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BW Businessworld

A Black Mark In The Waiting

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With North-East India sizzling under record heat and the water table falling in many parts of the country, many voters are more worried about their drinking water than casting their ballot. Soon the country’s new government will also have to worry about water and power shortages — issues that never figured in the election debate.

Two recent developments should focus policy makers’ attention on the issue of climate change and power. First, according to a WHO report, around seven million people died from the effects of air pollution in 2012 — over a third of them in China, India and other fast-growing nations in Asia. With large cities choking with pollution and large tracts of agricultural land too contaminated to grow crops, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang has concluded that now is the moment to wage “war against pollution” — and he is matching the tough rhetoric with action. 

Second, a surprisingly upbeat report by Greenpeace, hitherto a relentless critic of China’s environmental policy, suggests that Beijing has bitten the bullet and put in place policies to substantially reduce the use of coal. By the time world leaders meet in Paris next year for the UN Conference on Climate Change, China will be in the unusual position of being able to demand action from others on cutting emissions. India, currently the world’s third-largest user of coal, will find itself at the receiving end of international opprobrium — and without Beijing in its corner.

It is ironic that while global public discussion is increasingly about ways to reduce the use of coal as a fuel — one of the principal causes of climate change — the debate in India has been on corruption surrounding lucrative coal blocks. Of course, with 68 per cent of India’s power generation depending on coal, there is no short-term alternative to meet its energy need. But, equally, there is no national conversation about the urgency of finding alternatives. On those rare occasions when the use of coal is the subject of public discourse, the tendency has been to decry the past sins of industrial powers that released huge volume of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. India may well be justified in resisting demands to curb coal emissions, but it is self-defeating to be stuck in that truculent stance. Wherever the ultimate responsibility may lie, the reality is that the consequences of climate change are happening here and now. It is high time that public discussion in India is focused on the economic and climate-related costs implicit in burning coal.

The smog produced by coal burning is not only increasing illnesses and deaths, the use of coal is putting tremendous strain on India’s fast-depleting water resources as well. Seventy-nine per cent of India’s new power generating capacity will be built in already “water stressed” areas. Already, in 2010, India’s total water usage for agriculture and power generation surpassed 760 billion cubic metres — more than China and Russia’s total withdrawals combined. Despite bland official assurances, the country’s planned power projects are slated to draw more water than its rivers can deliver.

Judging by the Greenpeace report, the Chinese government has finally decided to grab the bull by the horn. It has announced cutbacks in construction of coal-powered plants in 12 of its 34 provinces, which account for 44 per cent of its coal consumption. Apart from health considerations, plan to reduce coal use and a switch to renewable sources such as wind and solar is also linked to the country’s acute water shortage. If China follows through, its emissions could be brought in line with the targeted 2°C rise in temperature. There is a consensus that averting irreversible climate change will require limiting the increase in the earth’s average surface temperature to 2°C above the pre-industrial level.

As the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, India will face international condemnation while its citizens suffer.   

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 02-06-2014)