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‘Untried technologies may hamper poverty eradication in developing countries’

Jan 04, 2013

Distinguished Fellow, TERI, Dr Prodipto Ghosh is a Member of the Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change; Member of the National Expert Committee on Climate Change, and Scientific Consultant in the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Govt. of India. In an interview to OneWorld South Asia, he says that the benefits of reducing green house gas emissions will actually free India from external dependence on energy sources.

Pradipto Ghosh

OWSA: It is largely agreed that climate change will result in frequent and extreme weather conditions. Despite that countries and governments are unable to come to agreements in mitigating green house gases (GHGs).

Ghosh: No, that’s not true. They have been making progress over the past 20 years. The progress may not be as rapid as many environmentalists would like but nevertheless there has been progress and we can even see the effects of this progress in actual policies and things which are happening on the ground. We can see this in both developing countries such as India and developed countries such as Europe and to some extent even the US.

So it is not true that they are unable to reach agreement. They are making progress but maybe the progress is not as fast as some people would like. But then we must understand that climate change mitigation goes to the heart of a country’s economic structures and we cannot really expect any overnight shift in economic and energy policies which could have a dramatic impact on GHG mitigation.

For one thing, the technologies are not there as yet. We have to provide the policy and regulatory incentive to enable the technologies to be developed and they are happening.

OWSA: Can you give some of the examples where the countries have actually come to an understanding or agreements on reducing the GHGs?

Ghosh: Well, first we had the Kyoto Protocol by which developed countries were assigned targets to reduce their GHGs with an aggregate of about five per cent leaving out the US. And it set up also the carbon market. The carbon market in the case of developing countries has led to the CDM Clean Development Mechanism which has stimulated far greater innovation and investment in energy efficiency, fuel switching renewable energy technologies than has happened in the past 20 decades. It has also developed skills, technologies, methodologies to enable countries to undertake GHG mitigation projects.

Then we had many countries both developed and developing which put in place their national policies and action plans. In India we had the national action plan on climate change with eight different missions and we see that these missions for most have been running. We have the National Solar Mission, which has in just two rounds of bidding has reduced the price of the solar energy from Rs 15-16 per kilo watt hour to about half of that  in just 3 years. It is one of the lowest prices of solar in the world.

Then we have the performance achieved trade mechanism which is intended to provide incentives and penalties for large companies that consume energy and thereby reduce their energy consumption and decrease their emission of GHGs.

We have the renewable energy portfolio standards and the renewable energy trading which is also up and running. As a result of these initiatives the implicit price of carbon in India is at $40 per kg of CO2 equivalent, which is much higher than the implicit price of carbon in the US or that you have in the other developed countries like the EU.

OWSA: Is it true that one of the co-benefits of a reduction in GHGs is higher energy security?

Ghosh: You see energy security is conceived of in two ways. One is external energy security, primarily which reduces dependence on imported fossil fuels, imported petroleum primarily. The second aspect of energy security is that of providing affordable and clean energy, particularly to the poor. In these aspects, there is certainly a case for pursuing GHG mitigation with energy security in these terms being one of the co-benefits. For example, in respect of affordable and clean energy for the poor, renewable energy technologies with decentralised options or connections to micro-grids have a lot of potential. Similarly if, through use of bio-fuels, you are able to substitute imported petroleum it also addresses the question of external energy security.

However, in certain respects it may lead to greater dependence on the external front and in India’s case the example is that of nuclear power. Clearly until we are able to reach sufficient scale with respect to the tree-stage nuclear cycle involving thorium as the principle fuel we are going to have to depend on imported uranium. The external dependence on imported uranium will increase for the next two decades as India’s nuclear programme is rapidly expanded. In one aspect there is perhaps some negative effect on energy security, particularly since the global trade of uranium is highly restricted and these restrictions have to do with considerations other than climate change.

OWSA: Very recently the Prime Minister had made a statement that India will increase its share of new and renewable energy by 2020. With a think tank like TERI with its focus on scientific research and the global meet like DSDS, how can you provide an impetus to India’s new and renewable energy programme?

Ghosh: First of all, the DSDS participants are from all over the world. They should use that forum to recognise that India has undertaken very significant advances in renewable energy. There are three sources for that – one is the very large renewables programme that we had had and which is completely self-financed right from the 70s when the ministry of new and renewable energy sources was set up, second through the CDM and third through the national solar mission and the renewable energy certificates.

This has actually resulted in a rapid rate of acceleration of promotion of renewables in the country and has also brought down the prices considerably. It is important that the DSDS instead of constantly saying that the glass is half empty should also recognise that the glass is half full and more than half full.

Secondly, the DSDS is a forum for bringing into bear international experience in actual policies and regulations which are designed for promoting clean energy technologies – both renewable as well as energy efficiency.

I think it would be good if the DSDS sessions are used as a platform by those participants from outside to give positive experiences and examples of how the process of deployment of clean technologies in diverse circumstances has been accomplished in their own countries. This would be a useful forum for exchanging international experience both for showcasing India’s own experience as well as for being exposed to the experiences of other countries.

OWSA: DSDS also brings in a number of heads of governments and former heads of governments. Is it also possible that DSDS can also bridge the gap between the governments in negotiating climate change, the transfer of technology as well as putting in more money on the table?

Ghosh: Well that’s a tall order because the climate change negotiations involve deep economic and strategic interests of all countries. But one aspect of the negotiations is that for a very long time, they have been plagued by very serious distrust between developed and developing countries about each others’ intentions. And this mistrust has actually grown over the years. The developing countries perceive that the developed countries are primarily motivated not by the need to address climate change but by trying to get a large market share for their technologies in the growing infrastructure and energy sectors of the developing countries which concessions they cannot get from the WTO process.

In this process the developed countries are completely insensitive to the effects that they are trying to force developing countries into technologies that are not yet sufficiently developed may infact seriously impact their growth and poverty eradication prospects.

The developed countries on their part believe that developing countries are hiding behind historical responsibility and neglecting the fact that in future their GHG emissions in the aggregate and not in per capita terms would be larger than those of developed countries.

Forums like the DSDS where the heads of States assemble can provide some reassurance coming from the high political level that neither side is pursuing the stereotype that the other has of it. It can be a forum to build trust, enhance trust or at least reduce the trust deficit. And this can have some positive effect in the negotiations.

OWSA: It is often said that the lifestyles of Indians, particularly the upper middle classes and the affluent classes, is also leading to GHG emissions and chances are that the affluent classes may have a bigger carbon footprint than their American or European counterparts. Is that true?

Ghosh: Well it is not true. There was actually a study done by Greenpeace India with a very questionable methodology where they counted towards GHG emissions the activities of upper class Indians engaged in their professional productive work. For example, they counted the GHG emissions involved in laptop and cellphone use, involved in travel much of which is attributable to their broader participation in the economy.

The logical consequences of the methodology followed by Greenpeace would be that the airhostess who makes 400 airline trips a year would have the largest carbon footprint of all while a steel plant worker who is barely at the lower ends of the middle class. His carbon footprint would be much more than that of a middleclass American. This is a fallacious methodology.

Now however let us look at a methodology which looked at the GHG implications of actual consumption. This is the greendex study conducted over the past three years and done by the National Geographic based in Washington DC. The fourth study would be out soon. They have developed a methodology by which they separate the GHG emissions involved in participation of the economic activity from that involved in consumption. They do this for a set of major countries.

In the first study, Brazil and India were tied at the first place as the most sustainable consumers in the world. In the second and third studies, India was number one, ahead of China and Brazil. Then we had all the developed countries way way behind all the developing countries. This was a formal methodology which is available on the website and you can download it.

Now the methodology and the data. There are certain aspects of Indian culture which are deeply inherent and which do not change as people become richer. For example regarding vegetarianism, it is not true that most Indians are vegetarians. But what is true that Indians are mostly vegetarian. So, even if they eat meat, it is a diary product or even if they eat meat, the meat is a small part of their diet even for well to do Indians.

Then recycling, about which I am sure that the kabariwala comes every month to your house and takes away everything that can be recycled—newspapers, bottles, plastic, metal, wood, leather, old electrical equipment and he pays you money for it—which is worth your while for you to segregate it. So we don’t have to be taught to segregate our waste. We do it because it is inherent in our culture and inherent in the way our informal economy is organised. India has by far the highest recycling rate in the world.

Also, Indians are absolutely fanatic in their personal lives about saving energy. If you walk in any Indian middle-class home, you will never find a light, an airconditioner or a fan on if it is not required.

Then, India started the programme of labeling appliances. Even before this became mandatory, in two short years virtually all the unlabelled appliances were out of the market. Then if you look at the automobile industry, even it is a luxury car the sellers have to advertise not by law but because the customers demanded what is the fuel efficiency. Our customers are very concerned about fuel efficiency. In one of our ads about a salesman trying to sell an Indian millionaire a yacht, he explains the luxury feathres and other features to the customer. The customer just asks him one question, ‘how many miles to the gallon does it give’.

So there is a certain mindset about energy efficiency. So, these are things that do not change. They are with the rich as well as the poor. For example, now everyone in the last few years has changed from incandescents to CFL bulbs. You walk into a middle class home and you see that there is only one room in the house that is lit. We are not taught these things, these are very inherent in our culture.

OWSA: At the COP held at Hyderabad in 2012, our Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan had placed a study which said that the largest GHG emissions in India are from the energy sector, followed by agriculture and then the industry. Where do you think can we cut down the GHG emissions the fastest and the easiest?

In agriculture it is virtually impossible to cut down the emissions as these are from wet paddy cultivation and cattle. We have a large cattle population but the individual cattle GHGs is very low but the aggregate is large. But if you look at the full chain of cattle emissions, since the cattle actually feed on agricultural waste and because they are not fed on grain, the GHGs involved in raising that grain are not there.

In the case of wet paddy cultivation, since it is a millennia old practice, it cannot be changed in a hurry as it is fraught with a lot of livelihood issues. So agriculture is impossible and anyway it is not significant as the emissions are not growing.

In terms of energy, it will go down when we are able to get a twin rapid shift to nuclear and renewable. And that shift is happening. Now if you look at the historical picture of how different technologies propagate, it is an ‘s’ curve. So, the initial rate of deployment is slow, then it accelerates, and then there is a period of very rapid acceleration and then there is a period of leveling off.

I think from all the evidence from all these renerable and energy-efficient technologies, we see that the phase of slow-growth is over and we are entering the phase of rapid growth. I would expect that in the next 10 to 20 years, we should see very rapid shifts to renewable as well as nuclear.

OWSA: India seems to be on a sustainable path. Do we see the benefits immediately of a reduction in the GHGs or is there a gestation time?

Ghosh: I would not like to see the benefits of our reduced GHGs in terms of climate change as we produce just four per cent of the global emissions. So, even if we just went back to the stone-age and stopped using modern energy completely in terms of the impact on us that would not be a four per cent change. That is not why we have to address climate change. We have to address GHGs mitigation as a vehicle for promoting clean energy technologies which is going to lead to a economically and a socially sustainable energy mix over a period of time, and is also going to free us from external dependence on energy sources.

That is the principal reason why we are doing it and why we should do it. The direct impact of reduced GHG mitigation on climate change impact on us is actually very very little.

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