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Hot air in Hokkaido

By Darryl D'Monte

One of the worrying outcomes of the recent G8 summit in Hokkaido was the general euphoria about the revival of the nuclear industry, supposedly in the fight against climate change. This is an illusion at best. Only 3% of India's electricity is produced by nuclear plants, and with the Indo-US deal this will increase to 7%, which is by no means radical

While the G8 meeting on the island of Hokkaido in Japan was in some ways a farewell to George Bush and didn't achieve anything concrete, it has established one important fact -- that climate change is now on the very top of the global political agenda, along with food shortages (with which it is partly linked), financial crises, human development and, not least, terrorism. If nothing else, this is a step forward. One must recall that it was only a few years ago that President Bush was an avowed sceptic on climate change, but later recanted.

Both US presidential candidates have indicated that they intend to be proactive on climate change, though that by no means ensures that they will sign the Kyoto Protocol, the first phase of which will end in 2012. If the US economy continues to falter when the next person steps into the White House, he will be reluctant to take measures that will adversely impact the domestic economy. Without the US on board, it is difficult to see how negotiations on setting targets for reducing greenhouse gases will be reached. In Shakespearean terms, it will be very much a case of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

The European Union has admittedly a much better record on this score. It has agreed to cut its emissions by 20%, by 2020, and raise this to 30% if other industrial countries follow suit. The G8 countries, on the other hand, have only said that they share a distant "vision" of a 50% cut by 2050, with no intermediate targets. To paraphrase what the British economist John Maynard Keynes once said, in the long-term all nations might be hurtling towards certain death due to the devastation of the environment by the profligate use of energy.

The host nation, Japan, no pushover when it comes to safeguarding its own economic and political interests, joined the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in stating that it was premature to set mid-term commitments because these had to follow from negotiations on the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol next year in Copenhagen. The head of the EPA made this clear by asserting: "At this point I'm not sure if it's appropriate for us to cite specific figures."

President Bush clarified that the US, which contributes a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions of the planet, will not take action unless the Big Two emerging countries demonstrate their commitment as well. In Japan, he said: "I am realistic enough to tell you that if China and India don't share that same aspiration we're not going to solve the problem." On the closing day, he added: "In order to address climate change, all major economies must be at the table. And that's what took place today. The G8 expressed our desire to have a significant reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. We made it clear and the other nations agreed that they must also participate in an ambitious goal."

Expectedly, this was rejected by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Manmohan Singh who met with three other leaders of developing countries and asked G8 nations to cut their emissions by 25% to 40% from 1990 levels, by 2020. This is indeed what the G8 had brought to the UN's Bali conference on climate change last November, but the leaders then suffered a change of heart and mind and only agreed to voluntary reductions. To assert their disagreement, the Big Two argued that climate negotiations have to be held "in a fair and equitable way which does not affect development and growth in developing countries".

One does not know how committed the two US presidential hopefuls are to taking on substantial reductions, irrespective of what emerging economies do or don't. But it will be suicidal for the entire globe if there remains an impasse between developed and developing countries. For its part, India has reiterated its promise that it will not permit its per capita emissions -- a tonne of carbon dioxide per year -- to exceed those of industrial countries, which are 13 times greater (the US emits 20 tonnes per person). As Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said before the G8 meeting: "If the developed countries bring down their emissions, it can act as an incentive for us."

There is every danger that if each side hardens its stance, the negotiations will break down. There is a need for give-and-take on both sides. However, there is no getting away from the harsh truth that industrial countries have the primary responsibility, since it is because of their emissions ever since the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the mid-18th century that greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere. India, on the other hand, has been calling for an affirmation of "common but differentiated responsibility," implying that developing countries also have to make a commitment, but on a lower scale.

The problem is compounded by the fact that developed countries are unwilling to abide by 1990 as the base year on which to base their cuts. Japan, which is eyeing a global market in exporting its energy-efficient products, wants the base year to be shifted to 2008, which would make nonsense of the negotiations. This is what has prompted Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to criticise the G8 for not doing enough to tackle the crisis. "Without a base year, these figures don't mean much," he argues. Indian negotiators have condemned the 50% cut as a "diversionary tactic".

The Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, commits 37 industrial countries -- around a dozen more than in the EU alone -- to cuts averaging 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. Without specifying this base year (which many environmentalists already castigate as being far too little, far too late), sharing visions let alone committing to cuts simply amounts to hot air, literally and metaphorically.

On the eve of the G8 summit, Greenpeace called on the top industrial countries to cut their emissions by 30% below 1990 levels, by 2020, and by as much as 90% by 2050. Clearly, in the build-up to the Conference of Parties to the UN pact on climate change at Copenhagen in 2009, these figures will be hotly debated. The Big Two, along with three others -- Brazil, Mexico and South Africa -- will also have to commit to reductions, at least in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, the EU and others would be well advised not to push their proposal to impose tariffs on goods from emerging economies that have not yet made commitments, as it is threatening to do in the mistaken conviction that this would amount to a level playing field in international trade.

It was presumably with the G8 summit in mind that Manmohan Singh recently announced the eight-point National Action Plan on Climate Change. There was nothing startling in this agenda, which detailed several methods of reducing the use of energy and also increasing the use of renewables. India's position should be clear: we should work with China and other emerging economies to demand that industrial countries cut their emissions, which have been growing throughout the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, and at the same time do everything in our power to penalise energy inefficiency and reward conservation. In this context, the one advance this country has made is in empowering the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, whose secretary, Ajay Mathur, is a veteran energy expert.

One of the worrying outcomes of the G8 summit was the general euphoria about the revival of the nuclear industry, supposedly in the fight against climate change. Since this coincides with India's overtures to the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Suppliers' Group, this country may consider itself fortunate in that the political climate is right for such a move. However, this is an illusion at best. Only 3% of the country's electricity is produced by nuclear plants, and with the Indo-US deal this will rise to a mere 7%, which is by no means radical.

As a matter of fact, India needs energy, of which electricity is only a small part as of now. It needs fuel for transport, so far as the modern economy is concerned. It needs energy for cooking and many other rural applications, so far as the traditional economy is concerned. Till the recent rise in food prices, it was pointed out that India didn't suffer as much on account of the food shortage as on the shortage of fuel to cook it with. The first 'State of India's Environment -- A Citizen's Report' published by the Centre for Science and Environment in 1982, showed that in a typical drought-prone village, a woman walked the distance between Kolkata and Delhi in search of cooking fuel every year. One only shudders to think what the distance will be now, a quarter of a century later.

The 123 agreement hardly addresses such fundamental problems. Unlike industrial nations, developing countries rely far less on electricity for heating or cooling buildings, which is the major use in developed economies.

If it is energy that India is looking for, nuclear power will not provide it. Environmentalists oppose it because it is highly centralised (in political as much as in technological terms), capital-intensive and expensive (once the costs of foolproof storage of radioactive waste, which stays alive for 300,000 years and the cost of decommissioning plants are factored in).

India's record in producing nuclear power has been abysmal, with plants functioning intermittently. As it is, under the Atomic Energy Act, even Parliament isn't informed of the true costs and other details of the nuclear industry, under the pretext of national security. Ironically, the US itself hasn't built a nuclear plant for three decades although that is likely to change given the ambitions of the international nuclear power industry, especially in France.

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington and now in the Earth Policy Institute, has an alternative vision if the world (read the US) wants to make meaningful cuts in emissions, as it ought to do. "Cutting carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2020 will take a worldwide mobilisation at wartime speed," he and his colleagues write. "First, investing in energy efficiency will allow us to keep global energy demand from increasing. Then we can cut carbon emissions by one-third by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources for electricity and heat production. A further 14% drop comes from restructuring our transportation systems and reducing coal and oil use in industry. Ending net deforestation worldwide can cut carbon dioxide emissions another 16%. Last, planting trees and managing soils to sequester carbon can absorb 17% of our current emissions."

As two Latin American experts brought to Mumbai by Embarque, a sustainable transport initiative of the World Resources Institute in Washington, pointed out recently, Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTs), which have been demonised in Delhi, are being worked out in Indore and Ahmedabad. They have worked wonderfully well in Bogota, Curitiba in Brazil and even cities in industrial countries such as Ottawa, Toronto, Minneapolis and Las Vegas. So much so that the city with arguably the most inefficient transport in the industrial world, Los Angeles, is contemplating introducing such a system!

Brown and his fellow researchers go on to cite how the lowly bicycle is making a comeback. Paris is working wonders with its Velib system of hiring public bikes for a euro per hour and, once again, US cities are rethinking their transport policies. As they write: "The United States, which has lagged far behind Europe in developing diversified urban transport systems, is being swept by a 'complete streets' movement, an effort to ensure that streets are friendly to pedestrians and bicycles as well as to cars. Many American communities lack sidewalks and bike lanes, making it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to get around safely, particularly where streets are heavily travelled. This cars-only model is being challenged by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a powerful assemblage of citizen groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, AARP (an organisation of 38 million older Americans), and local and national cycling organisations. This coalition has aggressively lobbied for 'complete streets' policies, which are now in place in 14 states and 40 metropolitan areas, cities and counties. In early-2008, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa (whom India has had reason to fear regarding anti-child labour legislation) and Representative Doris Matsui of California each introduced national 'complete streets' legislation in the US Congress."

What the highest echelons of US decision-makers and the corporate elite don't seem to understand, city governments and those in states -- even run by diehard republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California -- have twigged on to. These states are passing laws to reduce their carbon emissions, not necessarily because they are born-again greenies but because they are savvy enough to realise that this is where their voters' hearts lie. Were there equivalent institutions of decentralised governance in India, ordinary people would vote for similar measures, because it is in their interests to do so, rather than to rock the boat by going in for nuclear power.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008