OPINION

The challenge of change

Sudha Mahalingam

With global carbon galloping, you can neither negotiate nor argue with Gaia. Not when she is on her sick bed. We need a paradigm shift in the way we perceive development.

The just released Prime Minister’s National Action Plan on Climate Change acknowledges the potentially adverse impact of changing climate on India’s development and envisages a multi-pronged approach to tackling climate-related emissions without compromising on growth or committing to carbon caps. This is consistent with the Prime Minister’s stand at G8 summit last year that India’s per capita emissions will remain below those of developed countries. The Action Plan outlines eight National Missions — solar energy, energy efficiency, sustainable habitat, water, Himalayan ecosystem, sustainable agriculture, etc. It also includes a National Mission for a Green India and another on strategic knowledge for climate change.

Critical as these are to combating climate change, the document significantly omits transportation as an independent mission for carbon mitigation, although the sector does figure elsewhere in the action plan, its salience somewhat diminished. Transportation alone accounts for half of the country’s oil demand and was directly responsible for at least 11 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions in 1994, according to our National Communication submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2004. This number did not include fugitive emissions from handling of oil and gas systems. Within transport sector, road transport accounted for 90 per cent of all emissions. In 1994, petroleum products contributed to 31 per cent of all CO{-2} emissions.

Growth of automobile sector

Since 1994, there has been an explosion in automobiles after we opened the floodgates to international auto majors in the early 90s. Each year we unleash two million more cars on our beleaguered roads. Now we have a whopping 14 million four-wheelers in India, not to mention several times as many two-wheelers. Correspondingly, our crude consumption has gone up from 1.4 million barrels daily in 1994 to 2.4 million barrels daily now. Although data is not available, commensurate increase in direct emissions from automobile tailpipes is ineluctable.

Tailpipe emissions tell only part of the story. Pari passu with the growth in automobiles our refining capacity has also gone up from 62 million tonnes in 1994 to 146 million tonnes in 2008 and slated to go up further to 240 million tonnes by 2012. Refining entails burning oil and is classified under ‘Energy and transformation industries’ in our National Communication. Although coal-fuelled power generation tops the list in this category, emissions from refining must have risen correspondingly and will rise further as new refineries come online. Besides, as the world is exhausting sweet light crudes and is turning to heavier crudes, the refinery emission quotient increases commensurately. Chicago Tribune reported in February this year that emissions from Midwest refineries in the U.S. will increase by 15 to 40 per cent more on account of refining heavier crudes from Canada. Add to this, emissions from industries that service the automobile sector such as steel, petrochemicals, glass, etc, each of which is carbon-intensive in its own right. Thus we have a chain of activities related to transportation which add up to a significant carbon footprint.

Yet, in January 2007, the government released an Automotive Mission Plan (AMP) prepared by Department of Heavy Industries and is also setting up an expert committee to monitor its implementation. The AMP envisages a quantum leap in growth of automotive sector in a decade — from the 2006 level of 3.2 per cent share in India’s GDP to 10 per cent share by 2016. According to the report, in 2006, the industry had a total turnover of $41 billion including $10 billion of the auto component industry, $3 billion of Indian tyre industry. Now the mission plan hopes to ramp this up to $145 billion and double the industry’s employment potential to 24 million! No doubt some of these automobiles will be exported and many of them will have stringent emission norms. Yet, their sheer numbers will weigh us down. The hype about hybrid cars needs to be seen in the context of not only our electricity deficits, but also the fact that much of the electricity is produced by burning dirty coal. According to the Ministry of Power, 84 per cent of India’s generation (as opposed to installed capacity) in 2008 will come from thermal power plants!

Untrammelled growth in automobiles is not just an Indian phenomenon. It pervades rest of Asia too, especially China whose oil import dependence has grown from zero to nearly 50 per cent in just 15 years. What our auto policies will do to our liquid fuel demand, our import dependence, our energy security and finally to the global climate through its emissions, is not hard to imagine. China has already surpassed Japan to become the second largest energy consumer as well as the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. India is not far behind, in the fourth place although we can claim dubious comfort in our per capita emissions being only a fraction of those emitted by our counterparts in the developed world.

Coal-based power generation still leads the list of polluting activities, but as natural gas, nuclear and big dams increasingly displace coal, its share is likely to plateau and even decline over time. At the rate at which automobiles are growing, it will not be too long before emissions from hydrocarbons catch up with coal, if not surpass it as the single biggest fouler of our environment. India’s automotive sector will be constrained by neither resources nor climate concerns, but only by the country’s inadequate infrastructure. For China, unacceptable levels of urban pollution could play a similar role. As of now, both these countries seem to be merrily speeding on, unmindful of their galloping emissions.

Misplaced emphasis

Currently, the world consumes about 83 millions barrels of oil daily. International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2030, this will go up to 116 mbd of which Asia alone will demand an additional 20 million barrels of oil daily, thanks to its misplaced emphasis on private transport as the engine of economic growth. If we persist in our current growth paradigm, our carbon emissions will go up by 500 per cent in the next 25 years. Does it not, therefore, make sense to make transportation a thrust area when dealing with carbon emissions? What better timing than now, to decarbonise our transportation sector, when skyrocketing crude prices and ballooning subsidies give us the sorely needed excuse for drastic intervention?

The Climate Action Plan does address transport-related emissions, but not adroitly enough. It talks of hydrogen, biodiesel and recycling of auto waste. Hydrogen is a distant dream. Turning to biofuels is not just tinkering at the margin. Biofuels are also turning out to be part of the problem rather than solution. Our pilot projects have shown that jatropha cannot be successfully cultivated in marginal or waste lands. It needs irrigation and fertilizer, much the same as food crops. Ethanol carries with it the moral hazard of diverting energy from humans to vehicles. It is also water and fertilizer intensive. A life-cycle assessment energy balance and environmental impact will place biofuels firmly out of reckoning. The plan also talks of developing inland waterways and coastal shipping, establishing mechanisms to promote investments in high capacity public transport systems and more importantly, of appropriate transport pricing. The last two are the key to checking runaway growth in automobiles.

Hopefully, we will vigorously examine the last option — of taxing existing and new automobiles steeply enough to raise the resources for initial capital to build our mass transit systems, not just in cities, but also in the numerous smaller towns. Subsidies saved from shift to public transportation alone will make this enterprise worthwhile. Can the huge workforce currently employed in the automobile sector be gainfully redeployed to build public transportation networks in a white-collar version of NREGS? Simultaneously, can we persuade our aspiring middle classes to change their notions of ‘desirable’ lifestyles at the core of which is the now ubiquitous automobile?

While it is not anyone’s case that those who never enjoyed the fruits of the auto boom hitherto should be denied access to the family car, we must also acknowledge that climate is an implacable adversary. With global carbon galloping up to the 550 ppm tipping point, you can neither negotiate nor argue with Gaia, not now, when she is on her sick bed. Nor can we hope to heal her by reading history to her. We need a paradigm shift in the way we perceive development. Such shifts in the economy are possible only during periods of extreme pain or threat. And we have both now — in soaring fuel prices and deteriorating environment and climate.

(The writer is Member, National Security Advisory Board.)

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