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Cancun Report: Green blues, continued

Cancun Report: Green blues, continued

Developing nations contribute the most to carbon emissions, so now the spotlight is on us. Yet the continuing impasse between developed and developing nations on who should bell the cat is now gathering bothersome proportions. Daya Kingston explains what went right and wrong at Cancun.

Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh famously declared that we may not have been the cause of the problem, but we need to be a part of the solution. And solution eluded the Cancun Summit. Cancun was supposed to be about setting a mandatory global limit for emissions and a resulting allocation of the emission allowances as well as setup of an emissions trade, but this never came to fruition.

The mid-December Summit aimed at bringing down emissions and set an overall two-degree target to limit temperature rise. However, this ended in failure as no consensus was reached. Though it’s clear that cutting carbon emissions is the only way to control climate change, cutting them would also impact economic growth. This has become a bone of contention between various countries.

The Summit addressed various issues related to forestry, finance, technology transfer, adaptation and measurement, reporting and verification/international consultations and analysis (MRV/ICA), and especially in focus were the four BASIC countries, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. The United States and other developed economies such as Japan and Canada strongly expressed that they won’t make their industries or consumers pay for carbon emissions if other countries like China, the world’s largest emitter, don’t do the same. However, China takes a different stance, saying that climate change doesn’t reflect only today’s emissions but summarises cumulative emissions over the last 250 years of global industrialisation. If this is calculated on a cumulative basis, since 1751, China’s emissions are still roughly only a third those of the USA.

India as a bridge

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh was appreciated by German Chancellor Angela Merkela for bridging gaps on contentious issues at the UN climate conference. At a workshop Ramesh said: “India is positioning itself as a bridge player between developing and developed countries. We need to be practical and cannot remain frozen and should engage with all countries as part of our foreign policy.” His comments drew flak from some in the Indian arena as they felt it compromised the interests of the growing Indian economy. In a sense he reiterated the problem-solution statement—also seen domestically as one that softens India’s stance on emissions. However, on closer analysis, opting for development through clean energy would be the best solution in the long run as it would preserve our environment and maintain a better quality of living.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol has also been the subject of much debate. Currently, this treaty brings together almost 40 developed nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels from 2008-2012. However, developing countries have been expected to merely introduce climate-change plans and since both India and China fall in this category, the mandatory target doesn’t apply to them. Japan, Russia and Australia have resisted signing a new commitment under Kyoto since they would like developing countries to face the same mandatory limits.

Handling Intellectual Property Rights

The benefits of renewable energy could be shared globally if nations co-operated. However, at the Cancun Summit, some looked at technology sharing as an essential ingredient of a deal, others were against it. “We have to find a middle path because these two extreme positions have held back an agreement for too long, and frankly we are running out of time. Nations must reach a consensus on sharing green technology between rich and developing countries and resist the temptation to cling to old positions like a mantra”, Ramesh said.

The Green Fund

About the only positive outcome of the Cancun Summit was the launching of the ‘Green Fund’ to finance long term projects for environmental protection and is expected to mobilise $100 billion per year by 2020. This will be distributed to developing countries for adaptation and mitigation purposes.

The Need for Global Consensus

Since no international agreement has been reached, emission cuts will not enjoy the benefits of working together but rather lead to scattered efforts by national, regional, and local governments. This will create problems with the compliance requirements of companies that operate in multiple markets around the globe.


The main cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, burning just a quarter of the proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will push the global climate beyond two degrees Celsius of average warming, scientists have predicted. However, the Cancun Summit strangely remained silent on this issue, and none of the countries were pulled up for expanding operations of oil, coal or natural gas or looking for new deposits.

With the Mining Bill 2010 in place soon, mining companies would share their profits with local populations and participate in the R&R activities, thereby removing two of the biggest hurdles to increased mining activity—gainful employment of displaced people and improving local economy.

The coal ministry recently recommended that CSR in the form of tree-planting to the extent of 5 per cent of profits be made mandatory for coal mining companies. However, the government seems keen to leave CSR as a voluntary exercise.


Jack Short, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum, does not think that the agreement reached in Cancun will increase pressure on the transport sector to reduce its CO2 emissions. Carbon constraints will not become a defining factor for transport policy for several more years.

Green Energy

Clean energy is drawn from the water, wind or sun (solar) without creating environmental debt. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, India will be one of the top five destinations, and the fastest growing one, to attract clean energy investments up to $169 billion in the next decade. (Currently, at $2.3 billion, it stands at the tenth, a substantial distance from leader China at $34.6 billion.) The returns on clean technology business are between 16 and 24 per cent; cleantech would also provide long term returns and benefits.

It is in this area that India has made the right noises: a five per cent renewable mandate on power generation, debate on smart technology, etc.

A Micro-power Approach to Solar Energy

Given the Indian government’s thrust on solar, and micro-power India’s investment in this type of energy is hardly something that would worry environment agencies. However, international companies that would like to invest in solar have been disappointed, as the government has been insisting on domestic manufacture of solar equipment. Grumbling will diminish when foreign players see some volumes.

Solar Thermal Power

Solar Thermal Power or Concentrated Solar is an expensive technology that costs nearly double that of traditional natural gas or coal power plants. It only works effectively on a large power-plant scale. It consists of large upturned mirrors that track the sun and radiate its power onto a blindingly white square, a central receiver at the top of a special tower, creating immense power to vaporise water into steam to power a turbine. Given India’s recent thrust towards solar, it is at best experimental.

Harnessing Energy from the Waves

The future may lie in new and emerging solutions. Wave energy is generated when electricity generators are placed on the surface of the ocean and wave height, wave speed, wavelength, and water density play a role. The energy provided is most often used in desalination plants, power plants and water pumps.

The Potential

Although mining (and other industrialisation) may initially add to the emissions instead of reducing it as intended, the steps taken today can only be a long-term solution, and accepting this truth alone can break a domestic impasse between industry and environment. The potential of the Indian economy to move forward with clean energy is immense. Government policy and reform should be introduced and incentives provided to plants and organisations that use clean energy. Awareness must be created at every level and low cost technology offerings must be made available to make it viable.

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