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Gloom and doom unlimited?

Three recent reports underline once again the impending global ecological crisis. Will Rio+20 this June help us arrest the race to catastrophe, asks Darryl D'Monte

Climate change

There is always the danger that doomsday scenarios and constant dire predictions over the environment serve only to switch people's minds off. Nevertheless, the state of the globe deserves to be closely monitored, given the inability of governments to come to any legally binding agreement on protecting climate and other natural resources. Climate is the first crisis that threatens rich and poor countries alike, albeit in different ways. It is fair to say that, following diplomatic disasters at the Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban climate meets in the last three years, the possibility of averting a catastrophe appears exceedingly remote.

Three recent reports underline the global crisis. One is by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), comprising the richest countries of the world, which looks at the globe in 2050, the deadline by which all countries, India included, are supposed to take drastic action to reduce their carbon emissions. Halfway through this century, there will be 9.2 billion people, presumably stabilising around then at that level.

Cities around the globe will accommodate this increase. Today, half the world's population lives in cities; this will rise to 70% by 2050. Interestingly, the bulge will occur in towns and cities with less than half-a-million inhabitants, which also means that urban growth will be more dispersed. The world's megacities, with more than 10 million people, will not grow so fast. Indeed, this is already happening in Mumbai (the city proper known as Greater Mumbai), the population of which only went up by half-a-million between 2001 and 2011. The globe's rural population will decline by 600 million by 2050.

According to the OECD, economic growth will be "nearly universal," with global GDP being four times what it is today. OECD members' share of the global pie will decrease from 54% in 2010 to just under 32% in four decades. The OECD has formulated another grouping, known as BRIICS -- Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa, also known as 'emerging economies' -- which will have more than 40% of the share. China's GDP will surpass that of the US this year, and the report predicts that India will do the same by 2038, to become the second biggest economy.

Significantly, China and India will not be growing anywhere as fast as they now do, for demographic reasons. In both countries, as education and economic growth spread, populations will age; China's workforce is actually expected to shrink. According to the World Health Organisation, 17% of India's population will be more than 60 years old in 2050. While the populations of Japan, Korea and parts of Europe decline, the US and Canada will continue to grow because of migration.

In 2050, the world will require 80% more energy, with 85% of this still remaining fossil fuels -- oil, coal and gas. This rate of consumption is 65 times the annual energy use of the US in 2009, which paints a grim picture as far as global warming is concerned. This, in spite of improvements in energy efficiency and energy intensity (the ratio of energy consumption to GDP; India has promised to reduce its intensity by 20%). The report stresses that global warming will "lock in" by then, rising to 6°C by 2100. At this rate of energy use, if not much earlier, there will be irreversible damage done to the earth, threatening its stability.

The second report which adds to the grim scenario is Vital Signs 2012, an annual stocktaking by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC. Oil consumption peaked in 2010 at 87.4 million barrels a day. It remains the largest source of commercial energy, though its share in the energy mix has declined for 11 consecutive years.

The OECD does not mince its words in stating that there is "a closing window of opportunity" as regards climate. If global greenhouse gas emissions can be made to peak by 2020, there is a possibility of the world's average temperature limiting itself to 2°C, from 0.8°C at present. It sets a target of restricting these emissions at 450 parts per million (ppm). This requires setting a price on carbon, which is easier said than done. It is difficult to contemplate how a mechanism can be established in each country to tax energy consumption. In India, for example, some 600 million people do not use any form of commercial energy but the use of fuelwood in inefficient; dirty chulhas certainly contribute to what is known as the Asian Brown Cloud.

The report calls for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, which amount to $45-75 billion a year in OECD countries and over $400 billion a year in developing and emerging economies. As we know only too well from the present situation in this country, this is a politically loaded issue. The government has not been able to raise the price of diesel because of the political backlash, not least from the farm lobby which uses this fuel to pump groundwater for irrigation. However, no one can possibly make out a case for continuing to allow cars -- including gas-guzzling SUVs -- to consume this expensive imported fuel. The irony is that petrol is an environmentally cleaner fuel but is priced very much higher than diesel.

The third report is an annual feature of Worldwatch, its State of the World 2012, which it has been publishing since 1984. It notes that in the last 50 years, the world's upper and middle classes have doubled their consumption levels. And 1 to 2 billion people are aspiring to join this consumer class.

Vital Signs documents how "meat consumption increased 2.6% in 2010. Growing demand for timber translated into forested areas shrinking by 1.3%, or 520,000 sq km, from 2000 to 2010 -- an area roughly the size of France". The increasing consumption of meat and junk food is a familiar feature in India as well. The Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi has set the cat among the pigeons by listing harmful additives like transfats, sugar and salt in packaged and fast food snacks, many manufactured by MNCs. Astonishingly, out of 177 countries surveyed by Worldwatch, very nearly four out of every 10 adults (over 15 years old) are overweight. In the US, this has become nothing short of an epidemic.

Meat consumption is hardly a question of diet alone, even granting that the conversion of grain into meat deprives the world's poor of their staple food. Unknown to many, it is also a major contributor to climate change. Livestock are responsible for 40% of the globe's emissions and two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions, both of which are 25 to 100 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. So-called 'factory farming' in developed countries -- though India has its share of poultry farms too -- takes a heavy toll on chemicals, antibiotics and water, while it can cause a range of diseases.

Rather daringly for a think-tank based in the US, which is reeling under a financial crisis, Worldwatch calls for "degrowth" in "overdeveloped countries". The concept will be anathema to generations brought up to believe in never-ending growth as the panacea for all problems. The globe is now using 1.5 times the earth's ecological capacity; sustainable development calls for rolling back some time-tested production and consumption patterns. This can, for instance, be achieved by shifting the burden of taxes to penalise the over-consumption of natural resources, shortening the work week so that more people are employed, "denormalising" certain types of consumption (like the use of SUVs), and "demarketising" certain sectors of the economy such as food production and childcare.

One can only hope that in the forthcoming conference this June, Rio+20, marking two decades since the epoch-making summit in Rio de Janeiro, some of these concepts will be more widely disseminated. This columnist can recall how, at Rio+5, in 1997, the concept of a nation's and individual's 'ecological footprint' was introduced to many environmentalists. However, without sounding cynical, the outcome of all recent climate conferences gives little reason for hope that the world's leaders, this country's included, have even an inkling of the impending ecological crises.

Infochange News & Features, April 2012