People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 21

May 27, 2007

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 earth.


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.