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The Unhistoric US-China Climate Deal

China and the United States of America inked a climate pact this month and this has been lauded by various corners as landmark and historic. Vasudevan Mukunth quoted me in his article for Scroll.

Here is the full text of my comments to Scroll.

The history of the global negotiations on climate change negotiations has so far shown two things:

One, big emitters have typically employed salami slicing tactics, where they inch up the emission levels they are willing to go down to. Changing the base years and letting the reduction targets slide are commonplace.

Two, any penalty measures used to enforce emission reduction targets have been repeatedly flouted – including by countries like Canada – with no direct consequences.

I remain skeptical of this deal because the size of the Chinese emissions ‘peak’ remains unknown. That gives a lot of wiggle room for China. Secondly, there is no tangible enforcement mechanism presented, nor does one seem feasible. At best, this is a gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and China, and there are no gentlemen in international relations.

Implications for India and other developing countries:

India has routinely done a poor job of defending its record in global climate change negotiations, though it has done far better in substance than the likes of China. There is a risk that India will be painted into a corner, in spite of being a low carbon emitter on a per capita basis, and in spite of significant efforts at home to promote renewables.

Further, India’s more immediate focus must be on climate adaptation, but international financing and promotion of mitigation efforts serve to distract domestic policy. For India to get back to high economic growth, India must be willing and able to use all forms of energy — from coal to natural gas to nuclear power and renewables, and use the growth to provide better public goods and build resilient infrastructure.

This deal and its seeming historicity makes it a harder challenge for India to make its case convincing for a global audience.

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Economic growth and luxurious narratives

Faltering economic growth provides an opportunity for fresh ideas on energy policy and climate change strategy.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar on ‘Low carbon growth strategies for Karnataka.’ Here is a collection of my thoughts on the topic and the discussions that took place at the seminar.

India and most of its states enjoyed 8+ per cent annual economic growth for the better part of the last decade. This growth was quite prolific and for many non-economist observers, it appeared to be chugging along on its own steam. A whole host of narratives sprung up from different corners on how sacrificing on a few percentage points on economic growth could help promote their cause and lead to better outcomes overall for India. In the process, there was a certain instrumental maligning of economic growth that was not always evidence-based.

The UPA government’s narrative of inclusive growth is perhaps the dominant narrative of the time – essentially saying that many Indians were not able to enjoy the fruits of economic growth and this required a rights-based, redistribution-led approach to make it ostensibly more inclusive. Other narratives in the environmental space include ‘(ecologically) sustainable growth’, low-carbon growth and many more, which while acknowledging that growth was necessary, wanted the growth to have a far lower ecological cost or much lower carbon emissions, even if it sacrificed several percentage points.

With annual economic growth lower than 5 per cent today, many of these narratives feel anachronistic. These “growth-modifier” narratives were only possible because the Indian economy was enjoying a high growth rate. Apart from creating fiscal space in the short run for entitlement and subsidy programmes, high growth also created the narrative space that could house such ideas. This space has rapidly vanished over the last two years but various organisations and campaigns have failed to adapt to changing circumstances. Low-carbon economic growth is one such.

A low-carbon growth strategy for Karnataka appears superfluous for a second reason. It is far from clear whether Karnataka has a growth strategy at all. As The Transition State previously showed, Karnataka has grown more slowly and alleviated less poverty both compared to the national mean and to other higher income states in India. The new government in Karnataka that was formed in 2013 has failed to articulate an economic policy or bring about any large reforms thus far. Advocating for low-carbon growth strategies in the absence of a basic growth strategy seems out of place.

Poverty and Growth - Higher Income States

There is also a false equivalence between low-carbon growth and renewable energy-led growth. Low-carbon growth essentially focuses on climate mitigation and ignores adaptation (this blog would advocate for exactly the opposite,) calling for sectors like energy, transport and agriculture to adopt policies that reduce emissions. Ignoring international climate negotiations and India’s position for the moment, these low emission options are further constrained by misconceptions.

Nuclear energy and LNG are two prominent energy options that are both low-carbon but non-renewable. LNG produces less than 40 per cent of the emissions that coal does per unit of electricity generated and will likely be the leading reason for the United States reducing its carbon emissions over the next decade and more. On the other hand, nations like Germany which are trying to phase out nuclear power have already increased carbon emissions as a part of its Energiewende strategy, instead of decreasing them. The larger battle for climate change cannot be won by taking nuclear energy off the table, even if it is politically correct to do so. Evidence be damned.

Finally, most narratives on energy debates ignore the Indian context. High income countries are mostly those whose energy demands have plateaued, and thus “either-or” questions on energy options are justified. Coal or LNG, nuclear or renewables, wind or tidal, and more. All have associated trade-offs, and nations can choose based on domestic considerations and global pressures.

India’s energy demands are growing as the economy grows, and millions of Indians still do not have access to adequate electricity for domestic use. With an energy elasticity of growth at 0.9-1, it means that a doubling of India’s GDP will require us to nearly double power generation capacity. This is inescapable. So instead of an “either-or” debate, we must ask how we can increase power generation from all sources. How public policies can be designed such that it is easier to do business in the energy sector is an important question. It takes years to set up and operationalise all types of power plants, with bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles lengthening the process significantly. This along with growing political risk have to be managed far better.

Proponents of renewable energy also have a chance to shift from advocating for subsidies to make renewable energy work, and instead think of what policy changes can make it easier to deploy wind turbines, solar farms and more. Faltering economic growth is providing an opportunity for fresh ideas on energy policy and climate change strategy. And the cost of squandering them will be very high.

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In Business Standard: Cartel Breaking

I write in the Business Standard today about the demise of the Russian-Belarusian Potash cartel.

The world witnessed a shake-up of the global potash industry last month, with the Russian-Belarusian cartel Belarusian Potash Company(BPC) disintegrating. Russia‘s Uralkali decided to break away from BPC and sell potash independent of its counterpart Belaruskali at higher volumes for lower prices.

If the Eurasian cartel had remained stable, potash prices would have stayed up and all suppliers would have benefited. Cartels ensure that by fixing prices, by coming to an agreement over market shares and the total industrial output. With collusion trumping competition, cartels are considered illegal within most domestic economies but national or international cartels are quite commonplace globally. The most prominent of these is the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which has successfully controlled the global oil market for over 40 years.

Potash is but one commodity on the international market where supply has been cartelised. India is on the wrong side of international cartels most of the time, and it is in our strong economic interest to champion the cause of free global trade. In the meantime, we can do our best to reap the dividends of lower potash prices. To ensure India’s economic growth in the long run, the nation will have to do its best to destabilise global cartels, or at least secure favourable terms.
[Full Article: Potash – From Russia With Love, September 13, 2013]

Over the next few months I will be studying how cartels work, with a special emphasis on OPEC. Expect more posts on cartels on this blog in the coming weeks and months.

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Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

Last week, I wrote a short post on how someone’s combined views on climate change, nuclear safety and GMOs are a good indicator of their scientific temper and ideological biases. Subsequently, my colleague and fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar ran a short online survey on the same three questions to solicit responses. Survey participants were given five choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Karthik has analysed the survey results on the RQ blog that I would urge all readers to check out.

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

…this shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe. [RQ on INI]

The survey was designed to be quick and dirty – participants were largely those who found the survey on Twitter and Facebook and essentially selected themselves into entering the survey. Ergo, there are no claims made here that these responses are representative of any ‘universal’ population.

Taking a venn-diagram approach to analysing the survey responses, I was able to generate the chart below. I divided the 5 options for each questions into two categories: neutral or disagree, versus agree or strongly agree. Therefore, all those who have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 20th century climate change is anthropogenic come under the orange coloured ellipse, and all those who haven’t come outside of it. Note that the ellipses in the venn diagram have been drawn in proportion to the number of respondents who fall under that category.

Scientific Temper

The largest set of respondents (29 percent) are those who, according to my metrics, can be classified as “left wing”, those only agreeing to the climate change question while disagreeing with nuclear or GMO safety. The second largest (23 percent) is a curious set: they do not think that GMOs are safe, but agree both on nuclear safety and climate change. Without commenting on ideological biases, it is possible to look at this set as a people who are “climate change realists” – people who understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

Some 19 percent of the respondents are those I would consider as being most sensitive to scientific evidence, but readers can feel free to disagree with me on that. About 10 percent of the respondents are classically right wing – the notion that ‘most environmental fears are overblown’ can explain their stance on all three questions.

About 9% agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that GMOs are safe – but are not convinced about nuclear safety. They form a subset that I find rather curious. In a sense, there is indeed a connection between the two topics. GMOs form an essential tool in retaining and improving agricultural productivity in the face of climate change and uncertainty – not just in creating drought and flood-resistant varieties, but also in converting C3 plants into C4 plants, the latter of which are far superior at tolerating high temperatures and making use of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It is difficult to comment, however, that  this knowledge indeed informs their opinions.

The initial hypothesis was that asking for opinions on anthropogenic climate change, nuclear safety and GMO safety would broadly give us three categories of respondents: left wing, right wing and those “biased to evidence”. When tested, it gave us four or five major categories of people, including those who disagree only with nuclear safety, or only with GMO safety.

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Fukushima – feat, not folly.

The latest news on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that took place in March 2011 came in a few days ago:

Now the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has drawn on 80 scientists from 18 countries to produce a draft report that concludes: “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” [The Age, emphasis added.]

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is yet to share the full report with the public on its website, but news outlets appear to have received early drafts from them. After a full two years of study, the study appears to conclude that ‘No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers involved at the accident site.

While this may sound contrary to the popular discourse on the “unmitigated disaster” that was Fukushima, this is hardly the first report indicating negligible health risks from nuclear radiation. As the same article mentions, the World Health Organisation had conducted a study which came out with similar results in February this year, finding but marginal increases in cancer risks among the most affected – while finding no evidence of increased miscarriages, stillbirths or more extreme effects of radiation exposure at the site.

The UN and the WHO are both organisations that are quite careful about health risks and human hazards (even erring too far on the side of caution in some cases) and cannot easily be dismissed as institutions that underplay nuclear radiation risks. The evidence flies in the face of initial hysterical claims of widespread hazards (including the spread of radiation through stratospheric wind systems!). Individuals like Mark Lynas have been steadily debunking most of the myths and bad science that has surfaced after the incident. Among other things, it seems like the impact of the forced evacuation and relocation of the elderly Japanese population around the nuclear reactor site might have had a larger health impact than all the nuclear radiation.

Some fear was generated last year when scientists found a significant number of mutant butterflies in the vicinity of Fukushima. While the increased mutations were likely a result of radiation exposure, the results are not of a kind that can be directly extrapolated to humans. Molecular biologists have extensively studied mutations and the effect of mutagens in various organisms, and the dose required for a human being are several orders of magnitude higher than what is sufficient to cause mutations in small invertebrate species like butterflies. Mammals also have more robust DNA error correction mechanisms that check mutations and are able to delete and remake mutated sequences of the genetic code. Further, it also helps to remember that all of us have numerous mutations – likely in every single cell in the human body – but only a small number of them cause changes in minor cell behaviour, a smaller number resulting in significant cellular changes, and an even smaller number resulting in tumours. A minuscule number of these are fatal or hereditary.

The reports by UN and WHO provide sound evidence for the minimal nature of impacts due to radiation exposure from the meltdown and ought to allay most fears on the subject, but unfortunately, they fail to do so.

Closer home, misinformation about Fukushima has had an enormous impact on Kudankulam on the southern coast of India. Fears about a Fukushima-like disaster have fueled resistance to the local nuclear reactor for over two years now. A quote from a woman at the nearby fishing village of Idinthakarai from 2012 is most telling:

“We never listened to Udayakumar Sir when he told us about the radiation dangers, till Fukusima happened. I saw it on TV and later on videos shown by our leaders. I realised that the fears were not far-fetched. It can happen to us also,” [The Telegraph, Feb 7, 2012]

Make no mistake, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 was a disaster of epic proportions, killing over 15,000 people and causing estimated damages of about $235 Billion dollars. But this was due to the tsunami, and not the nuclear meltdown in the TEPCO plant at Fukushima. However, the two were fungible for villagers 7,000 kilometres away in Tamil Nadu and it was taken advantage of by the local agitators and activists. It worked as effectively as it did because people had a living, recent memory of the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in the region. Never mind that the Kudankulam nuclear reactor site was protected from the worst of it precisely because of its well-chosen location, sheltered from much of the open ocean by the island of Sri Lanka – as well as coral reefs and offshore islands.

Equally, one cannot claim that the Fukushima reactor meltdown had no elements of risk mismanagement and human error behind it, there were indeed many lapses on the part of the owner TEPCO and the Japanese government. BUT. I stand by my old claim that the damage control efforts after the emergency were nothing short of a feat of great human excellence and engineering. It is also telling that in spite of regulatory oversights and lapses in safety planning, the effects of the meltdown were minimal. This underscores the success of decades-long global obsession with nuclear reactor safety and security, which has resulted in a nuclear industry that is likely far safer than most other forms of energy production. The chronic safety risks from a nuclear power plant are nil today, and acute safety risks have the best-designed emergency response systems that human ingenuity has been able to develop – and are more than up to the challenge.

Once we stop listening to those trying to cause fear and doubt and look instead at hard evidence, the reality of nuclear risk and safety is quite apparent.

Bonus: I never tire of promoting Randall Munroe’s excellent radiation dose chart. It gives you a great picture of the natural ionising radiation that we live with, all the time. Also, read the Acorn‘s excellent post from just after the Fukushima incident in 2011.

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Reaping what we sowed

On July 30, the lights went out all over North India, but that statement hides as much as it reveals. For many people in India, power supply (let alone uninterrupted power supply) is a distant dream. Many others prepare for outages in private, investing in diesel generators, inverters and more.

It is much harder, however, to build contingencies for something like the Delhi Metro. With Delhi crying out for power,

A Delhi Metro official said they received hydel power from Bhutan on a priority basis, and added that Delhi Metro was amongst the emergency services, including the Prime Minister’s residence and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), that were provided power. [When the lights went out

Apart from re-allocating power from the eastern and western grids, power bought from Bhutan helped India’s ailing infrastructure in a time of great need.

Much as we need to thank Bhutan for this, Indian foreign policy efforts over the last decade have played a crucial role in enabling this to happen. India has helped Bhutan set up three hydroelectric projects that are currently operational: a 1020 MW project at Tala, a 336 MW project at Chukha and a 60 MW project at Kurichhu, adding up to a total of 1,416 MW. July 30 was a day when India’s foreign aid efforts abroad overtly showed its benefits.

Bhutan is one of India’s close strategic and economic partners, and has been the single largest recipient of foreign aid going out India in the last decade. Apart from funding (and helping construct) hydroelectric power projects, India has also helped Bhutan in setting up cement industries, electricity transmission and distribution networks, highways and more. Below is a graph of annual estimates of development assistance provided to Bhutan by India, at constant and current prices. In 2008, Dr. Manmohan Singh visited the country, a year after India and Bhutan’s ‘Treaty of Friendship’ was renegotiated and signed. Aid efforts appear to have been stepped up since then.

India’s energy needs are increasing rapidly, but domestic ability to match that need has been insufficient. While India has found it difficult to set up hydroelectric power projects in Arunachal Pradesh, in Bhutan it finds a willing partner. Together, they are targeting 10,000 MW of power generation by 2020, with Indian plans of buying about half of it, or 5,000 MW of power for domestic consumption.

The 5,000 MW will constitute a small but essential step towards India’s goal of energy sufficiency.

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