30 November 2009

India give us a number!

By: Kaavya Nag

A mid-October European Commission conference might have severely dampened our hopes of any flesh to a Copenhagen deal (the flesh itself is highly conditional and must be palatable to 192 plus nation states) anytime soon. Nevertheless, while ambitious hopes for Copenhagen may have come crashing down, what we do have is a political statement to be issued by end of COP – to be produced by the Danes as a possible basis for the upcoming negotiations starting December 7th.

If one thought that the political agreement would be easier to broker, fresh developments come from the BASIC quarter. Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) –through China’s initiative, have prepared a counter-draft. They now have a ten-page draft that details the ‘non-negotiables’ as far as the developing giants are concerned, that will be released in Copenhagen by China’s special envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenzua. Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment and Forests rushed to Beijing to represent India at the meet held on Friday 27th, and while he admits that he had no inkling of such a draft-in-making, he is inclined to agree that the four developing giants are in full agreement with one another on the points of no negotiation. In any case, such an initiative from China shows they have taken a ‘leadership role’ in the Minister’s own words.

Amidst all the brouhaha, India’s Solar Mission – officially now okayed by Parliament - went unnoticed. Could this possibly be because India is putting forward missions (and drafts of missions) without any absolute calculations as to emission reductions that would result from such actions? Why does the Indian government fear mapping even five possible trajectories of emission growth up to 2030 and then estimating – in theory only – a deviation from business as usual if all these missions and related plans were to be implemented by then? Why, that would give us a lot more bargaining power that just releasing and tom-toming missions wouldn’t it?

One hopes India’s negotiators have this card up their sleeve. If they were to put down a number, a figure, and suggest that by implementing India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change and all other allied climate-friendly policies, India’s emissions would drop by say 20 percent below ‘Business As Usual’ by 2030, or to put it in a more convoluted way, that India’s rate of emission increase would decreased by 2.234% (completely hypothetical figures) each year in exponential fashion until 2030.

‘The number’ so to speak, need not imply taking that number into a legal agreement. It just means making things clear to the world in these nebulous times, that India too is capable of commitments and emission cuts, and is as serious if not more about climate change as the rest of the nation states.

23 November 2009

Power-ful mantras for climate change - Surya evam Gai

By: Kaavya Nag

Surya the god of light is coming nearer to getting the credit he deserves as the source of life and primary source of energy. The National Solar Mission got a nod from the Parliament on 20th November, and what’s more, the Cabinet sanctioned over 4300 crore for initial kick-off. In other power-ful news, four state-run firms will sign a joint venture to form a company that will work towards energy conservation and climate change – the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Power Finance Corporation Ltd, Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd and Rural Electrification Corporation Ltd.

Also in the pipeline is NTPCs intention to set up solar power generation units at all its existing thermal power plants. The NTPC is the country’s largest electricity generator. What is heartening is the willingness of a thermal power corporation to move to solar power generation, even if it is in a small way. While power and coal lobbies in the United States are rather unhappy about carbon mitigation laws and shifting to lower carbon electricity and energy, here in India we have power corporations joining forces to implement massive solar ‘road maps’ and plans. What is also heartening is the fact that many of these initiatives are in tandem with the National Solar Mission – indication that change is not haphazard and ad-hoc, but somewhat planned.

Surya also happens to be the master chef – chief controller of all life. Meat eating is energy intensive -no wonder wild carnivores are at the top of the food chain but few in number. In support of rationalizing global meat-eating, India’s Minister for Environment and Forests (independent charge) has a new offer on the cards. The minister is now chanting the ‘gai-mantra’ of no-beef. He practices what he preaches, as do many Indians, needless to say. But such advocacy coming from a vegetarian Indian actually means a lot more to people around the world, and his leadership on this issue is actually getting accolades. From Pachauri to other politicians around the world, his statements have the logic of reason and the backing of a non-beef eating community.

So a key take-home is for India to start working on the Surya Mission – using the planning phase as a means to an end. But the Gai Mission is not a bad idea either. We can start working on the uber-rich and the die-if-I-don’t-eat-beef characters – there are plenty here too. But it isn’t a bad idea to preach it to the world either.

16 November 2009

While We Wait - Solar Mission Release Delayed

By: Kaavya Nag

We awaited eagerly, the launch of the National Solar mission on November 14th, as did several corporate houses, young and upcoming entrepreneurs and investors in the green business space. But we hear that the new possible release date is 19th November.

Even a recent CII green business summit held in October reflected the level of anticipation in Indian industry about the solar mission and its promised profit goodies. However, this rather secret mission’s release was delayed by a few days, as was the target year for the completion of the mission, from 2020 to 2022 – reportedly to be in sync with the 5-year plan cycles.

While citizen consultation on missions and plans seems to have become a thing of the past, even several stakeholder business houses say they have not been consulted while preparing the mission details. Consultations with businesses in the sector would have been the ideal way to get maximal industry buy-in. However, an even bigger hole in the planning process is the lack of consultation with states on the solar mission – after all, electricity and power is a state subject.

The draft of the solar mission had been approved by the PM’s council on climate change (who met again on October 26th). The official reason for delay was because Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was unavailable at the time.

In practice, the plan should have been passed by the FM long before its release. However, we hear that a key piece of financing for this mission has been dropped. Funding for the mission was to come from a cess on coal – a minor 4 paise per tonne of coal mined anywhere in the country. But the Ministry of Coal and Power objected to this surcharge. With this key financing strategy now opposed, key bureaucrats are asking how the solar mission will be funded.

Placing levies on coal mining to generate financing for solar research appears to be but a feeble attempt to address the real issue. That of subsidizing coal power, and failing to account for its environmental effects as inbuilt cost. A balm on the expensive shoulders of solar power is this small cess. But is this the best cess that could have been levied? Couldn’t a surcharge on energy production from thermal power, however small, also be incorporated into the package as a first-step towards removing subsidies from coal and oil-based power?

These are but a few chinks in the armour. A recent television interview on the forest rights Act (2006) and the glaring lack of action or even debate on it after it being passed in 2006, indicates just how famous we are for bringing in acts and rules, plans and strategies, but just how bad we can be on follow-up.

11 November 2009

Firm in their belief: Himalayan glaciers not retreating 'rapidly'

By: Kaavya Nag

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has recently released a discussion paper reviewing glacial studies and glacial retreat in India. Minister Jairam Ramesh has a clear caveat in the report that the views so expressed are not endorsed by the Union of India, and that it is only mean to ‘stimulate discussion’. Interestingly, India does not have a position on glacier retreat in the Himalayas.

Prepared ex deputy chairman of the Geological Survey of India V.K. Raina, the paper provides a summary of the literature on glacier studies so far, but its main claim to fame is that it challenges internationally accepted views that the Himalayan glaciers are receding due to climate change. It says there is little evidence for the same, and that ‘none of the glaciers under monitoring are recoding abnormal retreat’.

Data from a large proportion of the studies considered in this report indicate that glacier mass balance – a measure of the difference between melting and sublimation – is negative, and that most monitored glaciers have retreated since the earliest records. Nevertheless (and despite credible evidence from around the world and closer home - China, Nepal, Bhutan), concluding remarks suggest ‘glaciers in the Himalayas, although shrinking in volume and constantly showing a retreating front, have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat…’.

Of note also, is the fact that ‘recent years’ implies 2007-2009 – a period of time that is clearly far too short to come to such sweeping conclusions, particularly on climate-related studies.

While the report suggests that the Sonapani glacier has retreated 500 m in the last century, the Kangriz glacier has ‘practically not retreated even an inch’. These statements however, are not backed by studies, neither does the ‘even an inch’ give an indication of the exact measure. In direct contrast, photographs of these glaciers in the report clearly show significant retreat – but it might be that photographs are not sufficient evidence.

The report also suggests that while glaciers are climate indicators, they need not respond to ‘immediate climatic changes’ for if that were the case, all glaciers in the region would retreat ‘equally’. Nevertheless, elsewhere in the report, an uneven retreat pattern across nearby glaciers has been justified on the grounds of local variations.

The report omits references to key scientific literature including GSI survey and studies including Vohra (1981) on Satluj River Basin glaciers, Shukla and Siddiqui (1999) on Milam glacier, all indicating significant retreat, and other scientific including the WWF (2005) report and the ICIMOD (2007) satellite-based studies and reviews on Himalayan glaciers across India, Nepal and China. It ignores known fact that small glaciers in the Bhutan (not so far away, as one may well see), have disappeared completely.

Glacier changes are recognized as high-confident climate indicators, and even considered as evidence for climate change by the IPCC. Reports from the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) indicate that measurements taken over the last century ‘clearly reveal a general shrinkage of mountain glaciers on a global scale’ (WGMS report). Despite this, this report suggests that ‘to postulate that a glacier can warn of climate changes likely to take place in the future is a big question mark’. In that case, even the IPCC might be wrong in assuming that rapid glacier retreat (even in the Himalayas) is a confident indicator of climate change!

The report awaits ‘many centuries’ of data to conclude that glacier snout movements are a result of ‘periodic climate variation’ or to make a statement that glaciers in the Himalayas are ‘retreating abnormally because of global warming’.