Recent floods in Chennai have once again brought to the forefront the large number of problems that are unfolding before us due to deepening of climate change. Meteorologists have long warned that global warming will lead to more intense climatic events. Increased carbon emissions from burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal are major causes of climate change. It is necessary that all countries of the world should cooperate to reduce carbon emissions. But developed countries that are largest emitters of carbon want the developing countries to share a large part of the burden of reductions in these emissions. The United States emits 16.6 tons of carbon per capita per year against 7.4 tons per capita by China and mere 1.7 tons per capita by Bharat. Our case is that we must be allowed to increase our carbon emissions so that we can provide better standards of life to our billions.
A large reduction in emissions from the developed countries coupled with a small increase in emissions from the developing countries will both lead to overall reduction in emissions and also an equitable sharing on the global burden. Thus Prime Minister Modi said at the recently held Paris Conference that we have a common but differentiated responsibility to reduce emissions. The responsibility of the developed countries is much more because they are largest emitters of carbon per capita.
Two suggestions were made by Bharat at the Paris Conference to push forward the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. The developed countries should make available more funds to the developing countries for reducing their carbon emissions. For example, Bharat is burning large amounts of coal because it is available in the country. Our industries will have to shift to solar power. That would require huge investments in setting up solar power plants. Developing countries do not have the money to make these investments. This can be done if the developed countries provide financial assistance.
Another suggestion made by Bharat was that the developed countries should provide clean technologies to the developing countries for free. We were using large amounts of chloro-floro-carbons in our refrigerators. These gasses are highly harmful for the environment. The developed countries have the technologies to replace these gasses with more eco-friendly alternatives. The developing countries do not have the money to buy these technologies. The developing countries can yet adopt these clean technologies if the developed countries provide these for free.
The suggestions made by Bharat are in the right direction. These will not solve the problem of carbon emissions, however. Reason is that clean technologies will yet lead to an increase in carbon emissions from increased consumption of goods. We see every day that new flyovers are made on the congested roads in the cities but traffic jams continue to increase. The reduction in congestion due to making of the flyover is more than cancelled by the increase in the number of vehicles. The State of California had implemented a scheme to encourage car owners to dispose off their old fuel-inefficient cars and buy fuel efficient hybrid cars. It was thought that this will lead to a reduction in carbon emissions. It was found that carbon emissions continued to increase. People started travelling longer distances in their new fuel-efficient cars. May such examples can be given. Basic point is that increase in consumption will more than cancel the benefits from the use of clean technologies.
Another problem with clean technologies is that they are really not so clean. Wind power is considered to be clean. A friend from Maharashtra narrated a different story. There was a beautiful area like the Valley of Flowers. A wind power farm was established nearby. Soon the flowers began to die. It was found that the birds had moved away due to the wind turbines. That had upset the cross pollination of the flowers. Hydropower is also touted as a solution. It is found though that large amounts of leaves, twigs and animal carcasses settle at the bottom of the reservoirs. They ferment and produce methane gas that is much more harmful than carbon dioxide. Solar power is another source of clean energy. I suspect that this too will have unintended negative impacts that are not known today. Establishment of large numbers of solar power farms in the deserts of Rajasthan is likely to lead to cooling of the desert. That will reduce the uplift of the warm air in the desert. Consequently the pulling in of moisture laden monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean may be less. There is a saying in economics: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” This holds for the clean technologies as well. These will have other negative impacts that will be known later.
The world is being told that clean technologies will solve the problem of climate change and also keep us firmly entrenched in the high growth path. This is plain misinformation. This will not work because reduction of emissions from the use of clean technologies will be more than cancelled by increase in emissions from increased consumption. Secondly, the environmental impacts of the so-called clean technologies are not so benign.
The solution to climate change will come from reduced consumption alone. Difficulty is that economists have defined human welfare in terms of consumption. The classic example is that a person having two bananas has a higher level of welfare than a person having one banana. Economists have forgotten that this increase in welfare from consumption of bananas happens only if the person has a desire to eat bananas. Consumption of the same banana will lead to lowering of welfare if a person is suffering from cold and wants a hot cup of tea instead. The correct definition of welfare is synchronisation of desires and consumption. Thus it is seen that a person treading on the bicycle is healthy while one travelling in the air-conditioned car is tense and suffering from psychosomatic diseases like blood pressure and diabetes. A coterie of business corporations is putting the entire human race in peril for securing their profits. They are pushing us towards even increasing consumption and imperiling the very existence of the human race. Bharat must push for reduced consumption as the means of managing climate change. That will be in keeping with our spiritual heritage as well.
Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala (The writer is former Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru)