Class injustice

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

A THERMAL POWER station in West Bengal. India is ranked as the 14th worst carbon intense electricity-producing nation in the world. - PARTH SANYAL

A THERMAL POWER station in West Bengal. India is ranked as the 14th worst carbon intense electricity-producing nation in the world. - PARTH SANYAL

Rich Indians are eating into the carbon space the poor need for economic growth, and recent national policies have helped such disparities grow.

IT is a truism and so does not require detailed surveys to drive home its point: in India the disparities in living standards and consumption patterns, in particular of energy, between the rich and the poor are so vast that in the context of climate change, by emitting disproportionately large amounts of carbon, the former class is eating into the carbon space that the latter genuinely needs for its economic growth and development. By focussing exclusively on economic growth in the gross without adequately addressing issues of equity, national policies of the recent past have increased these disparities, which will only render the already vulnerable sections of India even more incapable of adapting to the dangerous effects of climate change.

Hiding Behind the Poor, a recent report by Greenpeace India, provides a quantitative perspective to this internal climate injustice. Even such a quantitative perspective is not new. In 1997, N.S. Murthy and associates from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai, highlighted the high degree of distortion in energy consumption prevalent in the country. Using 1989-90 data, they showed that the richest top 10 per cent of urban people emitted 12 times as much carbon a person a year as the bottom poor. They showed that the extreme disparity ratio (EDR), defined as the ratio of the energy (direct and indirect) consumed by the urban top and the rural bottom, was 10.3 for coal, 14.8 for oil and 9.0 for electricity and 12 in terms of the total carbon equivalent. The Greenpeace report only serves as a reminder if one was required that it is high time the government put in place appropriate policy measures to reverse this trend, which has been allowed to continue unbridled.

International negotiations on climate change have been premised on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities to address the issue of the iniquitous development of nations and their highly disparate per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since, historically, developed countries have been the biggest emitters of GHGs (in particular, of CO2 from burning fossil fuels) and hence are responsible for global warming and the consequent climate change, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, framed under the convention, require that industrialised countries (called Annex-1 countries under the protocol) cut back on their GHG emissions (to 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012).

Developing countries such as India (non-Annex-1 countries), on the other hand, lay claim to their right to development and, hence, the right to consume more energy from fossil fuels without any mandated emission targets. The rationale is that since the per capita carbon emissions of developing countries are way below those of developed countries, Annex-1 countries have to reduce their emissions to create the necessary carbon space for non-Annex-I countries. According to figures from the World Resources Institute (WRI), the per capita CO2 emission of India at present is 1.67 tonnes as compared with the 10.5 tonnes of the 25 states of the European Union (EU-25) and the 23 tonnes of the United States.

Indeed, Indias stance at the ongoing Bali Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, where the prime agenda is negotiations on emissions commitments for the period beyond 2012 (when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol gets over), will continue to be premised on the differentiated responsibilities arising from the disparate per capita emissions of Annex-1 and non-Annex-1 countries. More precisely, as stated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the G-8 Summit in Heiligendamm in June, Indias per capita emissions will not exceed those of developed countries even while pursuing policies of development and economic growth in the years beyond 2012.

This broad principle was also endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the U.N. high-level event on climate change in September, when she called for an approach based on per capita emissions increasingly converging worldwide at a level compatible with our shared climate protection goal. A sustainable level of global average per capita CO2 emissions by 2030, to limit global warming to below 2 C (at present it is 0.7 C) or equivalently to stabilise atmospheric GHG concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm), is around 2.5 tonnes, which is half the current global average of about 5 tonnes.

(The recently released U.N. Human Development Report (UNHDR) has, however, called for a post-2012 arrangement wherein developed countries agree to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent (from present levels) by 2050, with a 20 to 30 per cent cut by 2020, and major emitters in developing countries the reference here is to China, ranked third, and India, ranked fifth to aim for an emissions trajectory that peaks in 2020, with a 20 per cent cut by 2050. The Indian government has rejected outright this recommendation of the UNHDR as it runs counter to the stated Indian position and the Manmohan Singh-Merkel Convergence principle and as it would fail to achieve in the long term the global equity (in carbon terms) that the principle seeks.)

The main argument of the Greenpeace report is that, even within the context of the Indian position of increasing carbon emissions without targets so that its goals of development and economic growth are not sacrificed, the gross climate injustice arising from the prevalent socio-economic situation needs to be addressed if vulnerable sections of society are to be made secure against the impacts of climate change.

According to the study, the carbon footprint of the four highest income classes (earning more than Rs.8,000 a month), representing a population of about 150 million, already exceeds sustainable levels (2.5 tonnes a person). This 14 per cent of the population has been found to account for 24 per cent of the carbon emissions of the country. In fact, the average emissions of the richest income class in the study (earning more than Rs.30,000 a month), constituting around 1 per cent of the countrys population, is 4.97 tonnes, only marginally less than the global average (see graph).

It is the countrys poor, with income less than 5,000 rupees a month, says the report, who keep the average emissions really low. A relatively small wealthy class of 1 per cent of the population in the country is hiding behind a huge population of 823 million poor people. The common but differentiated responsibility that India rightfully demands at the international level should, therefore, be applied internally too. Just as developed countries need to cut their CO2 emissions not only to prevent climate change but also to enable developing countries to catch up, the upper and middle classes need to cut their emissions by changing their unsustainable lifestyles so that hundreds of millions of poor Indians will not be denied access to development and will not be left to bear the huge burden of climate impact, argues the report.

The report is based on a face-to-face survey across the country of transportation and domestic energy consumption. The energy consumption patterns in 819 households (in seven different income classes) were converted into CO2 emissions and then compared.

The income classes studied were as follows (figures are on a monthly basis): Rs.30,000 and above, Rs.15,000 to Rs.30,000, Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000, Rs.8,000 to Rs.10,000, Rs.5,000 to Rs.8,000., Rs.3,000 to Rs.5,000 and less than Rs.3,000. The survey included the four metros (Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai), towns with a population of 500,000 and above (Patna, Ludhiana), towns with a population between 100,000 and 500,000 (Kolhapur, Hubli), towns with a population of less than 100,000 (Chatra, Bhadravati, Baghpat, Medak) and 200 households in several rural areas. The assessment of direct energy consumption and transportation was done through quantitative structured interviews. The factors used to convert various energy uses into CO2 emissions are given in Table 1.

The average annual per capita emission was calculated to be 501 kilograms, which tallies with the overall country data that about one-third of per capita Indian emission comes from the sectors assessed in the survey. The average CO2 emissions for each income group show that the richest consumer classes produce 4.5 times more CO2 than the poorest class and almost three times that of the average Indian (see graph and Table 2). Since the study is based on the domestic expenditure on direct energy consumption, carbon emissions arising from outsourcing of services are not factored in. Therefore, the study actually underestimates the CO2 emissions of the upper-income classes, says the report.

There has been some criticism of the methodology adopted in the report. Besides limitations arising from the size of the total sample in the survey, Prodipto Ghosh, former Environment Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), has pointed out that the study fails to separate emissions as part of a production chain from pure consumption.

However, since the survey has included emissions from households, it is unlikely that energy use by any significant fraction of those surveyed would be utilised in some production process. This could have, at best, only marginally overestimated emissions due to consumption. The larger picture of distortion of energy equity and climate justice would still be valid.

According to the report, the use of inefficient lighting is responsible for 126 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year (7 per cent of Indias overall emissions) and this, it says, could be cut by as much as 95 million tonnes by making compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), tube lights and other efficient lighting systems accessible to the poor, by massive price reduction, instead of incandescent bulbs. The study also found that the share of transport contributes to only 7.2 per cent of the overall per capita emissions, which is higher than the 4.9 per cent share of transport to the overall emissions of the country according to WRI data. This is clearly because of the explosion in personal forms of transportation, particularly automobiles, that is evident on Indias roads today.

A 2006 study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) estimated that the number of vehicles increased by almost 15 times from the 1980s to 2003. The overall increase in CO2 from the lowest to the richest class increased by a factor of 7.1, which is much greater than 4.5 for all uses found by the study. Clearly, the study points to the need for the government to change drastically its transportation policy with greater emphasis on and higher investments in public transportation systems, besides enforcing mandatory fuel efficiency standards on all types of vehicles. It is a matter of regret, however, that the Finance Minister appears to be extremely averse to any suggestion on limiting the production of cars and the proliferation of their models.

From an overall perspective, to create the necessary carbon space for the poor, India should evolve policies and measures to reduce the carbon emissions of the upper 150 million people, argues Greenpeace. With a gradual decarbonisation of the energy sector, the use of electricity in households will automatically imply lower emissions. In 2003, the WRI ranked India as the 14th worst carbon intense electricity-producing nation in the world.

This is because of the high share of thermal plants in the Indian energy mix, which are of low efficiency (about 30 per cent) owing to the high ash content of Indian coal. According to a document of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the national average carbon intensity of Indian thermal plants is 0.87 kg/kilowatt-hour as compared with the 0.38 kg/kWh of the EU-25 nations.

But coal-fired thermal plants will continue to remain the mainstay of Indias power generation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Plan periods. Besides increasing the shares of hydro, renewable and nuclear energy sources, the efficiency of Indian thermal plants needs to be greatly improved. Also there should be a move towards using clean coal technologies and other viable low-carbon intensive power generation systems such as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC)-based plants. As regards the major carbon-emitting sector of transportation, the shift should be towards an emphasis on public transport systems and on less carbon-intensive alternative fuels for automobiles and locomotion.

Even if global emissions stabilise and the world succeeds in keeping the temperature increase below 2 C, the impact of the already warmed atmosphere and surface is inevitable, particularly because of the delayed response of the oceans to warming. Therefore, along with strategies of mitigation to reduce GHG emissions, measures of adaptation to the imminent effects need to be implemented to secure the lives of vulnerable populations, especially along the coastlines.

According to a report of the UNFCCC released in August, currently envisaged financial flows from the financial mechanisms of the convention and the Kyoto Protocol will be grossly insufficient to meet the investment needs of developing countries. The current funds accrued in the Adaptation Fund through the 2 per cent levy on the transaction costs of projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) the only funding mechanism available to developing countries is a mere $5 million (and even this has not been disbursed because of the failure to arrive at an administrative mechanism that is acceptable to all the countries), which at best could grow to $80 million to $300 million by 2030. This should be compared with the estimated minimum of $50 billion that would be required by 2030 by the developing countries for adaptation.

There is, thus, an obvious imperative to mobilise resources internally through financial instruments akin to the mechanisms envisaged at the international level, such as carbon taxes and carbon credits. The latter could be implemented in such a manner that sectorwise limits on emissions are imposed and a failure to meet them would attract penalties. This also gives rise to the possibility of a regulated national carbon credit market emerging. In the context of the differentiated responsibilities of the various socio-economic classes of the country, however, a system that imposes a tax on CO2 emissions could be evolved. The money obtained through the tax on fossil fuel use could be utilised for suitable mitigation and adaptation measures.

Also, the government could evolve an appropriate mechanism for implementing CDM projects that ensures that a fraction of the transaction costs flows into a national adaptation fund (in addition to the global Adaptation Fund), a policy that would bring governmental oversight into play to monitor issues relating to technology choice, technology transfer and performance instead of the project merely being a bilateral transaction between two private parties, one of which is from an Annex-1 country.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment