to 19 (extended by one day). The Text approved at COP27 commits only to a Fund being created, but there is no clarity on issues relating to the Fund creation. There was a proposal to replace all fossil fuels including oil and gas, not merely coal. It was agreed that the rich nations have to bear the lion’s share of funding. India introduced Clean Environment Cess in 2010. COP27 agreed to create a Loss and Damage Fund to meet climate-induced impacts.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently pointed out that climate change is endangering environment. It said the world will be 1.50C above pre-industrial levels in the 2030s mainly because of industry’s reliance on fossil fuels. Of course, India is prone to heat-waves, droughts, cyclones and flash floods. Climate change adversely affects labour productivity which in turn reduces the GDP. In India, industry contributes about one-fourth of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme Report, adaptation-related costs in developing countries could reach $ 140-300 billion by 2030. Yet, at the Glasgow Summit, only 14 nations came together to commit a paltry sum of $ 232 million to the UN Adaptation Fund. It is desirable if most of the money is delivered in the form of grants. According to World Meteorological Organisation study, in 2020 alone, India lost $ 87 billion due to cyclones, floods and droughts.

Air pollution has become a big health hazard. At the global level air pollution is said to have caused almost 6 million premature births and almost 3 million underweight babies in 2019. It is tolerated at a high cost. In Europe, air pollution for industries cost $ 500 billion per year.

According to the new WHO norms, most Indian cities have recorded key pollutant levels much higher than the permissible limits. Studies show 22 percent of the 30 most air polluted cities in the world are in India. At the global level, the pollution, emissions and clean up costs of plastic produced, in 2019, were placed at $ 3.7 trillion, and this may reach the level of $ 7.1 trillion by 2040. Seas and rivers are polluted. The debris may cause deaths of more than a million seabirds and over 1 lakh marine mammals each year.

The plastic menace continues. According to some studies, the authorities may have to manage more than 7.7 billion tonnes of plastic waste globally over the next 20 years. Studies show that of all the plastic waste produced in the world, 79 percent enters the environment. Only 9 percent of the plastic waste is recycled. Around 33 million tonnes (MT) of plastic will be released into the global environment annually by 2030. For the year 2018-19, India generated 3.3 MT of plastic waste. This may be an underestimate.

A UN Report has stated migratory species are most affected by plastic pollution. For the Hindus, the river is of tremendous symbolic and religious value. Yet, it is one of the largest carriers of plastic to the world’s oceans. For the species that lived in the river, discarded fishing gear were found to be a major threat. Dolphins can become entangled and trapped under water by old nets.

Waste management continues to be a challenge. There is a wide variety of wastes–municipal solid waste, commercial and industrial waste, construction and demolition waste, agricultural waste and bio-medical waste, electronic waste and hazardous waste. India produces 62 MT of waste annually. Of this, 20 percent is treated and 40 percent is used for land filling.

Approximately 70 percent waste globally ends up in open dumps and landfills, thus making land surfaces useless. Also, the highly poisonous leach (waste water sludge) seeps down, polluting groundwater and soil.

The world’s GHG emissions are 6.55 tonnes of carbon dioxide. India’s per capita emission at 1.96 tonnes is less than one-third of emissions of the US, Canada and Australia together. Critics say accepting net zero emissions by 2050 effectively prevents India’s urbanisation and shift of the rural population into the middle class (Mukul Sanwal: “Negotiating the new global climate policy’’, The Hindu, August 26, 2021).

India does not owe carbon debt to the world. The country’s emissions are no more than 3.5 percent of global cumulative emissions prior to 1990 (about 5 percent in 2018). India’s mitigation efforts are compatible with a 20C target (T. Jayaraman & Tejal Kanitkar: “Deconstructing declarations of carbon-neutrality’’, The Hindu, April 8, 2021).

Managing plastics is very important. One has to find out substitutes to single-use plastics. The Indian Institute of Sciences, Bengaluru, came out with a solution. It developed polymers using non-edible oil and cellulose extracted from agricultural stubble. These polymers can be mounded into sheets having properties suitable for making bags, cutlery or containers. The material is bio-degradable, leak-proof and non-toxic (The Hindu, September 19, 2021).

Waste management remains neglected because of indifferent attitude of citizens, lack of awareness, absence of community participation and fixed mindset of people and administrators themselves. The stress should be on 3 Rs–Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Energy generated from waste is clean and reliable. The technology treats waste to recover energy in CBG/CNG, manure, fuel such as high-speed diesel, bio-gas, and electricity. In India, there are very few waste-to-energy plants. Of course, the government is providing significant incentives like capital subsidy for waste-to-energy projects (Piyush Dwivedi: “Tapping energy from waste,” Business Line, November 12, 2021). Some states have shown interest in liquid waste management–reusing treated waste water. Bio-slurry, a by-product of the bio-gas process, is converted into organic manure.

For dealing with wastes, people may depend on Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. For instance, in Indore, a private company has invested Rs 30 crore under PPP model and pays Rs 1.51 crore premium from its profits to the Indore Municipal Corporation.

True, ethanol is the hot favourite amongst bio-fuels. But, there is also methanol produced from coal bed methane. Methanol’s advantage is that India has enough coal reserves. It is inexpensive. However, pilot tests are going on.

India’s electric vehicle (EV) market is not impressive. The number of registered EVs sold in India in 2019-20 was just 1, 67, 041 units. However, though sales in 2019-20 stood at 7.5 lakh EVs, around 6.3 lakhs were electric three-wheelers. Thus, the number of electric two-wheelers comes to just 1.2 lakh units. The sale of electric two-wheelers should be boosted to drastically reduce fuel consumption and pollution levels.

Countries like Brazil are depending on bio-fuels. Bio-fuels can be produced from agricultural wastes. Sugarcane ethanol has one of the smallest footprints among bio-fuels. It is clean and affordable, and when blended with petrol, can reduce GHG emissions up to 90 percent. India launched the Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) scheme in 2003.

In India, stubble burning is common in northern plains. This worsens air pollution. People have to think of innovative measures to combat this menace. Punjab wants to promote paddy straw as a resource to create wealth for the benefit of industry and agriculture. Punjab declared incentives to industries which use paddy straw-fired boilers.

Funding continues to be a major problem. Climate finance is inadequate both in scale and purpose. Total climate finance provided and mobilised by rich countries for developing countries was $ 79.6 billion in 2019, an increase of just two percent from 2018 level, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is expected to rise to $ 100 billion level by 2023 (original deadline 2020).
Some suggest the issue of green bonds. They can help drive down cost of capital for sustainable projects where the proceeds are exclusively utilised for financing climate change mitigation. In 2018, the State Bank of India received $ 650 million in certified climate bonds.

India has already initiated some measures. These include: de-carbonisation of Indian Railways, sales of at least 30 percent of all new vehicles should be electric, mandatory adoption of National Green Hydrogen Mission by industry and Urban Forest Programmes for generating at least 20 hectares across 200 cities. India made some progress on the renewable energy front. The Starts Ups too are playing a positive role. However, the performance is poor in respect of creation of additional carbon sinks of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of Co2 equivalent. The government planned to open coal mines in forests.

At the COP26 held at Glasgow, the countries have agreed to end deforestation, cut methane emissions by 30 per cent and over 40 countries have agreed to shift away from the use of coal, all by 2030. The rich nations have decided to collectively double their provision of finance to the poorer nations. The endangered nations have demanded penalty for harming them and this has been included in the text. It is reiterated that the rich countries should honour their pledge to deliver $ 100 billion a year to help developing countries. The new target now is $ 500 billion by 2025. Experts say India’s climate commitments are bold, but meeting them will be a challenge. Also, most adaptation and mitigation strategies take more than a decade to realise their full impact.

India would have to reduce the emissions intensity (emissions per unit GDP) by 86 percent–it has so far reduced it to 24 percent from the 2005 levels. The share of non-hydro renewable energy has to increase to 65 percent from 11 percent today; the share of electric cars in passenger sales has to go from 0.1 percent today to 75 percent by 2040; and the share of fossil energy in primary energy has to decline from 73 percent to 40 percent.

At the Summit, it was observed that agriculture accounts for 13 percent of global GHG emissions and, is responsible for 30 percent of deforestation and 17 percent of biodiversity loss. It is said three things are important–how food is produced, what foods people consume and education on food waste. In fact, 40 percent of the foods produced are never consumed. FAO observed that it was immoral that 30 percent of the food produced is wasted when 811 million people go to bed hungry every day. Food habits should be nature-friendly. It is also necessary that climate mitigation schemes need to be integrated with development programmes.


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Vol 55, No. 48, May 28 - Jun 3, 2023