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BW Businessworld

Time For India To Clean Up Its Act

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The earth is getting warmer and, with it, the world’s  coldest places are emerging as hot new business prospects. The melting ice in the Arctic is being watched not just by anxious climate scientists but by global energy and shipping businesses. It was thus ironic that five energy-hungry Asian countries, including China, Japan and India, were invited to join the Arctic Council as permanent observers — just as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a historic high. Against this precarious backdrop, it would be wiser to focus on curbing future emissions than on the chimera of business gains offered by an ice-free Arctic.
 
The 15 May decision of the Arctic Council to invite six non-Arctic nations is designed to give the latter a ringside seat when decisions are made about seabed mining, fishing and shipping through the ice-free water in the summer months.  Although the exploitation of Arctic waters would be subject to the 200-mile exclusive economic zone, undersea exploration for gas, oil and minerals is likely to emerge as a hotly contested issue. The new observers would be able  to contribute to the deliberations even if they don’t have a vote.
 
By a strange coincidence, on 10 May, an observatory in Hawaii, that has been measuring the level of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, reported that the level of carbon dioxide had climbed past 400 parts per million for the first time in three million years. The rounded CO2 number does not hold any significance other than showing the pace of intensified global industrialisation that has resulted in the planet’s average temperature rising by roughly 1.33°F (0.74°C); more than half of this increase has come in just the last 34 years. Historic floods in Europe, record-breaking tornados in the US and an unprecedentedly hot India are daily reminders of a new climate normal.
 
One of the ‘beneficial’ consequences of a warming planet has been increasingly ice-free summers in the Arctic. In summer, the northern shipping lane, linking Europe to East Asia, could reduce by 40 per cent the distance that cargo ships have to travel. Unsurprisingly, exports giant China has already sent a ship on a trial run. Greenland’s startling loss of 97 per cent of its ice sheet in four days last summer has attracted mining companies to a country that boasts of substantial reserves of gold, platinum and uranium. 
 
The warming planet, though, holds only disasters for the temperate zone. Low-lying islands like the Maldives and Kiribati risk disappearing altogether, and populated coastal areas in the Indian subcontinent run a greater risk of losing land to the sea. A recent Nasa-led study concluded that greater CO2-induced warming could bring heavy rain in Asian monsoon regions. Marine scientists have a grim forecast: the warming and acidification of the Indian Ocean could lead to a drastic reduction in fish catches, affecting the lives of six million fishermen and many more consumers.
 
Despite these dire predictions, the government still has to provide electricity, water and employment to citizens, relying habitually on polluting fossil fuel. With 57 per cent of its power coming from coal, India has moved up to third place after China and the US as the world’s leading emitter of CO2.  Expediting plans to build seven more nuclear power plants would produce only marginal gains and it would anyway take decades to bring them to production. Improving energy efficiency, stepping up power generation with sources such as solar and wind remains the best course to mitigating the effects of global warming. An encouraging sign was the recent decision by Coal India to install solar panels in its facilities to save on its own electricity bills. 
 
India’s observer seat at the Arctic Council may satisfy the country’s ego, but counting on the abundant renewable energy produced by a sun-drenched and wind-swept India would be a better bet than competing with the world for Arctic oil and gas. 

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation and editor of YaleGlobal Online


boundtogether(dot)bw(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 15-07-2013)

 


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