Who gets to save the world?

As the effects of the climate crisis intensify, some of the solutions offered seem to be largely beneficial to those responsible for the problem

Eruption of Sarychev Volcano from the ISS International Space Station: NASA

As floods in Europe and wildfires in the US and Russia dominate global news cycles, it seems that the conversation on climate change is moving forward. And maybe just in time. The next UN Conference of Parties on climate change – COP26 - is due at the end of this year. The last one was disappointing, to say the least. Shifted from Chile due to political unrest to Spain, it featured the US under the Trump administration at its worst. But there was no lack of bad actors, with the EU coming into criticism for blocking green financing, China and India being blamed for dodgy projects, and name calling all around. Greta Thunberg may have warned, “We’re watching you,” but the results were so meagre as to suggest we might just turn our eyes away.

COP26 was supposed to be held last year, but the pandemic had its impact. The venue of the conference itself – the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow – had a section made into a temporary hospital to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. To say the omens have not been good would be to put it mildly. Thus, any added impetus – whether it is videos of the flooding of New York city, to news of permafrost melting in Siberia – should probably be a good thing. The Biden administration’s first act was to recommit the US to the Paris Agreement, from which Trump had pulled it out of, so there is a different energy going in.

All that said and done, it is still worth asking what such a meeting will manage to achieve. Despite the very real proof of how the climate crisis is destroying lives and livelihoods, the world is still marked by too little ambition. Under the Paris Agreement countries were supposed to set their own Nationally Determined Contributions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. As the Climate Action Tracker shows us, of the countries they are tracking, only two are on track for that – Morocco and the Gambia. Countries like China are still pursuing pathways that may be lead to warming above 3 degrees, and countries like Saudi Arabia, for a world that is more than 4 degrees hotter, on average, than the 19th Century.

It is little surprise, therefore, that some people are pushing for radical solutions. Suggesting that since the world is not going to get its act together any time soon, we may require technological fixes that give us more time. This is the topic of the interview in this newsletter’s interview with Prakash Kashwan, on the topic of solar geo-engineering. This point of view suggests that since we cannot manage the problems on earth – or at least not quickly – then it is time to manage the radiation coming from the sun, by limiting the radiation that reaches the earth.

This is a grand ambition, and by definition, one that is only open to those with a great amount of wealth in their hands. Kashwan uses the term “colonising the global commons”. Ironically those that have colonised the global commons with their pumping out of CO2, would largely be the same ones who would be taking the lead in “saving us from ourselves”.

There is an internal, Indian, aspect to this as well. The two richest businessmen in India, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, both with huge and controversial investments in coal and oil, are now the leading investors in renewable energy. It is worth noting that they are not phasing out their investments in coal or oil, perish the thought, but just using money to invest in a newer sector. Given that large solar parks envisaged under these projects will require substantial land acquisition, these are likely to be justified under “green projects”, possibly displacing those who are not, in any way, responsible for the type of emissions that the Ambani or Adani projects are involved in. It is not just rich countries colonising the global commons that is an issue, but also the rich polluters in developing countries who are colonising internal spaces in the name of giving us cleaner energy, as story number 9 in our critical reading list highlights.

While the issues with solar geo-engineering might find an easier fix – after all the main actors in the global systems are countries, and even if the system favours rich countries over poor countries, there are mechanisms – there is less of a way to manage how wealth from polluting industries is greenwashed internally. It is past time that countries that suffer from massive air pollution and climate change-induced disasters such as India start seriously thinking of carbon taxes on those contributing to our problems. This will give the developing world far more credibility in demanding similar taxes for global giants that have created the challenge we face. Otherwise we end up in the laughable situation of having the poor being made to sacrifice to the rich, who have been instrumental in creating these problems, in the name of saving themselves.

The Interview

Prakash Kashwan is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, Human Rights Institute, University of Connecticut, Storrs. He is the author of Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2017), Editor of Climate Justice in India (Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming), Co-Editor of the journal Environmental Politics, and the Co-founder and Co-convener of the Climate Justice Network. Kashwan is a member of the global expert group for Scoping of Transformative Change Assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a member of the Academic Working Group (AWG) on International Governance of Climate Engineering (2016 –18), a Senior Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance (ESG) Project, and a member of the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN) convened by Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society.

Q. What is solar geo-engineering? Why is it being promoted?

The idea comes from mimicking volcanoes.

Major volcanic eruptions spew ash particles into the atmosphere, which reflect some of the Sun's radiation back into space and cool the planet. Climate scientists argue that this effect could be recreated to fight the impacts of climate change.

The argument is: it doesn’t look like the world can act to stay below two degrees global atmospheric temperature increase, which threatens to create runway climate catastrophes. Proponents argue that the relatively cheap, and relatively quickly executable solar geo-engineering projects can be used to shave the peak off the emission curve. This will buy us the time needed to get our act together (on mitigation and carbon removal.

There does seem to be a bit of “White man saviour complex” in some of the writing around it, not least in books like Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry of the Future". A good summary of the opening plot is here.

Q. Why should we be concerned?

A. This allows for the colonising the global commons.

There is unprecedented potential for one billionaire to have his hand on the global thermostat.

It is THAT cheap (leaving aside the social, environmental, and potential geostrategic security costs/conflicts). There is a similar risk with carbon removal, another form of geoengineering.

Most important is the impact that shielding the earth from solar radiation will have on global hydrological cycles. This is simple physics.

The difference in temperatures of the sea and land are what drive rainfall patterns. Once you start tinkering with this on a large scale, it is impossible to predict how these will impact large cycles such as the monsoons.

While some have argued that solar geo-engineering is likely to be relatively less disruptive compared to volcanic emissions, much depends on the intensity of solar geo-engineering.

The net impact is likely to be quite significant for Asia and Africa monsoons. India, with its critical dependence on monsoons, is one of the countries that should be addressing this proactively. About half of India’s farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and this is one of the least explored areas of concern. These are “diverse, complex, systems that depend on multiple sources of subsistence, including a reliance on seasonal regeneration of pastures in arid/semi-arid regions”. Much of this is threatened by solar geo-engineering related fluctuations. I should note that some modelling studies suggest that these concerns are not that serious, though it is worth asking if we are going to take such risks on limited data.

Q. Is there any regulatory mechanism?

A. Academics have been pushing for it from 2016, with extensive (and, often time very vigorously contested) debates on governance mechanisms, including research governance. The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment’s Academic Working Group (AWG) on Climate Engineering Governance assembled an international group of senior academics to formulate perspectives on the international governance of climate engineering research and potential deployment, with a focus on proposed solar radiation management/albedo modification technologies.

The discussion has not stayed just academic. Switzerland and eight other countries raised the issues in the UN, but this was blocked by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Q. What is the current situation?

A. Over the years the issue has become more mainstream. The US National Academy of Sciences, in March this year, proposed putting in USD 200 million over 5 years in researching the idea. Some scientists have backed the idea, although the governance for these solutions which will have global impact are less clearly stated.

The lack of governance thinking has led to face offs. The Sami indigenous group managed to stop an initial experiment from taking off. But this is not a sustainable way forward. While some social scientists (including me) have called for a moratorium in our submissions to publications such as Nature and Science, as the climate crisis intensifies, people will be open to more radical ideas. We need to have a governance protocol for how the impact of such things can be assessed.

5. What should we be thinking about?

It has become a stiff political battle already. Anyone who pretends otherwise is not being honest. The recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences brings it close to being a part of the US climate policy portfolio. Parts of the scientific community are trying it very hard to legitimise these experiments, with global South scientists and civil society is being co-opted rapidly.

There is some opposition by civil society organisations in the global North, but it is not very clear how well people understand the challenges.

Mere opposition without a way to talk of governance risks that these things may be pushed through in a laissez faire manner, without transparency and accountability.

It is interesting that there seems to be a strong link (though no smoking gun) between the fossil fuel industry and solar geo-engineering. Pages 36-38 in this report points to some of those longstanding ties.  

Critical reading

  1. Report on Baghjan blowout says it may take more than 10 years for even a partial recovery of the destruction caused to the landscape: Biodiversity and carbon-rich ecosystems damaged in the 2020 Baghjan oil and gas leak fire in Assam, which took over five months to douse, might take at least a decade to recover, according to a report, based on multiple expert assessments, compiled by the state government inquiry committee. The report says that “of all the onshore blowouts, the Baghjan blowout could be the largest and biggest onshore blowout so far in the world”. The findings include that the two EIA [Environment Impact Assessment] Reports submitted by Oil India Limited (OIL) did not stand up to the mark required for proper ecological handling of such a sensitive project next to a national park and a biodiversity hotspot. The Maguri Motapung Beel, a wetland, was the most impacted of all the ecosystems; nearly 95 per cent of the 12,000 people inhabiting 10 adjoining villages of the wetland directly depend on its bioresources for their livelihood, which they lost because of the blowout. With more than 220 exploratory and development wells in the region and OIL having been recently granted permission for drilling sites in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, the entire landscape is virtually sitting on a volcano of such disasters.

  2. Gujarat: How GPCB's Public Hearing on Vedanta's Zinc Plant in Tapi Turned 'Violent': GPCB (Gujarat Pollution Control Board) July 5 public hearing for a 415-acre smelter plant planned by Hindustan Zinc Ltd of the Vedanta group in Dosvada village of Gujarat’s Tapi district, ended in violence, with police firing over 50 tear gas shells and lathi-charging agitated villagers to “disperse” them. Multiple tribal groups have been opposing the upcoming plant. Local communities and organisations, such as the Adivasi Panch, fear that chemicals from the plant will contaminate the fertile land of villages near the project area; and that chemicals like lead, cadmium, arsenic and sulphur dioxide from the factory would pose a great threat to local public health. However, GPCB not only published its voluminous environment impact report as late as June 20 but also only in English such that no local could read or understand it. Requests of the locals to postpone the public hearing, even on grounds of the pandemic, were rejected. Normally, the EIA report is supposed to be published at least 45 days prior to the public hearing. 

    The situation at the public hearing escalated on account of heavy police deployment, segregated sections for the villagers and the authorities, and blocking of entry points that prevented those impacted by the project from having their concerns heard. 

  3. Millions at Risk of Eviction as Modi Govt Shies Away from Coordinating States to Review Forest Rights Claims: In line with a February 2019 Supreme Court order issued by a bench headed by Justice Arun Kumar Mishra, state governments are at present conducting reviews of claims over forest land that they had earlier rejected. These claims had been filed as individual and community rights in accordance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006, also known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. In the absence of a central monitoring mechanism and specific guidelines, there is variance in methods applied by state governments to conduct reviews of rejected claims. Consequently, the risk of legitimate claimants being declared encroachers upon their own land is expected to be quite high--in several millions. As per the latest official data, a total number of 20,01,919 claims over forest land – in terms of both individual and community rights – had been rejected across the country by the end of February 2021, which amounts to as much as half of the total claims filed. Even though the Forest Rights Act states that no eviction should take place till the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights is complete, incidents of forced eviction of forest dwellers have been reported from several states.

  4. Choking Mahananda: How Siliguri's waste, water crisis is turning on its people: Siliguri’s rapid urbanisation and lack of space to dispose of waste has led to abuse of the river Mahananda, which flows through Bangladesh as well as Bihar and West Bengal in India. “Around 400 tonnes of waste is generated everyday in the city and most of it is dumped into the river,” said Jyotsna Agarwal of the Mahananda Bachao Committee. The Siliguri municipal corporation is also planning further construction work on the river bank. Meanwhile, other smaller rivers in Siliguri have been encroached to build houses and lodges. Massive deforestation, coupled with urbanisation and tourism, has deteriorated the condition of Sahu on whom farmers once relied for irrigation. “The administration is hand-in-glove with the mafia. Most part of the Sahu river has been sold,” said Sudha Singho Chattopadhyaya, a local gram pradhan. 

  5. COVID-19 will place India's biomedical waste management under terrible strain: Categorised as hazardous biomedical waste by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), surgical masks, face shields, gloves, shoe covers and personal protective equipment, or PPE, could all harbour the novel coronavirus and other infectious pathogens and be as hazardous to humans and the environment as any hospital waste such as bloody bandages, biological material, syringes and scalpels would be. Despite CPCB’s initial claims that India has the capacity to treat 800 tonne of biomedical waste generated per day, a careful analysis of CPCB’s January and May 2021 reports suggests that 22 of the 35 states and Union Territories generate more biomedical waste than they can handle. Under-reporting, poor segregation and lack of awareness ail India’s COVID-19 waste management, and the problem is set to increase with the nationwide vaccination drive.

  6. Activists Slam Bihar Govt for Ignoring Issues Raised by Expert Committee over Dagmara Hydro Project: The Bihar government has ignored the recommendations of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) as a fresh term of reference for pre–construction activities of the Dagmara multipurpose hydropower project, and moved ahead with building the state’s biggest hydroelectric power generation plant over the Koshi river in Supaul, Bihar. While the Bihar government and Union Minister of State for Power and New and Renewable Energy, RK Singh have emphasised the project’s contribution to green energy and employment creation; local activists in the flood–prone Koshi region have expressed serious concerns. The several EAC recommendations include formulating a detailed R&R Plan, preparing a separate Social Impact Study for the large number of project affected families, and a land-use study of the submergence area. Activist Ranjeev, a river expert, while highlighting how the run–of–the–river hydroelectric projects were not successful anywhere, said that “the government has not learnt a lesson from the past experiences of different development projects on Koshi. This new one is a contractor-driven project for loot of public money”.

  7. Dams Displaced and Changed Women’s Lives in Gujarat: Across Gujarat, nearly 2.5 million households lost their land and/or habitat to dams between 1947 and 2004. A factor that binds all these displaced families is that women experience the resettlement differently than men. Vaishnavi Rathore reports in detail on the loss of land, memory and costs of relocation and displacement of Adivasi women in South Gujarat, emphasising impacts of forest dependence, water scarcity, increased agricultural and familial workload, lack of participation of women in cash transactions, and emotional costs.

  8. In Goa, the Water Runs Black: Goa’s Mormugao Port Trust received 9.56 million tonne coal--roughly 3.8 per cent of the country’s total in 2019-20--and subsidiaries of JSW Group, Vedanta Limited, and Adani Group lease berths at this government-owned port to import the same. For local residents this has meant dealing with incessant coal dust and constant respiratory infections, even rising cancer cases; as this polluting coal is handled in the open. The state BJP government’s stance of ‘coal for development’, along with the environment ministry’s recent hasty greenlighting of infrastructure projects that will keep coal tumbling into Goa, are both in contrast with Modi’s global image of protector of the environment. “The government’s role right now is that of a facilitator of private profits at the cost of national resources,” says Abhijeet Prabhudesai, co-convener of the protest group Goyant Kollso Naka (We Don’t Want Coal in Goa). “It doesn’t seem to be even slightly inclined to fighting climate change.” 

  9. Land conflicts on the horizon as India pursues a clean energy future: Many renewable power projects – whether solar or wind – require vast tracts of land, however the land allotted is often either the common land used by communities or land that is identified as ‘wasteland’ but actually is an important biodiversity habitat. Research group Land Conflict Watch (LCW), recently recorded five land conflicts related to wind and solar park projects across India affecting a total of 5,095 hectares of land, 2,036 people, and an investment of over Rs. 90.89 billion (Rs. 9,089 crore). One of the projects is the 15 megawatt (MW) solar power plant being set up at Mikir Bamuni Grant and Lalung village in Assam, where farmers have been protesting against the forced eviction from their lands. An April 2021 report called ‘The Anatomy of a Solar Land Grab’, by a fact-finding committee of environmentalists and researchers, detailed human rights violations and environmental and social impacts of the project. As India targets a capacity of 175 GW by 2022, with a thrust on wind and solar park projects, the overall support for renewable energy projects is likely to obscure the impacts of growing land conflicts.

  10. U.S. Data Centers Rely on Water from Stressed Basins: As usage of the Internet expands, the amount of data online is skyrocketing--and expected to grow sixfold from 2018 to 2025. Connecting data centers to water consumption is one aspect of planning for our increasingly digitized futures. A Virginia Tech study mapping data centres’ substantive consumption and sources of water and energy, recently published in Environmental Research Letters, has shown that water to support the cloud often comes from water-stressed basins.