Tuesday, February 24, 2015


[The greenhouse effect has been worrying responsible world citizens since the 1990s. I acquainted myself with the debate as it stood in 1999; this is the result. It was published in Business Standard of 16 December 1999.]

Are we at last in a greenhouse?

Summers in north India have been get quite hot recently. Everyone will remember the scorching summer of 1998. The last summer did not quite reach the same searing heights; but it felt even hotter since it went on and on. Meteorological data show no decline in the monsoon rains; but they seem to have receded towards winter. Does this show that the world is getting hotter – that the greenhouse effect is at last discernible?
Similar concerns are echoed in the United States. This summer there was a drought on the eastern seaboard; there was much talk that the globe was warming up. Further south, the coast from the gulf to Virginia is very prone to hurricanes, and in the last quarter of 1998 saw more tornadoes in the US than any previous quarter in recorded history; so people fear that the greenhouse effect must be making the weather more violent. Storm damage has led to insurance claims of $200-300 billion; that too is attributed to the changing climate. And yet, we are far from living in a hothouse. The 1990s have been warm. But as Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in a recent issue of The New Republic, the highest temperature ever recorded was in 1922 in Africa, in 1913 in the US, in 1905 in Latin America, in 1889 in Australia, and in 1881 in Europe.
The prediction that the earth will get warmer is based on models of world weather called general circulation models; these models relate the direction and strength of undersea currents and terrestrial wind movements to temperatures and temperature differences. The GCMs of the 1980s were predicting that the rising emissions of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons would lead to a rise of about 3 degrees centigrade in the average global temperature by the end of the 21st century. This projection has been brought down to 2 degrees now.
Meteorological records do not reach back much beyond the 1870s; the number of stations for which they are available became sizeable only in the 20th century. It is pretty clear, however, that the world temperature has risen by about half a degree in the twentieth century. There is also fairly reliably evidence that in recent years, spring, in the sense of the day of the year when frosts end, has been coming earlier in the US. Does that prove the greenhouse effect? Maybe; but there are other influences on world temperature. The world passes through cycles of freezing and thawing. There was an ice age from 1500 onwards; it seems to have ended around the middle of the nineteenth century. So the warming we have seen in this century may only show the upswing in the cycle.
But all respectable scientists accept the connection between the concentration of CO2 and CFC in the atmostphere and the global temperature. Large rises world temperature would have unwelcome consequences; for instance, the polar icecaps would melt, the sea level would rise, and millions of hectares of land, some of it very densely populated as in Bangladesh, would disappear. Hence it is worth worrying about global warming; and by now, all the governments in the world are treating the problem with some seriousness. What they disagree about is who should do anything about it. The developing countries assert that most of the world’s carbon dioxide is generated by thermal energy consumed in industrial countries and that they should reduce their consumption; the industrial countries assert that the developing countries’ energy consumption was rising much faster and that unless its rise was curbed, it would only replace the cuts made in industrial countries’ energy consumption.
Anyway, the squabbling nations got together in Kyoto and worked out a protocol in 1997, in which industrial countries were supposed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. They could also, instead of cutting their own emissions, pay developing countries to reduce emissions by the same amount; thus, reductions in emissions could be traded. Developing countries made rather soft promises of reducing the emissions of CFCs, which contribute far more to global warming per ton than carbon dioxide.
But the industrial countries themselves torpedoed the Kyoto protocol. Even before it was initialled in Japan, the US senate voted 95-0 to reject it. After it was initialed, President Clinton should have sent it to the Senate for ratification; but knowing that it would not pass, he has not done so. The story is the same as with CTBT, which also Clinton backs but does not have the clout to get the Senate to pass.
Although developing countries would hate to admit it, the Kyoto protocol is a great bargain for them, including India. Their energy efficiency is abysmally low, and can be raised at much less cost than that of industrial countries; as long as they sell their own emission reductions to industrial countries at higher price than it would cost them, they can make a tidy profit. Industrial countries would even pay for the technological changes that would raise developing countries’ energy efficiency and pay them something extra. For precisely that reason, American senators are against the protocol. They see it as a new foreign aid programme; these believers in freedom and private enterprise are dead against charity. In the meanwhile, the European Union is turning against the idea of emission trading. Its argument is that every country must carry out the emission reductions it contracts to make; but quite incidentally, making those emission reductions would hurt the United States more since the car is so much more embedded into its social fabric.
The Kyoto protocol is not such a bargain for the world, though. The developing countries are increasing their energy consumption so rapidly that the reductions the industrial countries are supposed to make will have very little impact. The protocol needs to be renegotiated, and India and China need to accept commitments to reduce emissions. If I were negotiating for India, I would do so readily – and get the best price of it I can.