By Akshay Verma*
“Climate change is posing one of the greatest threats to our existence on the planet Earth. It is real, and we need to panic.”
It has already been five years since 196 countries signed Paris Agreement, but we are still miles away from the target of limiting global warming to well below 2 (preferably 1.5) degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. To add to the worries, covid-19 has induced extra packaging for consumables and medical waste – adding to the already high GHG emissions even if packing has minuscule effect on it.
There is no scope for complacency in the fight against climate change. As per Soumya Dutta, an early nuclear energy enthusiast & scientist turned leading green activist, Paris agreement is not a sufficient answer to the climate change problem because it is a pledge and review system wherein no country is liable if it breaches its so-called ‘commitments’. These pledges are as you like and not dictated by the scientific commitments.. Public shame seems to be the only downside of non-compliance and is bizarrely taken for granted by a lot of countries. Talking about India’s NDCs (nationally determined contributions), Mr. Dutta also noted the disheartening stance of India on the continued use of coal as a dominant energy source even in future even when newer coal has a high cost. Sadly, India’s pledge to reduce emission intensity by 30-35% from 2005 levels by 2030 is nothing more than a standard industrial practice which is usually expected to happen with capitalism induced improvement in technology. It is not wrong to say that political propaganda has painted a different picture in the minds of even educated folks.
In the last 15 years, India has observed a noteworthy improvement in the grassroots level understanding of climate change. Recounting the experiences from 2013 Uttarakhand floods, Mr. Dutta noted how difficult it was for climate change discussions to gain acceptance in masses. Once mostly involved with the free distribution of t-shirts, caps, utensils, food, & sweaters, NGOs have now started relating climate change with floods, water crisis and crop damage which communities can relate with. With movements such as Narmada Bachao Andolan now also getting linked with climate change, communities have understood that not all awareness actions initiatives mean free items and photos.
While discouraging the careless actions of those environmentalists who prefer a flight over a train (1/5th carbon emissions than flights) for short-distance travel or who drive 20 km to the supermarket to buy organic rice, Mr. Dutta cleared a lot of misconceptions regarding the loss of jobs if we go with environment-friendly options. In the Fact Finding Report “Real cost of power“, Mr. Dutta discussed the 4000MW coal power plant (Tata Mundra Project) operated by Coastal Gujarat Power Limited which provided ~700 jobs out of which only a handful were for locals. However, the plant’s operations damaged the coastline and led to 50-70% reduction in high-value lobsters and Pomfret catch impacting the self-sustaining livelihood of ~7-8,000 fishers. This way, the report busted the myth of artificial dilemma which is propagated between social and environmental concerns. Further, as per Mr. Dutta, small-mid scale solar and wind projects can provide many more employment as compared to traditional energy projects. A few social enterprises, such as SELCO are already working in this area.
As the 4th largest renewable power producer in the world, India has magnificent potential to solve multiple social problems just by concentrating on the right way to promote renewable power. Talking about the modular technology in solar, Mr. Dutta believes that farmers can be empowered if the government encourages locally operated small/mid-scale solar power plants in villages. This would not just save ~22% energy otherwise lost in T&D but also provide alternate livelihood options in villages. With the rise in distributed production technology and the introduction of net-metering policy by the government, village operated solar power plants can become a reality in future.
To tackle the climate change monster, India needs not just densification of existing forest cover and environmentally friendly government policies, but also a change in the way we behave socially. As global citizens, we must sacrifice some convenience which can include – limiting our air travel which contributes 2.5% to global CO2 emissions, avoiding unnecessary plastic bags usage, taking public transport, and segregating waste for easy management and recycling. As responsible citizens, we must do our bit and take modest steps which can positively impact hundreds of million people globally. Planet earth is our home, and if we don’t preserve it, we may not be able to see our future generations let alone answer them why we ignored climate change.
*2nd year MBA student at IIM Ahmedabad; the article is based on interaction with Soumya Dutta, who is a nuclear energy enthusiast & scientist turned green activist