Tuesday, October 20, 2009

No About Face on Climate Negotiations; Yes to Indian Green--Cheap and Best

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh's letter to the PM arguing that India should abandon it's longstanding support of the G-77 group of developing nations and instead support the US position in climate change boggles the mind. Not surprisingly, the Congress Party leadership is distancing itself from this idea, but this does not mean it won't become policy.

Why would India be willing to give up a leadership role among developing countries on this issue? Why would we give up our claim to money and technology as compensation for the damage the West has done to our environment and people? Is it because the extreme weather events, such as the flooding and drought we have seen this year, have convinced our political leadership that there is an urgent need to get something done to prevent worse disasters from happening, even if doing so involves agreeing to enormous self-sacrifice? If only it were that simple, that noble.

The answer is a lot less flattering: our leadership thinks that by being sweet to the Americans at all times, we will get special treatment from Uncle Sam. Right now, Mr. Ramesh is thinking about that coveted permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The Times of India reports that this is just one of the "advantages" India hopes to get by changing it's stance. If past practice is any indicator, other advantages include weapons and nuclear technology.

Remember back in 2008, when the PM told American President GW Bush,"We deeply love you"? We all squirmed a little, regardless of where we were on the political spectrum. The thing is, we all know that Bush only agreed to the deal because he wanted to sell us a lot of American nuclear technology.

we argued earlier that, on balance, our nuclear weapons program is ill-conceived, however well-tested our bombs may be. We have also explained why we should pay less attention to high tech weapons and more attention to real issues of national security. Moreover, we are skeptical about nuclear power as a solution for our environmental problems--and we'll remain skeptical until we can figure out how to dispose of less toxic waste adequately (like CFL light bulbs, which contain mercury and should be recycled, not dumped.)

Certainly, India deserves a permanent seat on the UN Security council and all the respect that entails. But we will never gain that respect by constantly acting as America's lap dog.

Mr. Ramesh should be scolded and our climate negotiators should be given a clear mandate: of course, we are prepared to act ourselves in a sustainable way, because our futur
e depends on it; we expect help from the rich countries because they caused the problem in the first place; we expect the wealthy countries will do their share to make real change so as not to make a bad situation worse. These are not things that should be open to compromise. If we have to wait another year for a good agreement, then we'll have to wait. But a bad agreement will do no good at all.

Instead of looking to impress the Americans with our concessions, we should launch a surprise attack on them where they least expect it-- through new business initiative: Indian Green--Cheap and Best. I think we can all agree that it would be wonderful if we could sell some technology back to the Americans for a change. That's where the
Indian Green-- Cheap and Best campaign comes in. Yes, there are some things that we do better than anyone. We introduced this campaign a few weeks back with a piece on the humble ceiling fan. Now, let's look at evaporative cooling.

Water Coolers
Water coolers (also known "swamp coolers", "desert coolers" or just "evaporative coolers") are the first thing that comes to mind when we think of evaporative cooling. They use the power of evaporating water to give amazing comfort during the hot, dry months. Of course, if you live in a place where the humidity is high all the time, they won't work very well. But if you live anywhere with dry heat (think Delhi from April-June), then the water cooler will work wonders for you! Here in Delhi, even those people with AC in their house typically use the water cooler until the pre-monsoon humidity sets in.

Coolers are popular because they use 80 percent less electricity than an AC. Back when my family used an AC, we consumed 600-750 units (kwh) of electricity each month between April and August. Since we replaced our AC's with fans and water coolers three years ago, we have consumed an average of 300 units during those months. Now that's savings you can take to the bank! Of course during the wet months, a cooler is basically just a big fan, and we sweat a lot. (There will be no false advertising here at the dhaba.) But in Delhi, coolers work wonderfully well in April and May.

Coolers have another advantage from an environmental point of view: they contain no environmentally harmful gases.
Here you will find a wealth of information on this kind of cooling, including some very impressive mathematical equations relating to relative humidity! Please don't ask me to explain those in the comments, because I just can't do it.

I do know that water coolers are based on technology that is thousands of years old, and the Americans have used them for over a hundred years, especially in the Southwest. However, coolers are not widely used in many other parts of the US that could benefit from them. The same is true for Europe. As the earth warms, this market will increase!

While we are on the topic of evaporative cooling, it would be wrong to forget the humble matka. Because the clay is porous, matka's use the power of evaporation to cool your water without refrigeration, which means less opening and shutting of the fridge door. Also they are not lined with unhealthy plastic, and they look nice, too!

There is money to be made here. Water coolers and matkas: just two more examples of Indian Green--Cheap and Best!


  1. I'm so sorry to be be repetitive, but living in my climate controlled cave at a comfortable 20 degrees centigrade year-round I often forget the need for heating and cooling.

    I am very happy to know that your PM loved George Bush. While I, too, deeply loved him, even made gaga eyes at him as Air-Force One passed overhead once, I'm sorry to say the great man was not so endeared to many here in this country of scoundrels and scalawags. As for trying to ingratiate yourselves for a seat at the big table at the UN Security Council, weapons and nuclear technology...it reminds me of my children.

    Sometimes one of the Plastikids comes home from school with a big smile, they make me a cup of tea, clean their room and offer to help making dinner. I usually know what's coming. And the answer is usually "NO."

    Oh, sweet innocence.

  2. The fuss over the environment minister's statement is overdone. It was a private memo to the PM and when he's the minister, he has a right to consider everything - even if it's not serious. No doubt our military personnel for example have discussed a nuclear war in detail, but that doesn't mean that one is happening.

    In a discussion and planning session, no opinion no matter how crazy should be ignored. When I sit and plan something, I look at every option no matter how stupid in the hopes that I get better ideas. The media had no business to take the contents of a private letter to the PM as a fait accompli.

    He is the environment minister and he has a right to discuss anything privately with the PM. Also, I may add that international diplomacy is always a give and take. We see it everywhere - noble ideas apart, each country is willing to give something only by getting something in return. If we want to get a seat in the security council, we will probably have to give up a lot - whether or not it's worth it is a matter for consideration, but let's not have illusions about it.

  3. @Bhagwad-- I think there are people opposed to what the minister said because they want to do nothing. I think there are people who support it for the reasons I suggested. It could be the leak was an "accident." More likely, it was a "trial balloon" designed to gauge opinion on the issue. That's where I think the kind of reaction is as important as the volume, if that makes any sense.

    Most of the time, private conversations at this level don't get leaked unless someone powerful wants to them to get out. We have no way of knowing who is behind this or their motives. Whatever the case, it's a good opportunity to air the issues. You are right about give and take, but I do think this kind of thing can weaken India's position at the bargaining table, unless it is responded to in strong terms.

  4. Update: November End

    We now pay the price for not taking the lead when we had the chance. China has now committed to steep cuts (they may only be about emissions intensity, but they're still impressive) and India is left spluttering.

    When Ramesh advocated cuts, we should have listened. Now we have to do something and it will look as if we're playing catch up (and it's true - we are). Our diplomats who were so angry with Ramesh are now scrambling to pledge cuts so that we're not left behind China. End result - we pledge cuts anyway one month later, but get no credit whatsoever since now we're doing it under pressure.

    We should have pledged cuts from a position of strength one month ago and then we wouldn't have looked like the petulant kid. Did we think this wouldn't happen? Did we think we could just hunker down and stick to our position? We can't. We must negotiate and make concessions of our own free will on our own terms. Otherwise they will be forced on us by others - like right now.

    Let's at least hope we learn something. Everything is up for grabs. There are no fixed positions when everything is in flux.

  5. @Bhagwad, Glad you came back to this. Maybe we have to agree to disagree on this one, though I'm not sure we're all that far apart. From what I can tell, the Chinese have agreed to do pretty much what they were doing already; they just put a good face on it. That's the bottom line I get from this report in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/26/AR2009112600519.html?wprss=rss_world

    They are still on track to pollute a lot more; it is only relative to their economy that they are proposing cuts; they have not agreed to cut things absolutely. You are right that we could do a better job framing our position. But we don't have to worry about being petulant children as long as we can say with integrity that we are acting on behalf of hundreds of millions of people who desperately need development in this country. In the end, we will need to cut emissions, but we should get a lot in return.

    Where we will look bad is when we suggest that by horse trading over climate we will gain things like seats on the security council and good favor in the eyes of the US. That road is not the road to real power or respect. (Don't get me wrong, we deserve a permanent seat on the security council and the respect that goes with it. But climate negotiations are not the time or place for that sort of agenda).

    I could get behind any number of proposals if they were offered with integrity and thoughtfulness. I didn't like this one because it seemed like it was coming from a "loose cannon" and was motivated by things other than a concern for climate or sustainable development. And I think the glacier report Mr. Ramesh released recently without proper review, along with his remarks regarding toxics at Bhopal, suggest that we have a problem in leadership at that level. More on that tomorrow.

  6. Just came across this piece from the Wall Street Journal which shows that China's 40% intensity reduction is a very big deal . Specifically, this para:

    "The (Chinese) policy imposes hundreds of detailed industrial efficiency standards to a degree unparalleled in any other country in the world. The policy has forced closure of tens of thousands of factories, power plants, and production lines that failed to meet the standards. It is unimaginable that such a policy could ever be enacted in the United States, much less be continued for another decade. It’s a non-trivial error to call it a “reference case,” as the IEA has done. "

    Basically, China had already imposed severe restrictions on it's industry to achieve this reduction in recent years - so to say that their pledge is merely "business as usual" is deeply unfair - implying that they should have waited till now to do something when they would have gotten credit for it.

    I really don't think India can hide from taking concrete steps to reduce emissions. This doesn't mean I'm insensitive to the issue of historical responsibility. Rather the contrary as my blog posts show. But it does mean that we have to do something. And we can even do it without sacrificing growth - namely be improving efficiency and cutting down on waste like Mumbai restaurants are doing.

    It's time to step up and do something instead of prevaricating all the time. And if we don't, China will not only get waaay ahead of us in the game (as it has done in the past when the Indian government had its head up its ass), we'll also lose out on the world stage and be seen as stubborn and obstructionist. Not good for India's image.

  7. Bhagwad; I'm convinced by your points about China. The cuts seem real. I agree we also need to agree to cuts in intensity. We need to do it in concert with other developing countries, of course.

    In fact, modest emisssion intensity cuts alone may not be enough. Am working on post now. Thanks for continuing to push the thinking on this one.

  8. Looking forward to your post! I was waiting for something more final to come out of Copenhagen before attempting a post, but lots of little things have happened already. Like the Island nations revolting.

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