Sunday, November 4, 2007

Feed People, Not Cars

Just a month before December 2007 UN Conference on Climate Change opens in Bali, Yifat Susskind has linked research on agrofuels to his suggestion, demonstrating the serious dangers associated with agrofuel production. Yet, Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, recently proposed that we impose a moratorium on the development of agrofuels, an idea that has generated controversy in some circles. Read more...

We Need a Moratorium on Agrofuels
Yifat Susskind

With biofuels being touted as our best great hope to undo climate change, it would be easy to ask yourself, "What's not to like?" Biofuels, proponents claim, will counter our global dependence on fossil fuels and help curb carbon emissions. But this "greening" of our energy sources is not all that green. A growing group of human rights and environmental activists point to the dangers that biofuels pose to environmental sustainability and the livelihoods of communities around the world, and call for a major shift: a moratorium on biofuels.

Most of the policies being put forward envision substituting biofuels for fossil fuels without reducing our overall consumption of energy. These proposals are backed by agribusiness, biotech companies, and oil interests that are now investing billions in ethanol and biodiesel plants, plantations of soy, corn, sugarcane, and palm oil, as well as genetically engineered trees and microbes for future supplies of cellulosic ethanol.

The prefix "bio" suggests that "biofuels" are natural, renewable, and safe—an appealing thought to those concerned with the toxic and unsustainable use of fossil fuels. But agrofuels (as they are known in Latin America) are not easily renewable because the Earth's landmass is itself a finite resource. To produce even seven percent of the energy that the US currently gets from petroleum would require converting the country's entire corn crop to ethanol.

If we don't reduce the demand for energy by consuming less, we risk a scenario in which most of the Earth's arable land will be dedicated to growing "fuel crops" instead of food crops. People concerned about this danger use the term agrofuels to highlight the impact that biofuels have on the world's food supply. Growing agrofuels on a mass scale is already jacking up food prices, depleting soil and water supplies, destroying forests, and violating the rights of Indigenous and local people in areas newly designated as "biofuel plantations." Agrofuels are a false solution to climate change because they:

Violate Land Rights: Agrofuel plantations in Brazil and Southeast Asia are being created on the territories of Indigenous Peoples who have traditionally lived in and protected these ecosystems. Indigenous Peoples and local subsistence farmers—most of whom are women—are being displaced. People are being forced to give up their land, way of life, and food self-sufficiency to grow fuel crops for export. Often, plantation workers face abuse, harsh working conditions, and exposure to toxic pesticides. In Brazil, some soy farms rely on debt peonage workers—essentially modern-day slaves.

Worsen Hunger: Agrofuel expansion threatens to divert the world's grain supply from food to fuel. We know that when economic demand increases, costs rise. That means staple foods like corn will become more expensive. Already in June 2007, the United Nations reported that, "soaring demand for biofuels is contributing to a rise in global food import costs." The principle of supply and demand also means that less people will grow food because "fuel crops" will be worth more. Already, small-scale farmers in Colombia, Rwanda, and Guatemala feel compelled by global trade rules to grow luxury crops such as flowers and coffee for export while their families go hungry. Given the amount of land that would be required to "grow" enough fuel to maintain the global economy, the threat of worsening hunger and land rights abuses is grave. According to the Rainforest Action Network, the crops required to make enough biofuel to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank could feed one person for a year.

Worsen Global Warming: Agrofuels don't necessarily reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming—especially if they are produced in unsustainable ways. For example, currently, the most common method of turning palm oil into fuel produces more carbon dioxide emissions than refining petroleum. Agrofuel production has made Indonesia (where 40 percent of the population does not have electricity) the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

Worsen Deforestation and Threaten Biodiversity: Corporate plans for expanding biofuel production involve destroying forests and other ecosystems to create massive plantations that rely on chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides to maximize production. Monoculture (single crop) plantations of soy and palm oil are being established in the rain forests and grasslands of Asia and South America, threatening some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Clear-cutting forests to plant agrofuels also adds to warming by eliminating carbon-absorbing forests.

Why is Energy a Women's Issue? In most of the Global South, women are responsible for collecting household fuel for cooking, lighting, and other family needs. Most of this energy is derived from natural resources such as wood, charcoal, or dung. When fuel is made scarce—for example, by deforestation or drought—women's and girls' workloads increase sharply. In some communities, women spend many hours a day collecting fuel.

So What's the Alternative? Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food has called for a five-year ban on agrofuel expansion. A moratorium on the conversion of land for agrofuel production should be accompanied by the development of new energy technologies that do not compromise global food security.

We need sustainable solutions to climate change, not corporate solutions that seek to simply shift our energy addiction from one resource to another. We need to consume less, not just differently, and steer clear of solutions that would expand the reach—and all the pitfalls—of industrialized agriculture. Creative and practical solutions for meeting our energy requirements—including some local, sustainable biofuel programs—are being developed around the world. We can support proposals for developing sustainable renewable energy sources, while recognizing the need to reduce overall consumption and protect human rights—including everyone's basic right to food.

The author is MADRE's Communications Director. MADRE is an international women's human rights organization. More information about MADRE's Food for Life Campaign can be found here

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gore- Nobel or Ignoble?

We have two reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Al Gore and the IPCC recently. One is from Nagraj Adve in New Delhi and the other from Meher Engineer in Kolkata. Read on:

Nagraj wrote...

“During the years that Gore was Vice President, US emissions rose from 5,057 metric tons of carbon dioxide (in 1992) to 5,823 metric tons (in 2000). (This data is from the US Energy Information Administration, whose website seems to indicate it is an official US govt website). Now, some of that 15% rise was doubtless the growth in the US economy fed by consumer spending and loans in the late 1990s but it is fair to say that little was done by the Clinton administration, of which Gore was a significant actor, to reduce emissions.

Worse, influenced by the oil and timber lobby, it appears that thousands of acres of forest land were denuded and more old growth forests were cut down than any other then-recent administration. A piece I read suggests that the lumber industry was permitted to denude whole mountain ranges. Their administration opened out the 24 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve, adjacent to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, to oil drilling. Following a legislation, Clinton sent to the US Congress, thousands of acres of forestlands in the West were devastated.

Al Gore's preferences (which anyhow became most vocal only after he was no longer Vice President) have little scope to have bearing on what happened in those years. Which is why I have little expectations of the politics of the Al Gore film; his solutions at the end of the film are either partial or non-solutions. I have little expectations of almost-Presidents.

My bigger disappointment in the film is that he does not stress adequately what I think is the most important scientific aspect of global warming at the moment: that the 'feedbacks' triggered off by the Earth systems's - reduced reflection from melting polar ice, warming oceans, methane escaped from melting permafrost, release of carbon from warmer soils, etc will make global warming effectively irreversible in a short time period: James Hansen of NASA says 8-10 years, others put it at 20 years or so. The IPCC too tends to be conservative in its reports - say on sea level rise in this latest report - but its 1995 2nd report is considered the benchmark re the science.

The film is very much worth seeing once because it deals with some of the stuff very well and after all it is trying to combat entrenched positions in the US that may still believe that human activity has little or no bearing on GW. Notwithstanding some excessive claims (the reduction in waters of Lake Chad surely had more to do than GW), the Gore film does deal with some of the science very well and in a very accessible way. But though he dwells a lot on polar ice melting, he simply does not talk of the urgency of the problem. Which surprises me.

There's the other issue about the politics of the Nobel peace prize. Now, I lost any respect for the Nobel prize when I heard years ago that Henry Kissinger had been awarded the prize in 1973 (for the Vietnam peace accord along with Le Duc Tho). Kissinger is a mass murderer who makes Narendra Modi look like Santa Claus. Notwithstanding that, I'm glad it's gone to the IPCC and Gore. It's less an award for their work, more a highly belated recognition of the seriousness of the issue of global warming.”

Meher Engineer writes…..

“Gore and the IPCC have won a Nobel. a British High Court judge has said that "An Inconvenient Truth" contains nine "errors" (the quotation marks are his), so it should be shown in classrooms together with the opposing view. The errors are: :

· a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet caused by melting of either West Antarctica or Greenland "in the near future"....The judge said (a) "This is distinctly alarmist and part of Mr Gore's "wake-up call", (b) that if Greenland melted it would release this amount of water - "but only after, and over, millennia" and (c) that "The Armageddon scenario he predicts, insofar as it suggests that sea level rises of seven metres might occur in the immediate future, is not in line with the scientific consensus."

· low-lying, inhabited Pacific atolls (Tuvalu, for example) "are being inundated because of anthropogenic global warming"....the judge ruled there was no evidence of any actual evacuation.

· "shutting down the Ocean Conveyor" - the thing that propels the Gulf Stream over the North Atlantic to western Europe etc. the judge cited the IPCC as saying that it was "very unlikely" that the Ocean Conveyor (I think it is wrongly called the Meridional Overturning Circulation, but le me check), would shut down in the future, though it might slow down.

· claiming that two graphs, of the rise in C02 and of the rise in temperature over a period of 650,000 years, showed "an exact fit"....... The judge said that, although there was general scientific agreement that there was a connection, "the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts".

· the disappearance of snow on Mt Kilimanjaro..........the judge ruled that scientists have not established that the recession of snow on Mt Kilimanjaro is primarily attributable to human-induced climate change.

· the drying up of Lake Chad..............the judge said there was insufficient evidence that GW caused it, and that "it is apparently considered to be far more likely to result from other factors, such as population increase and over-grazing, and regional climate variability."

· Katrina and the devastation in New Orleans........the judge ruled there was "insufficient evidence to show that" it was due to GW.

· citing a scientific study that shows, for the first time, that polar bears were found after drowning from "swimming long distances - up to 60 miles - to find the ice".....the judge said: "The only scientific study that either side before me is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm." That was not to say there might not in future be drowning-related deaths of bears if the trend of regression of pack ice continued - "but it plainly does not support Mr Gore's description".

· claiming that coral reefs all over the world were being bleached because of global warming and other factors. Again citing the IPCC, the judge agreed that, if temperatures were to rise by 1-3 degrees centigrade, there would be increased coral bleaching and mortality, unless the coral could adapt. However, he ruled that separating the impacts of stresses due to climate change from other stresses, such as over-fishing, and pollution was difficult.

All of these things are things that we are coded to react to, be interested in and remember better than other, more scientific, things. For example polar bears: they can allow us to flash the pix i sent u earlier of the extent of ice beak up in the arctic. The pix will tell people "look the stuff seems to be breaking up more and to be doing so earlier than before". it is easy to go from there to questions like "look temp will not go up by the same amount all over the world, so if it goes up by, say, 1 degree Fahrenheit in the equator how much will it go up by at the poles". The answers are known, to not bad accuracy I'd say. Even the hoary chestnut of the ocean conveyor belt has interest raising science in it.”

Thursday, October 4, 2007

“Let Us Respect Our Mother Earth"

Letter from Bolivian President Evo Morales to the members of the United Nations on the issue of the environment.

Sister and brother Presidents and Heads of States of the United Nations:

The world is suffering from a fever due to climate change, and the disease is the capitalist development model. Whilst over 10,000 years the variation in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on the planet was approximately 10%, during the last 200 years of industrial development, carbon emissions have increased by 30%. Since 1860, Europe and North America have contributed 70% of the emissions of CO2. 2005 was the hottest year in the last one thousand years on this planet.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Global Warming: Nero Fiddling

Nagraj Adve

Never has there been a clearer case of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt. Only in the case of global warming, it’s the Earth that’s burning and we are not merely fiddling, we are stoking the flames.

The recently released Summary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007, The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers, makes it clear how bad the situation is and that it will worsen. It says there has been a sharp increase in carbon emissions just in recent times, from 6.4 billion tons per annum in the 1990s to about 7.2 billion tons per annum in the years 2000-2005. This is an increase of 12.5 per cent in just a few years and that too at a time when the Kyoto Protocol was in effect. This has resulted in carbon emissions increasing to 26.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Consequently, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) around the time of the Industrial Revolution to 379 ppm currently. To this if one were to add other greenhouse gases, primarily methane, we reach carbon-equivalent levels of roughly 440 ppm at present. As a result of these greenhouse gases hampering the Earth’s heat from escaping, the average temperature over the Earth has increased by 0.76 degrees celsius.from what it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

The Summary also concludes beyond normal doubt that human activity is responsible. This has, incredibly enough, been a bone of contention, with some arguing that changes in solar radiation is primarily responsible, hence any effort to mitigate global warming is not just a waste of time, it is actually detrimental since it would hamper economic growth. But the latest Summary states that the influence of “changes in solar irradiation since 1750 .. are less than half the estimate in the TAR” (the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC published in 2001.)

Based on late 20th century experience and trends, the report says it is ‘virtually certain’ (99 per cent certainty) there will be warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas. It is ‘very likely’ (90 per cent certainty) there will be heat waves more frequently, and heavier rain as a part of total rainfall in a season. It is ‘likely’ (66 per cent) that intense cyclonic activity will increase as will areas affected by droughts and extreme high sea levels, but excluding tsunamis (p. 7).

Not merely are these changes based on late 20th century trends, many of these observations and freak weather events have become part of people’s regular conversations. What is not part of common sense is that the time to act is very short, a matter of barely a few years, because beyond a certain point, climate change becomes irreversible. One of the reasons for that indifference is not just because most people already have their hands full with immediate problems of sustenance but perhaps because the scientists’ dire predictions seem very far away.

For instance, much of the press reportage, though dire, mentions predictions of 2090-2099, little under a hundred years away. The best case scenario, one that hypothetically includes a population decline after 2050, the wide adoption of clean technologies, and equity in social and economic relations, models an increase of 1.8 degrees over the year 2000 and hence of 2.4 degrees since the Industrial Revolution. A more plausible scenario, and one that has been widely quoted, is what the Summary calls a “best estimate”, an increase of 3 degrees celsius, and “likely to be in the range of 2-4.5 degrees C (p. 9).

Why Acting Now is so Urgent
What’s missing in the press reportage is the damage that will be caused by much lesser levels of warming. The Summary says that effectively a rise of 0.2 degrees per decade is unavoidable. George Monbiot, in his remarkable book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning (Allen Lane, 2006) makes clear what will happen at a rise of 1 degree C: “At less than 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, crop yields begin to decline, droughts spread in the Sahel region of Africa, water quality falls and coral reefs start to die (Heat, p. 15). Since we are already at 0.76 above pre-industrial levels, we should get there in little over a decade. In fact, the IPCC report already states that that “drying has been observed in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia”. With 1.4 degrees of warming, the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean may become extinct. Quoting various official reports and peer-reviewed science journals Monbiot writes, “At 1.5 degrees or less, an extra 400 million people are exposed to water stress, 5 million to hunger, 18 per cent of the world’s species will be lost and the onset of complete melting of Greenland ice is triggered.” (Heat, pp. 9,15).

The urgency to act also comes from something else, what the IPCC Summary calls “positive feedbacks”. These work in two simultaneous ways: currently the land and sea absorb at least half the carbon dioxide emissions. As the Earth gets warmer, the capacity of the land and sea to absorb carbon dioxide will reduce, hence more remains in the atmosphere, warming the Earth even further.

The second element of positive feedbacks is actually the Earth itself contributing to warming. In 2005, researchers discovered that a vast expanse of ice in Western Siberia was thawing, which could release over time the 70 billion tons of methane in the soil underneath, and methane, mind you, is 23 times more potent as a warming gas than carbon dioxide. In general, as trees burn or plants die, microbes in the soil will process them faster, emitting carbon dioxide rather than soaking it up, One paper has argued that in little over three decades, living systems will actually emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb. At some critical point, warming will trigger off feedback on a huge scale, effectively making global warming irreversible. That point is widely accepted as a 2 degree rise , or just 1.25 degrees from the present. According the recent UK government report authored by Nicholas Stern, that level or even exceeding that could well be reached by 2035. Some put that date as near as 2030

Its Class Effects
The second element missing in much of the coverage is class, of how the effects of climate change will be felt differentially and will exacerbate existing inequalities, and food and water scarcity, particularly in India. Agriculture in India will be hit for a multiplicity of reasons. Rising sea levels due to warming will mean flooding in coastal areas – which are often the most fertile – and over time salty sea water entering groundwater sources, upon which agriculture partially depends. Monsoons will become more intense and heavy rains former a greater proportion of rainfall in a given season, hence affecting agriculture patterns. Dryland farmers will be badly hit. A rise of 2 degrees will result in falling rice yields, says a study by scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Also, according to the glaciologist Anil Kulkarni, a study of 466 Himalayan glaciers revealed that their surface area had receded from 2,077 sq km in 1962 to 1,628 sq km at present, a 21 per cent decline. If the recent news report on submissions made by Indian scientists to the IPCC is to be believed, Himalayan glaciers will shrink further to one-fifth their present area, from five lakh sq km to 1,00,000 sq km. This will mean increased water (or even floods) for a while followed by even greater water scarcity than at present. This report suggests that agriculture yields could decline by over a quarter. These levels are projections but the fact of significant decline in yield is not in doubt.

This in a country where thanks to other man-made policies, agriculture is already in deep crisis. Due to the agrarian crisis, operational holdings have declined by 4 million between 1993 and 2003. The number of operational holdings below one acre has lessened by nearly 5 million because for these poor households, it is simply not worth their while. In a country that already has the highest number of malnourished children in the world, in which per capita consumption of food grains has declined in recent years, the impact on the rural poor of agriculture and water supply being hit by climate change can barely be imagined.

Flawed Responses
Yet, the Indian government’s response has been akin to Nero’s. It has merely been saying that the developed world is primarily responsible for global warming and that India will not forsake growth for the environment. As a recent article argued, “Besides activity in the market for ‘clean development mechanism’ projects, which will have little impact on emission trends, India is practically silent on the international stage.” There is no doubt that the First World and capitalism are primarily responsible for the plight we are in – America alone emits almost a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions – but given the little time to act and given that all scientific studies indicate that South Asian and Indian water sources, forests, biodiversity, shorelines, and agriculture, are already getting and going to be get worse hit, the Indian government needs to move fast. Unfortunately – and this is ironically tragic – since issues of survival, employment, food security are so much at stake and on people’s minds, one major cause that will make these more precarious seems a faraway fancy of the environmental fringe, and far removed from immediate concerns. Among many Left friends, mention global warming and one gets a blank look. It’s hardly surprising the government is doing little; there is hardly any popular pressure on it to do so.

There needs to be far more research funding and subsidies for cleaner technologies like wind and solar power. The Indian government has been exploring two avenues, nuclear power and biofuels – more due to concern about the growing demand for power, and the rising prices of conventional fuels rather than to tackle global warming. Both these avenues are being explored outside India even more and both have their associated hazards.

From the current production of merely 2,720 MW, the Indian government is planning 24,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020, and President Kalam has been urging a target of 50,000 MW by 2030. Elsewhere too, governments have begun to look at nuclear power much more fondly. The US, which has not built a nuclear plant for over two decades, is having a rethink. To nudge the construction of new plants, the US Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides tax credits to new potential nuclear plants for the first eight years of their operation. More than 20,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity have become operative globally since 2000, much of it in East Asia.

Whereas nuclear power certainly deals with the problem of carbon emissions, it is deeply flawed for three obvious reasons. One, the lack of safety associated with generating nuclear power (the effects of Chernobyl are still being felt as far afield as Western Europe). Two, the problem of storing spent fuel and as Deutch and Moniz have argued, “no country in the world has yet implemented a system for permanently disposing of the spent fuel and other radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants”. Given that nuclear waste remains hazardous for several millennia, current practices seem not very convincing. Additionally, plutonium leaks both accidental and intentional, have been unearthed in England and in Scotland; whether companies will be any more careful in the Third World where regulation tends to be less carefully ensured is anybody’s guess. As it is, these are considered security matters in India and out of the domain of public knowledge. Three, the question of linkages between nuclear power and nuclear arms and the possible dual uses of enriched uranium. The greater spread of nuclear fuel simply means the greater possibility of nuclear arms proliferation.

Regarding biofuels, the planting of jatropha has begun in many Indian states. Ethanol, made from corn, has been blended with petrol and the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation recently announced a new plan to blend ethanol with diesel. Biodiesel-run buses ply in Haryana and Pune as well. In the US, companies sold 16 billion litres of ethanol in 2005, But this again can do more harm than good. One, because of the environmental impact of fertilizer used, its gains regarding global warming are suspect. Daniel Kammen, Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that ethanol may reduce US dependence on foreign oil, but “it will probably not do much to slow global warming unless the production of the biofuel becomes cleaner”. Second, biofuels have actually contributed to global warming by forests being felled to grow palm oil instead in Malaysia and Indonesia, and ethanol in Brazil. Palm oil plantations were responsible for 87 per cent of the deforestation in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000. The cutting of rainforest to grow palm has led to forest fires in Indonesia that released enormous carbon emissions.

Third, above all else, though state governments in India claim that biofuels will be grown on ‘wasteland’, it will impact livelihoods adversely. There have been bitter protests recently in Rajasthan against transferring land to companies for planting jatropha. These ‘wastelands’, people say, are used by communities for fuel and fodder, and as catchment areas for water bodies. Additionally, some amount of irrigation is needed for biofuels when grown on a large scale, and there is the danger of using forestland or land that could potentially be used for foodcrops. Already, according to the FAO website, the growth of biofuels has led to a rise in the prices of essential food items. Rather than having fewer cars, we are now actually taking over vast tracts of land to grow cleaner fuels for them! This in a country where already, according to Utsa Patnaik, per capita calorie intake is declining among rural households in most states and where an average family of five consumed 114 kgs less of foodgrains in 2001 than it did in the early 1990s, This is bizarre, but as long as cars proliferate at the rate they are and markets are allowed to dictate what is grown, this will only unfold and intensify.

There needs to be the understanding that the problem lies with unchecked capitalism. It’s not for nothing that in IPCC’s reports and other literature carbon emission values are presented relative to what they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. In passing, much of the recent alarm over China contributing to global warming omits to consider that it is capitalism’s drive for cheap production that has contributed to so much manufacturing shifting to China.

Whether sustainable solutions can be found under capitalism is moot, and some have persuasively argued that “a plethora of blueprints for an ecologically sustainable world fail … because they do not accept that capitalism is incapable of bringing them into being.” There’s a problem though. Even if we disregard Left experience of the 20th century – which was scarcely inspiring in this respect – the fact of the matter is that socialism on a meaningful scale to be able to tackle climate change is nowhere on the horizon and even small levels of warming from the present will have huge impacts. Since greenhouses gases stay in the atmosphere for decades, what we do now will be felt decades into the future, and differences of degree, say through the wide promotion of clean technologies, would buy us time. But the window of opportunity before climate change becomes a runaway process is closing fast. That urgency of climate change needs to be underlined, governments pressured to act to mitigate some of its impacts, even as we incorporate the inevitable environmental destruction that capitalism causes in our understanding and our quest for a sane society.

This article was first published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 24-30 March 2007. The author can be contacted at

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Urgency of Global Warming

Why we should all worry about global warming?
Global warming will worsen the huge inequalities that already exist, within our society, and globally. We already have a troubling relationship with Nature and recent human activity is changing whatever harmony exists in an unprecedented, and soon, irreversible way.
Some of the things we have always taken for granted, such as the availability of water, and human habitation along the coast, along much of India, is very likely to be impacted severely. As a consequence, we will be able to grow lesser essential foods such as rice and wheat, and millions of people will get displaced from coastal areas. There will be greater deaths and spread of disease due to greater warming. Tens of thousands of other species are expected to become extinct. The extent to which all this will happen depends on the choices we make.

What is global warming?
For millions of years, the Sun’s energy has nourished the Earth, generating and sustaining all plant and animal life on the planet. A large amount of that energy bounces back into space and some of it is captured by the atmosphere, maintaining warmth and natural balance.
That harmony has been unbalanced by human beings. Our consumption of coal, petrol, diesel, etc, and other human activity such as mining, clearing forests for wood, even agriculture, generates carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other greenhouse gases. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gone up from 280 parts per million at the time of the Industrial Revolution to about 380 ppm currently. Other gases emitted raise this figure to an equivalent of 440 ppm. These gases don’t allow the Sun’s heat to escape sufficiently, hence warming the planet, the atmosphere, the land, even the deep oceans. As a consequence, on an average, the Earth is at least 0.76 degrees centigrade (1.4 degrees F) warmer than it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Much of this has happened in the last few decades.

0.76 degrees C does not seem like very much …
Already, as a consequence, permafrost – ice that has remained frozen since the last Ice Age – is melting. Droughts in the Horn of Africa are more frequent, affecting the poor there. More intense rainfalls (such as the one that hit Bombay two years ago, in which a thousand people were killed) are getting more common, as are intense cyclones, such as Hurricane Katrina.
Islands are drowning and people losing their land and livelihoods, such as in the Sunderbans as the sea level slowly gets higher and eats away at low-lying lands; Himalayan glaciers, including the source of the river Ganga, are receding. The crazy weather is already there for all to see – floods in Rajasthan, drought in Cherrapunji, snow in Dubai … it’s strange and it’s all related to global warming. It’s been estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that 1,50,000 additional people are dying each year from diseases, which spread more widely due to warming.
And 0.76 degrees is only an average. Some areas are warming more. In India for instance it is expected that North India will warm more than other regions. Also, further warming is unavoidable because the gases mentioned above stay in the atmosphere long after they are emitted. Hence the gases we emit now will continue to warm the Earth for generations in the future.

What kinds of human activity cause global warming?
Much of it began with the Industrial Revolution, is closely associated with accelerated use of energy through fossil fuels, and has been much sharper in recent decades. Each year, humans emit over 26 billion tons of CO2, 28% more than we used to in 1990. The chief sources of emissions are electrical power (24%), land use (18%), transport (14%), industry (14%) and agriculture (another 14%). But bear in mind that human & animal intensive agriculture, in countries such as ours, not only provides food but supports the bulk of our populations. It is essential to human existence, cars and planes are not.
Emissions have been growing sharply due to reckless mining, deforestation, wasteful production and consumption of coal and oil. Modern warfare, so dependent upon planes, fuel and minerals, has also been much to blame. Globalization – with its faster and wider movement of goods and people – is a major factor. It has not helped that consumption has become a thing to be proud about. Anyone who can afford it now drives a car, and cars emit a kilo of carbon dioxide every 6 kms. Hence a car-ride say from Delhi University to CP would emit 2 kilos of CO2. Flights are much cheaper than they used to be. More electrical gadgets at home mean more use of power, directly and indirectly. After all, there is a direct link between how much we earn and consume, and global warming.

What impact will be felt in the near future?
Even small degrees of further warming will have huge consequences, on human beings, and also on innumerable other species. Less than 1.5 degrees of warming will affect coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and essential species lower down in the sea food chain. At about 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, yields of wheat, rice and other crops will decline in India, and droughts become much more widespread. The recent summary ‘Climate Change Impacts’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) bluntly states that 20-30% of plant and animal species face increased risk of extinction!
The poor get more badly hit. Though all countries are going to get affected in different ways, the poorer tropical countries in Asia and Africa are going to get worst hit. In some African countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could halve by 2020. And the poor within these countries are less equipped to deal with further stress. Global warming will worsen already existing inequalities between rich and poor as resources, particularly water, get scarcer, and as agriculture becomes more difficult to carry on.

How will it affect people in India?
It is expected that the land that glaciers cover will decrease to one-fifth in some years. This will mean more floods at first and then less water for people as rivers dry. For the first time in history, the Ganga and Brahmaputra are expected to dry up in summer, becoming seasonal rivers. As water sources dry up and ground water falls further, access to water for drinking, for general use and for agriculture will become even more difficult than at present. Crop yields in South Asia, says the IPCC report, “could decline by 30% by mid-century”. Mind you, all this in a country in which agriculture is already in crisis and which has the greatest number of malnutritioned children in the world.
Unseasonal rains and heavy rains (such as the one that hit Mumbai) will become more common, particularly over the western coast. North India will get even warmer, where already hundreds die each year of heat stroke due to malnutrition and poor housing and shelter.
Rising sea levels will affect millions of people along India’s vast coastline. A large chunk of India’s population lives within 50 kilometres of its coastline. Many of them grow crops, which will be hit by storms, floods, rising sea levels and saline water entering groundwater sources. Fishing communities will be hit as will millions who live in cities on the coast. There will be a vast influx into existing spaces. This is a disaster on a massive scale with so many aspects, some signs of which are already visible.

Why is it so urgent to act?
We are not too far away from a critical point at which global warming becomes irreversible. Currently, the land, forests and oceans absorb half our carbon dioxide emissions. As the Earth gets warmer, the capacity of the land and sea to absorb carbon dioxide will reduce – it is already reducing – hence more remains in the atmosphere, warming the Earth further. And as Arctic and Antartic ice melts faster, less heat gets reflected back, warming the oceans and causing further melting.
Second, the Earth itself would start contributing to warming. A vast expanse of ice in Western Siberia is melting, which could release over time 70 billion tons of methane in the soil underneath (methane is 23 times more potent as a warming gas than carbon dioxide). As trees burn or rot due to warming, further carbon dioxide gets released. When soils warm up, microbes in the soil will process them faster, emitting carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it. Essentially, in some years, living systems on Earth will begin to emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.
That critical point at which global warming becomes irreversible is widely accepted as a 2 degree rise, or just 1.25 degrees C from the present. We will reach that point in about 20-25 years. That might seem like ample time to act, but remember that CO2’s warming effects persist years after it is emitted. Hence to avoid reaching tipping point, we need to not just maintain current levels, we need to ensure drastic cuts in carbon emissions. In short, we have to act with great urgency. Before it is too late.

What is the Indian government’s response?
The Indian government has been saying that US and other first world countries are mainly responsible – here they are right – so they ought to take steps before India does; in this they are wrong. Such a position is shortsighted because it ignores the fact that India will be hugely affected. India ought to take the lead in promoting clean technologies and sources of power such as wind and solar energy and put pressure on other countries to do the same. But to the contrary, the Indian government has been promoting cheap cars, cheap flights, malls and the consumption culture, and is permitting mining in many states, all of which will be disastrous. We simply cannot ignore the fact that the time to act is running out fast.

What can all of us do about it?
We need to do three things: influence government policy framework and choices, struggle for greater equity of all kinds, and reduce consumption to what is absolutely necessary, particularly by the affluent, so that there is room for growth for the under-consumers of today and future generations.
We need to pressurize the Indian government to put more priority on conservation, generate more of its electricity from cleaner sources like wind power and solar power instead of coal, and to promote buses, metros and cycle paths in cities instead of cheap cars.
We also need to consume less in the relatively well-off urban areas. This is not easy because we are all used to certain levels of comfort that rise all the time. Consuming less could mean taking the bus instead of a car or auto, trains instead of cheap flights, making do with less electricity, fewer gadgets and less in general. It does not help to use CFL lights at home, feel nice about it and then take a car to college. All of this is not easy when it is 40 degrees in summer. But bear in mind we have no options left.
Even if you are convinced, one would face a feeling of helplessness: what’s the use of my consuming less if everyone else is carrying on happily driving around and not changing their lifestyle. However, there has been a much greater awareness of global warming in India in recent months and movements for change sometimes start with a few people. Things have been changing even in the US, the worst offender. On 14 April earlier this year, 1,100 groups in numerous cities organized to pressurize the US Congress to tackle global warming.
We also need to push for more sustainable and equitable development, because long-term solutions to global warming can only lie in greater equity. But because of the urgency of the situation, we have to combine all possible strategies, short-term and long-term, individual and collective. Nature as we have known it and the planet itself is at stake. As someone said, it’s the only one we’ve got.