Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

THIS IS a real life story of the world’s three wicked HIS IS prob­lems, one op­por­tu­nity and a new way to con­front global chal­lenges. Cli­mate change, we know enough to say em­phat­i­cally, is a wicked prob­lem. It was in 1992 that the world started its for­mal jour­ney to cut car­bon diox­ide (CO2) emis­sions with the sign­ing of the UN frame­work con­ven­tion on cli­mate change in Rio at the Earth Sum­mit. More than 20 years later, not much has changed. The weather is be­com­ing more un­pre­dictable, more ex­treme and we are all at risk. Worse, the world is fail­ing to ne­go­ti­ate how it will share eco­nomic growth that is in­tri­cately linked to CO2 emis­sions.

Air pol­lu­tion in our cities is an­other wicked prob­lem. It was in the 1990s that Delhi started its jour­ney to clean its air.It changed its fuel to com­pressed nat­u­ral gas, which emits much less emis­sions than con­ven­tional fu­els like diesel.It used cleaner fuel to run its public trans­port ve­hi­cles. But even as this hap­pened, the num­ber of pri­vate ve­hi­cles surged. Worse, the use of diesel in­creased.As a re­sult, pol­lu­tion is back with a vengeance.

Af­ter years of the world be­com­ing “mod­ern” as many as 2.67 bil­lion peo­ple— over 40 per cent of the world’s peo­ple—still burn biomass in their in­ef­fi­cient and dirty cook stoves. This is an­other wicked prob­lem. Ef­forts to pro­vide clean en­ergy for cooking be­gan in the early 1980s, when the world was wor­ried, not about the pol­lu­tion from stoves, but about the prospect of los­ing forests be­cause of fire­wood col­lec­tion. This did not hap­pen in a coun­try like In­dia. Even to­day ru­ral and poor In­di­ans, con­sti­tut­ing 75 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, use in­ef­fi­cient stoves and in­hale tox­ins that are now un­der­stood to be the world’s num­ber one killer.

So, how do th­ese three wicked prob­lems come to­gether? The an­swer lies in the dark core of the par­tic­u­late mat­ter called black car­bon, which is emit­ted by diesel ve­hi­cles, cook stoves and brick kilns. Till re­cently, par­tic­u­late mat­ter was un­der­stood to be a lo­cal pol­lu­tant. To­day we know that a frac­tion of it com­prises black car­bon, which can ab­sorb heat and warm up the sur­round­ing at­mos­phere.It is, there­fore, not just a lo­cal pol­lu­tant, it has global warm­ing im­pacts. The ex­tent of its warm­ing po­ten­tial is still be­ing de­bated, but the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (ipcc) has dou­bled its es­ti­mate of warm­ing from black car­bon aerosols from its pre­vi­ous re­port. So, the op­por­tu­nity is one of co-ben­e­fit: re­duce emis­sions from diesel ve­hi­cles and cook stoves, and get the ad­di­tional ad­van­tage of com­bat­ing cli­mate change.

How much and how? Anil Agar­wal Dia­logue, 2015—an an­nual event or­gan­ised by the Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment in the mem­ory of its founder-direc­tor and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist— dis­cussed this ear­lier in March. The key is­sue that emerged is that the world needs to act dif­fer­ently; it must recog­nise that global ac­tion will be lo­cal.

In other words, the world must recog­nise that black car­bon is a lo­cal pol­lu­tant and that ac­tion must be di­rected to ad­dress its lo­cal health con­cern.The co-ben­e­fit agenda is im­por­tant but in­ci­den­tal. In ad­di­tion, it must be clear that black car­bon must not dis­tract the world from the agenda to cut CO2. We know that CO2 has a long life in the at­mos­phere—once emit­ted it stays for roughly 100 years and, there­fore, de­ter­mines the tem­per­a­ture change in the long term. Black car­bon has a short life of less than eight days, so any ef­fort to cut it brings im­me­di­ate benefits. More im­por­tantly, black car­bon can­not be­come a proxy for real ac­tion to cut CO2. Nor can it be used to shift the blame and bur­den to the de­vel­op­ing world.

It is also clear that ac­tion on black car­bon must dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween the luxury emis­sions from diesel ve­hi­cles and the sur­vival emis­sions from cook stoves of the poor. Not only be­cause pol­i­tics de­mands this, but also be­cause science preaches this.The fact is that diesel emis­sions have a higher share of light-ab­sorb­ing black car­bon that has a def­i­nite warm­ing im­pact. Biomass-based cook stoves have a higher pro­por­tion of or­ganic car­bon that scat­ters sun­light and cools the at­mos­phere.

While luxury emis­sions have to be tar­geted ag­gres­sively for both lo­cal and global benefits, sur­vival emis­sions of the poor need sup­port­ive and en­abling ac­tion. And even if this ac­tion re­quires coun­tries to pro­vide lpg, the fos­sil fuel en­ergy for cooking, then they should do so.The poor’s en­ergy needs can­not be held to ran­som, when the world’s rich are ad­dicted to fos­sil fuel and are the cause of cat­a­strophic changes in our cli­mate. What this does sug­gest is that the world can do things dif­fer­ently. To­day, it is the world’s poor who are not yet in the fos­sil trap. They can drive, cook or build homes in the clean­est and green­est man­ner.

This will, how­ever, re­quire global lead­ers to “do lead­er­ship” dif­fer­ently. Not what we see to­day: na­tional con­cerns masked by a global front .

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