Despite the fervency of the current debate over climate change, and questions over how to deal with it, the hard science of the issue has been around for more than a century. One of the earliest links between the burning of fossil fuels (coal) and a change in climate was made during the late 19th century. At that time, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would raise the Earth’s temperature some five to six degrees Celsius. Along the same lines, in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would be likely to produce an increase of between two and 4.5 Celsius. The ‘discovery’ of these alarming statistics in recent years has led to a crucial, if belated, discussion over how to mitigate this rising temperature. Yet in this clamour for new techno-fixes, some obvious opportunities are being missed. As important as the current global negotiations are, there are a huge number of innovative initiatives outside of the climate framework that already help people to reduce their impact on the environment by addressing other aspects of their lives. Neglecting these activities in the search of new-fangled approaches is wastful, to say the least.
Though not directly involved with the issue of climate change, the work of myriad groups on sustainability, empowerment, equity and alternative models of development has used novel systems that are only now being recognised as positive approaches to dealing with the problems associated with global warming. For instance, with electricity generation from non-renewable sources (such as coal) being a major contributor to global warming, electrification through decentralised grids based on renewable energy would quickly lessen the carbon footprint of any country or community. And contrary to some criticism, such a decentralised, renewable energy grid would in fact provide assured, regular and timely electricity. This has been proved by the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, which has been promoting and using solar energy to power rural areas – in addition to training villagers to become ‘solar entrepreneurs’ in their own right – since 1972, well before climate change and renewable energy became the buzzwords they are today.
The Indian government has also been working to provide basic amenities through schemes such as the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY), which aims to provide electricity to over a lakh villages across the country. The plan is to provide power to accessible villages by connecting them to the centralised grid, while decentralised grids of renewable energy will be used for 25,000 remote villages. Yet the centralised grid is already facing power shortages: the Central Electricity Authority has projected an overall energy shortage of 9.3 percent and ‘peak power’ shortages of 12.6 percent in 2009-10. By depending on an already-impoverished central grid, the scheme will clearly have difficulty in fulfilling its goal. In fact, the RGGVY should have taken a page from the Tilonia initiative and used renewable energy in decentralised grids to electrify all 125,000 villages, thus providing cleaner, guaranteed and timely power for the villages, while also decreasing the load on the centralised grid.
Community groups opposed to nearby coal-fired power projects for displacement, pollution and damage to livelihoods have also been indirectly aiding the fight against climate change. Realising this, these groups are now using the global-warming argument as part of their protests, as with the proposed Chamalapura thermal power plant in Karnataka. In other cases, community groups have taken it upon themselves to propose renewables as an alternative. The massive recent protests in Alibaug, Maharashtra, are a case in point, where locals are continuing to resist official efforts to buy their lands in order to set up three coal-fired power plants (see pic). Instead, the farmers are calling on the state government to look at alternatives such as wind, solar and hydro power. The state government has laid low since the protests, but those opposing the thermal plants have not – recently, they fielded their own candidate for the upcoming state elections.
Another such success story has been that of the much-publicised replacement of wood-burning chullah with smokeless ones over recent decades. The motivating factors behind this substitution have been the simultaneous concerns regarding fast-diminishing forest cover, sources of firewood and health hazards posed by this daily smoke-inhalation by millions of Indian women. Government schemes, such as the Indira Awas Yojana of the early 1980s, were designed not only to give houses to rural families living below the poverty line, but also to provide them with toilets and smokeless chullahs. Yet while health was the key imperative in promoting the chullahs, the technology is now being seen as a potent climate ameliorative. Indeed, the old chullah now finds itself at the centre of the storm in climate negotiations, with developed countries seeing the regulation of these stoves as an easy way to mitigate climate change – thereby absolving these countries from making drastic carbon cuts themselves.
In agriculture, genetic engineering is today being touted as an answer to climate change and a way to deal with pests and improve nutritional value. On the one hand, this looks promising. Agriculture, after all, contributes some 14 percent to the total emission of greenhouse gases worldwide, with the nitrous oxide released from fertilisers being a primary source. The genetic engineers are now looking at ways to reduce these emissions by making plants ‘fix’ their own nitrogen or improve their fertiliser intake. They are also trying to make plants increasingly drought-resistant, which could become more and more important as local climates change. In India today, so-called Bt cotton is the only ‘transgenic’ crop (meaning a plant that has had genes implanted in it from another species) to receive permission for commercial cultivation; in 2007 around 6.2 million hectares in the country were planted with Bt cotton. Food crops such as okra, rice, potato, brinjal, cauliflower and tomato are today all in various stages of transgenic trials.
On the other hand, genetically modified (GM) crops also offer an important insight into the ways in which technological ‘fixes’ for climate change generate their own host of problems. Despite the benefits, the problems with GM crops are many, running the gamut from insufficient research prior to commercialisation, to allowing for unfair advantage by companies in terms of ownership over seeds. Such crops hamper the mitigation of climate change by overlooking the impact of chemical and industrialised agriculture on climate. Further introduction of GM crops also ignores traditional farming practices, which have long taken into consideration climatic and soil conditions, thus forcing farmers to become dependent on companies and threatening the genetic diversity of crops.
Yet in India and elsewhere, local groups have been able to look to their own history in mitigating the effects of this climate change. For instance, the Deccan Development Society, a community organisation working in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, has encouraged indigenous crops and interspersed cropping, an agricultural practice that uses a mix of crops in every field to ensure that soil is not stripped of its nutrients. Community-based seed banks, a retooled ancient tradition that ensured that there was always enough seed to sow, have also been restarted. Similarly, groups in rural Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have re-established ancient traditions of water conservation and harvesting to deal with shortages and the vagaries of fluctuating rains. The benefits from such projects are multiple and obvious: these efforts involve the entire community, the resources remain within the village itself, and they fall in line with climate-friendly approaches that have been in existence for millennia. Yet where are these approaches in the larger discussion?
Mind the obvious
Justice and equity has always been at the crux of sustainable development, the ramifications of which have been material projects and institutions that have delivered health, houses and power to millions of Indians. The issue of equity and justice is also at the very heart of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations – specifically, many are today arguing that developed countries should be taking on increased responsibility for mitigating global warming, as they are and have been the major emitters of greenhouse gases in the first place. The demand for equity stems from the assumption that the South has a right to develop economically – a process that involves large emissions, and something the North has done unchallenged for centuries. But it hardly seems that such a stand necessitates that existing alternatives – which can be scaled up using current government schemes – be kept entirely outside the international debate framework.
Climate change can be thought of as a mother with many children, each one posing certain problems – health, agriculture, technology. These issues can be seen as something new, requiring new initiatives. On the other hand, they can also be seen in the context of age-old practices that India and Southasia have long been employing, which suddenly becomes relevant for climate change mitigation and adaptation. In the babble of dialogue, are we missing out on obvious opportunities? In our search for national rights to the atmosphere and claims to the fast-diminishing carbon space, are we ignoring tools already developed – those that originally served the principles of equity, but can now be beneficial in tackling climate change?
Beyond the confines of discussions in air-conditioned conference rooms, work that is making a massive difference – for people’s lives and the climate, alike – is already underway. In most cases, these efforts began before ‘climate change’ became embedded in the international vocabulary. But even then, they were motivated by the same ideals that today should be driving the discussion over climate change: equity, empowerment and sustainable development. Unfortunately, at the international climate conferences currently taking place, the Indian position (both of the government and many of the NGOs) seems to indicate a lack of awareness of the possible impact offered by the indigenous efforts, both to the Indian economy and to the international negotiations. We do have potent and pre-existing indigenous solutions that could offer additional tools in combating this old problem.
~ Samir Nazareth is a freelance journalist based in Nagpur. He has worked in various environmental NGOs for more than a decade.