Saturday, December 20, 2008

Climate change: India needs a timebound policy paradigm

Jaidee Mishra, ET Bureau

THERE’S much talk of action to counter climate change, or so it seems. While the UN climate change jamboree, in Poznan, Poland, ended last week in a flurry of declarations and announcements, the domestic policy process to cope and negate the effects of climate change seems to be longdrawn and elaborate when it comes to pious intentions and objectives, but woefully short on specifics and timelines. The National Action Plan on Climate Change does call for chalking out concrete policy proposals for the various sub-missions, by December 31. But India’s stated principle of “common but differential responsibility” in coping with the effects of green-house gas emissions and consequent global warming may well stultify policy revamp. Instead, what’s required is proactive climate-change policy to innovatively remove poverty when it comes to everyday energy usage, and rev up efficiency of energy systems right across the board. The subsequent payoffs would be huge indeed. In parallel, what’s needed is initiative to summarily improve the methods and data available for policy analysis in the domain of the environment and apparent climate change in the offing. Let us set up a premier body such as a National Centre for Environmental Economics–complete with a vigorous programme of publishing working papers, for better informed policy design. In tandem, widespread energy poverty and poor efficiency levels in energy supply and logistics need to be addressed. Imperative is forward-looking policy to better diffuse alternate, sustainable energy resources such as solar and wind power. Such a policy stance would concurrently reduce emissions of green house gases (GHGs), with the relative decline is the usage of fossil fuels , the main source of additional GHGs in the atmosphere. The latest UN meet does call upon member governments to diffuse ‘green,’ environmentally-friendly technology and to “promptly initiate and expeditiously facilitate the preparation of projects for approval and implementation...” too. If only things were so simple! When it comes to actual policy implementation and follow through, far from being sanguine, there would be a host of rigidities on the ground. So instead of hoping for “manna from heaven” and green technology easily available off the shelve, what’s required is a suitably conducive policy environment to step up investments for requisite diffusion and development of hardware, skills and knowledge in the domestic tariff area, preferably with heightened FDI flows. The UN communiqué does also–in a somewhat grandiose manner–mention the Special Climate Change Fund, and besides “welcoming the outcome of pledging meeting of potential donors” to the corpus, goes on to note that $60 million “have been pledged” for the purpose. For what is supposed to be a global fund, it’s much too small and inconsequential. In the midst of a severe global economic slowdown, there are of course a panoply of other, more pressing concerns for governments. But the point remains that resource mobilisation for climate change would need to be largely and perhaps overwhelmingly domestic, especially for a large, turnaround economy like India. Hence the need for appropriate policy design. However, it does not necessarily follow that the monies for climate change would need to be budgeted from scratch. The fact of the matter is that tens of thousands of crores are already spent each year on open-ended energy subsidies, with the questionable objective of boosting usage of fossil fuels. So what’s needed is vision to prioritise expenditure and policy induce sustainable, less fossil-fuel intensive energy. Specifically, what’s needed is a scheme to diffuse such alternative energy aides as solar lamps and well-designed cookers, and pay for it by limiting and withdrawing subventions on account of kerosene, cooking gas and agricultural power. As various pilot studies show, such a policy substitution would quickly pay for itself and so effectively bring down energy subsidy levels. It would also hand-in-hand do much to remove energy poverty and stepup fuel usage as well. There remains the need to increase thermal efficiency in our power plants, which would be more capital-intensive than the change over required for domestic sustainable energy resources. Power plants emissions are the single largest source of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent GHG. But here again, the prospect of generating up to a third more power from practically the same amount of coal ought to be attractive enough for corrective action. And suitable changes in power policy can better coagulate funds for high-efficiency, super-critical boilers and the like. The point is that the environment is the basis of all activities, be they ecological, economic or social, and it would make policy sense to strive for less degradation even as we boost newer energy resources. The future after all begins now!
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