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The Planet is in Peril

According to reports, “Climate change is for real,” says Sunita Narain, the Director-General of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). “The world needs to cut emissions drastically. South Asia is the most vulnerable. The poorest, who are not responsible for climate change, are the worst affected.”

Sunita was speaking at a two-day South Asia media briefing on climate change at Delhi where nearly 100 journalists, from all states in India, and from the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and Myanmar took part.

One reason for the worsening weather is that countries all over the world are emitting carbon dioxide and other gases relentlessly. The cumulative carbon dioxide that was emitted from 1890 to 2007 was a mind-boggling 1202 gigatonnes (gt). Out of this, 700gt were by developed countries, with the United States of America contributing 333gt, while the developing countries share was 501gt. In Asia, China had 104gt, while India emitted 31gt.

Here is another set of statistics. In 2005, the carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) was 383 parts per million (ppm). If the emissions continue, by 2050, the emissions will reach 550 ppm. If that happens, the global temperature will increase by 3 to 5 degrees. “This will have catastrophic consequences,” says Sunita. “The target has to be 450 ppm, to keep the temperature rise under 2 degrees. At this moment, we are at 350 ppm. In short, the world has to drastically cut emissions, by 85 per cent, to meet the objective.”

The only way forward is for rich countries to reduce their emissions. “15% of the world population accounts for 45% of CO2 emissions,” says Sunita. In other words, one American emits as much as 107 Bangladeshis or 269 Nepalese. What is most alarming is that some gases remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. For example, a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in 1850 can remain in the atmosphere till 3050. Other gases like methane can last for 12 years, while haloforms, like HFC 23, can remain for 270 years.

“The best option is to move from fossil to non-fossil energy,” says Sunita.

The good news is that some countries, like Germany, are already doing that. “In 2012, about 23 per cent of electricity in Germany came from renewable sources like wind and solar power,” says Chandra Bhushan, the Deputy Director-General of the CSE.

“Interestingly, half the capacity is in the hands of citizens, not big companies. The country has the ambitious aim of getting 80% through renewable energy by 2050. There is a strong likelihood they will achieve their goal.”

Meanwhile, India needs to get its act together. “Nearly two-thirds of the population remains without clean cooking facilities,” says Bhushan. They use wood or dung for cooking. But that has consequences. Says Dr Kirk R Smith, Professor of Global Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley: “If you cook a meal, using wood, in the kitchen, it has the same impact as a thousand cigarettes burning. If children are in this kitchen it can damage their health.”

Using these wood fuels also heats up the atmosphere. According to a United Nations Environment Programme report, open burning contributes about 24 per cent of the black carbon emissions from India.

However, the gratifying aspect is that some organisations are spearheading a change. Prasanta Biswal, the Bihar head of the Solar Electric Light Company India (SELCO) says that they are setting up household-based solar home-lighting systems for people who are below the poverty line. So, SELCO has put up solar lighting in migrant camps, in the houses of the poor, for roadside vendors, in remote areas, where people have no access to electricity, and even for the Siddis, a tribe of African origin, who live in Karnataka.

“In a place like Bihar, huge numbers of people still use kerosene,” says Prasanta. “The population pollutes because it does not have a choice. So, we are offering the cheap solution of solar energy.”

One group, which has benefited, substantially, are rose pickers in a village near Bangalore. In the pre-dawn, they would hold a lamp in one hand and pluck roses with the other. But SELCO provided solar powered headlamps and now with their hands free, their productivity has gone up considerably, as well as their income.

So far, SELCO has installed solar systems in 1.25 lakh houses. And their work has gained international recognition. In 2005 and 2007, they were awarded the Ashden Awards (which is regarded as the Green Oscars).

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