Global Warming: Middle Way Out

Last month, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, shook hands and offered the press a good ‘photo op’.  Obama announced that by 2025, US CO2 emissions would be 26-28 per cent lower than its 2005 levels. Xi Jinping announced CO2 emissions in China would not increase after 2030.

Developed nations know that large, emerging economies like China, India and Brazil are responsible for greater CO2 emissions than them, with China topping the list. The large, emerging economies on their part, know that on per capita basis, developed countries are responsible for greater emissions. In 2011, the average Australian emitted 12 times as much CO2 as the average Indian.

If there is a garbage-disposal problem in your city, then whom should you consider the worst offender: the 500 families living in a posh locality, with an average family size of five persons, generating 13 tonnes of garbage per day, 5 kg per person, or the 5,000 families living in the adjacent slum, with an average family size of eight persons, generating 20 tonnes of garbage per day, 0.5 kg per person?

Regardless of the strength or stubbornness the major emitters have exhibited until now, it is apparent they will have to step back in the near future. This has partially happened, if one goes by the declarations of Obama and Xi Jinping. But other major emitters like Australia, India and Russia are yet to make commitments.

So then what are the ways in which to resolve this argument of total CO2 emissions versus per capita CO2 emission? One probable target is the electricity-generation sector.

In India, the total installed capacity of wind-generated electricity plants is 21,136 MW. The National Institute of Wind Energy (part of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy) estimates that in India, 102,000 MW of electricity can be generated by wind. If this potential is fully utilised, then India will produce 67,614 MW less by burning coal. These 67,614 MW result in the emission of about 409 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. Thus, considering the 2011 figure of 1,726 million m tonnes, our CO2 emissions would have been lower by 24 per cent, had we been fully utilising our wind-energy potential. At the global level, the benefit is equivalent to an entire Italy going carbon neutral. Analyses for the other major emitters will give similar positive results.

This analysis has considered only wind energy, solar energy has not been considered at all. If solar-generated electricity is used to its full potential, then the environmental benefits would be even more.

Of course, this approach will require high amounts of investment. The installation costs for solar and wind power plants are higher than that of coal and natural-gas thermal power plants. Hence, countries will have to spend large amounts of money to reduce the effect of global warming.

A country might spend a lot of money to generate electricity by using green methods, but the benefit of this investment is not financial and tangible. Furthermore, these intangible benefits go to the entire world, not that country alone. So, why would a country spend huge amounts of money when other major-emitters do not do so? The solution is to compel all of them to generate electricity by going green. Which countries should be included in the group for the generation of electricity thus? This brings us to the first dilemma: total CO2 emissions versus CO2 emissions per person.

A possible solution: rather than deciding on the quantum of CO2 emission reduction, increasing the percentage of ‘green’ electricity up to a minimum level should be made a policy. Currently, in India, 29 per cent of the electricity generated is by green methods (assuming generation = capacity, for the sake of simplicity). The methods considered to be ‘green’ are hydro, wind and other renewables. In the US, currently, 13 per cent electricity is generated by green methods. The methods considered here, to be ‘green’ are hydro, biomass, geothermal, solar and wind. Thus, an agreement among all major emitters to produce electricity within their territories, by green methods, increasing by one percentage point per year up to a minimum limit, say 90 per cent. Had this policy been already implemented, India would have to generate electricity by green methods, at least 30 per cent of the total in 2014, at least 31 per cemt of the total in 2015 and the US would have to generate electricity by green methods, at least 14 per cent of the total in 2014, at least 15 per cent in 2015 and so on.

The benefit of this approach is it neither specifies a reduction in CO2 emissions based on total quantity, nor does it specify a reduction in per capita emission. This approach would put pressure on all the major emitters, in an equitable manner, to reduce their CO2 emissions. Hopefully, such a middle ground will be adopted by all in the current United Nations’ Lima conference, thereby making it a success.

(The writers are professors at the Vivekanand Education Society’s Institute of Management, Chembur, Mumbai)

Zubin Sethna and Ravi Jeswani

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