The new war on climate change

As US President Joe Biden is set to host a Climate Summit, there are questions worth asking about past "wars" the US has fought, and the question of gender justice

Car and Bike Caravan through Richmond, CA [image by: Peg Hunter / Flickr]

Today, the US is expected to announce its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, pegged to end by September, 20 years after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center Towers by Al Qaeda. The Global War on Terror, announced by US President George W Bush, has been a mixed bag. It has led to the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but led to the destruction of Iraq, the flourishing of ISIS, and has created a security paraphernalia in which powerful states target regime opponents.

The results are equally mixed 50 years after the US declared a “War on Drugs”, upon which it spends nearly USD 50 billion a year just on prohibitions within the country, without accounting for the millions in military equipment transferred overseas, or the costs of incarcerating hundreds of thousands of its own citizens over petty offences.

These historical precedents are worth bearing in mind as the United States invites 40 world leaders for a Climate Summit on April 22 and 23. This is not to dismiss the role of US leadership on climate change, or the importance of global action. The role of the US in quickly banning CFCs and the Montreal Protocol – the only universally ratified agreement in the world other than the Vienna Conventions – have been central to our fight against ozone depletion.

That said, the Climate Summit participants are an odd mix of those kept in and those kept out. Astonishingly both Afghanistan and Pakistan are missing. While there has been sharp commentary on the exclusion of Pakistan – a country that is amongst those most impacted, the exclusion of Afghanistan is also disturbing. Unusually low snowfall led to a massive drought in 2018-19, as deadly as the war. This year, an unusually mild winter threatens its staple product – potatoes.

All of this brings us back to the question of the main issue being debated in global diplomacy in climate change circles – that of global net zero – or a commitment that total global emissions of greenhouse gasses are balanced by the absorption of these gasses by 2050. We have a great interview with Ulka Kelkar on this topic below, but there is one topic that she mentions that is worth highlighting, any forward progress on climate change will have to incorporate how it impacts whether women are excluded from employment or not.

This is a great analogy about our challenge during the climate crisis for a whole set of things. Women have been too often excluded from discussions on climate change, even if they are often the ones most impacted. A study on how water insecurity impacted men and women in Yunnan, China, noted:

“Men understood gathering water to mean looking for new sources of water as old sources dry up, which is their main responsibility, while the actual carrying was primarily women’s responsibility. In this situation, the men believed that they were the person responsible within the household for coping with a domestic water shortage; however, women’s daily labour increased more substantially than men’s although they were not seen as the person responsible for the additional task.”

Similarly it seems as if the developed countries consider themselves the leaders on actions on climate change, when – in fact – the costs of the crisis are borne disproportionately by those living in developing countries. This is primarily because the people living in developed countries – developed because they have pursued a carbon intensive model of growth that is no longer sustainable – are secured by wealth and infrastructure – whether physical or through things like insurance – in ways that people in developing countries are not. Additionally developing countries have to pursue new pathways to growth – they have to “carry the water” – while developed countries are largely focussed on finding new sources.

This analogy allows us to ask a very simple question: is the development pathway being advocated by either developed or developing countries one that creates more opportunities for women in developing countries, or does it add to their burden without offering new opportunities? The harsh truth is that both the climate crisis, as well as unwise actions taken to adapt or mitigate the crisis, may lead to similar problems.

As the Climate Summit starts next week it would be useful to bear these questions in mind, so that the failures and destruction that have accompanied the US-led war on terror and its war on drugs is avoided, and we pursue something like the Montreal Protocol instead.

Ulka Kelkar is the of the Director of the Climate program at the World Resources Institute, India. She is an economist with two decades of experience in climate change research, capacity building and outreach. She leads WRI India’s work on climate policy which aims to support India’s pathway to a climate-resilient low-carbon economy through judicious national policies, carbon market mechanisms, and effective implementation in states and cities.

Q. What is net zero, and why does it matter?

A. Net zero refers to reducing as much as possible the emissions of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases and removing the rest by planting trees or by using advanced technologies. It matters because for the world to stay within safe global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, we need to stop putting more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by around the middle of the century. This is extremely difficult because almost all human activities currently use fossil fuels and produce these greenhouse gases: net-zero will mean finding alternative ways to produce electricity, manufacture goods, run vehicles, and construct buildings. This is clearly an unprecedented transformation that needs to happen in a matter of a few decades.

Q. What is at the heart of the differences between developing countries and developed countries approach to dealing with the climate crisis?

A. Though the world - as a whole - needs to achieve net-zero, it would mean different things for different countries. For richer countries that have already developed their energy and transport infrastructure, it would mean decarbonizing or shifting to cleaner fuels and processes. But for developing countries like India, it would mean exploring a different path to development. The International Energy Agency, in its latest India Energy Outlook 2021, estimates that 60% of our projected emissions in 2040 would come from things that have not yet been built. Can we find a way to use new technologies to provide modern energy services for millions of our population while also protecting the environment? For example, instead of internal combustion engine vehicles running on petrol or diesel, can we have the majority of our vehicles in 2050 as electric vehicles running on renewable energy?

Q. What would net zero mean for India, especially its economy? Is it the best approach?

A. Planning for net-zero over decades is clearly a long-term endeavour. In the interim, we will need short-term policies and existing technologies to get us there. But a long-term goal can spur innovation to bring down the cost of new low-carbon technologies making it possible to deploy them at scale in the coming years.

For India, stronger climate action would also bring other environmental benefits: for instance, reducing the use of fossil fuels would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also other pollution that causes respiratory problems, and potentially avoid lakhs of premature deaths over the next ten or more years. Thermal power plants use a lot of freshwater for cooling: producing more of our electricity from renewables rather than fossil fuels would also reduce water consumption. Reducing our dependence on imports of crude oil would save lakhs of crores of rupees over the next few decades.

There are also some potential pitfalls that we need to prepare for. For example, the central government currently gets about a quarter of its tax revenue from fossil fuels; as India switches to cleaner fuels, this could deplete the government’s coffers and reduce its ability to invest in health and education. There is a need for offsetting taxes and recycling the revenue so that poor households are not adversely affected.

New green investments can create lakhs of new jobs for our young and growing workforce. However, there may also be job losses in some industries like coal mining, petroleum refining, and vehicle maintenance. This means we need to re-skill our workforce, paying particular attention to women’s ability to access new green jobs. 

Q. Is there a contradiction between economic growth and managing the climate crisis?

A. In the aggregate, green investments can boost GDP and create jobs, but we need to pay special attention to the distribution of opportunities and costs. For example, new renewable energy jobs may not be created in the same locations where fossil fuel jobs are lost. The new jobs may be largely contractual, lacking safety nets. They will require new skills and access to finance for small entrepreneurs. And they may not be easy for women to access. Women have less access to finance because they often do not have the required credentials or collateral in their own names. Also skilling programs may be held at locations and times that are inconvenient for them due to their domestic responsibilities or social norms.

Moreover, in a densely populated country like India, many of the solutions for climate change require precious land - to install renewable energy, protect forests that sequester carbon, perhaps grow biofuel crops. In implementing such actions, we also need to protect local livelihoods and biodiversity. Increasingly the climate community is paying more attention to such considerations and the need to ensure that the low carbon transition is also a fair and just transition.

Q. What, in your opinion, is something obvious about the climate crisis in India that people are not paying attention to, and why?

A. Sometimes when we are looking for futuristic technologies, some solutions are hiding in plain sight. For example, the biggest growth in India’s transport emissions is expected to come not from cars or planes, but from freight trucks on our roads. If we can find a way to shift more goods traffic back to rail transport, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. This will require dedicated freight corridors and last mile connectivity. Unlike electric two-wheelers whose batteries can be quickly charged at home or on the go, electric mobility is not an easy solution for heavy duty trucks! For these, we will need much faster chargers and alternative fuels like hydrogen. But as we carry out the required R&D and create the necessary supply chains, we can prioritize the solutions that are already available to us.

Q. How did you get interested in this subject, and what has been your experience in dealing with these issues?

A. I got interested in climate change as a child since my father is a meteorologist studying the weather and climate. However, I studied economics, not science. As part of an elective course on environmental economics, I chose to do a term paper that applied the tools of economics to the largest common property resource of them all - the earth’s atmosphere!

To me, climate change is the most exciting combination of economics, science, politics and philosophy and I have often worked in interdisciplinary teams that brought together bankers, architects, hydrologists, climate modelers, human geographers, and agricultural scientists.

Critical reading on the environment of India, 14.04.2021, compiled by Shambhavi Madan

  1. Environment ministry gets a rap: According to official documents accessed by The Morning Context under the Right to Information Act, a report commissioned by the environment ministry to analyse public feedback has roundly criticized the draft EIA notification 2020. Prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, a constituent of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, after analysing over 20 lakh comments from people, the final draft report recommended that the ministry “amend” and “improve” the draft EIA notification “for the larger goal of enhanced environmental protection”. This validates concerns raised by activists and other stakeholders, and is significant as central institutions do not normally call actions taken by the government into question. 

  1. The odds are stacked against women who guard India's forests: A female range forest officer (RFO) at Melghat Tiger Reserve committed suicide, left a note detailing sexual and mental harassment at the hands of her boss, and how her pleas for help to Melghat’s additional principal chief conservator of forests went ignored. Female frontline forest officers face numerous systemic issues, including infrastructure that doesn’t accommodate women, an indifferent bureaucracy, and direct endangerment of life. Another female ranger with the Dehradun Forest Division, died by suicide last March. She left a suicide note too, but the Uttarakhand police neither revealed its contents nor made any arrests. The president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, Anish Andheria says “There are many…(suicides)...waiting to happen because of these root issues”.

  1. Using fossil fuel as a cash cow: A big obstacle in India's energy transition: The pandemic laid bare the government’s dependence on fossil fuels for its revenues, which could impact India’s plans for large-scale adoption of clean energy at a time when a ‘just’ energy-transition is crucial, a working paper by non-profit Prayas has highlighted. Prices of petrol and diesel have been escalating during the economic slump caused by the pandemic while the Centre continues to defend its high tax rate, at around 60%, on these products. Since 2014, it has termed its high energy taxation a paradigm shift - projecting it as an implicit carbon tax. However, not only did demand for fossil fuels not decline in the absence of alternatives, but all the revenue collected in the name of a clean energy cess has been diverted to fill GST revenue gaps instead of being used for clean energy projects. As one of the paper’s co-authors, Ashok Sreenivas said, “If we keep the tax regime as it is, it is not going to work”. 

  1. India pushes back deadline for coal-fired utilities to adopt new emission norms: The environment ministry has given in to industry lobbying and extended timelines for coal-based power plants to comply with emission norms by three to five years. It has also set a very low penalty rate for non-compliance that environmentalists said will neither serve as a deterrent nor provide adequate funds for taking remedial action to deal with the impacts of this highly polluting sector. The amended norms, stagger the timeline for compliance based on location of a power plant. However, environment experts said the location-based approach for compliance with emission norms is unscientific and does not take into account the emission levels of the plant. 

  1. Setting Aside Environmental Concerns, J&K Govt Clears Transfer of Land for Ujh Project: The Jammu and Kashmir administration has set the ball rolling to transfer hundreds of hectares of eco-fragile forest land for the construction of the strategic Ujh multipurpose project in the Jammu region. Being fast-tracked as a ‘national project’, it will affect 52 villages, displacing over 3,700 families comprising over 28,000 members, according to the 2011 Census. Two villages – Dharalta and Dungara – are going to be fully submerged. A J&K government report to the Centre also states that 44% of the project’s catchment area falls under the “high erosion category” which increases sedimentation in the river - not good for hydropower generation for multiple reasons. Apart from these grave concerns it will also impact critically endangered wildlife residing in eco-fragile forests. Compensatory afforestation - even if implemented - cannot substitute for even the costs of deforestation, let alone all the rest.

  1. How Andaman Islands Are Losing Green Protection Against Business & Tourism: Recent government moves may strip the protections that the ecologically and ethnically significant archipelago enjoys, in order to make way for big business, shipping and tourism projects, documents accessed by IndiaSpend show. Through a series of de-notifications, amendments, special committee meetings and correspondence with other states--many hidden from public view--the forests, tribal reserves and coastal areas of the islands are being prepped for mega projects. With the new projects that have been proposed, the government claims it will bring growth and employment to the islands. But it disregards the reasons why these islands have been shielded from projects like these so far.

  2. Centre's Bid to Dilute Forest Conservation Act Will Impact Adivasis and Land Rights, Say Activists: The central government is gearing up to limit the power of the state governments in forest matters. In a recent order, the environment ministry stated, “A state government/UT administration will not impose any additional condition after in-principle approval has been accorded.” The “approval” here relates to construction projects and development initiatives among other key projects to be undertaken by private players on forest lands. The move is timed with several changes being made to the original forest conservation act that have not been made public and that will be giving exemptions and easy clearances to railway, road and other projects. Senior environmental lawyer Rahul Chaudhary said, “...the government is constructing and denotifying land everywhere including sanctuaries. Nothing is sacrosanct...” The move will likely directly impact tribal communities and land rights. More than 60% of the forest area in the country falls within 187 tribal districts. 

  3. Incoming corporate wave in food systems will threaten farmers and consumers: ReportAn incoming ‘corporate tidal wave’ in the food industry as well as farming may threaten the interests of millions of farmers and consumers alike, a recent report has cautioned. This may trigger a massive shift of rural dwellers to urban areas, exacerbate land and resource grabs by corporations and make supply chains more susceptible to pandemics and climate change. The report was released by Brussels-based International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) and Canada-based ETC group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) on 30th March 2021.