Sunday, July 26, 2009

Emissions, Development and Gandhian Engineering

Poverty and inequity are probably India's largest current bug-a-boos. With a massive poor or lower middle class approximately thrice the size of the next most populous country (USA), development is quite a challenge for India. India's development (along with China's development) will indeed be the story of this century. All around the world, a massive population will likely wake up this century - and will seek to use the planet's resources in making itself more prosperous.

Another telling battle this century will be a battle against nature's tendency to heat up the planet in response to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. It is widely accepted in the scientific community it is probably in humanity's best interests to spew out as little CO2 as possible.

Energy is the cornerstone of modern civilization. The cheapest available energy these days is fossil fuel based. The combustion of fossil fuels releases the carbon sequestered by plants millions of years ago under the ground as low temperature radiation trapping CO2. This cheap access to fossil fuel based energy has let today's rich accumulate their wealth.

The party's over now. Ignorance was bliss. But now we can ignore no more. Unrestrained CO2 emissions will result in runaway global warming, with the ever increasing danger of droughts, fiercer and more frequent hurricanes, erratic monsoons and horrendous sea level rises. The ice reservoirs that are the arctic and antarctic are melting at a rate unknown to human civilization, lifting sea levels around the planet.

So, here we have two of humanity's largest problems. Poverty and Climate change. Poverty requires that the developing world develop - increase its GDP - and in the process increase its carbon foot-print. And this inevitable increase in the standard of living of the poor has serious environmental repercussions. The biggest problems of this century have contradictory solutions, a cursory observation might suggest.

No politician in their right mind will ever deny that the poor nations have a right to lift their billions from poverty. [But comments regarding the over-population of the poor world are inevitably made. It is a strongly held view in the west that overpopulation is the root of all evil in the third world (India in particular). This is downright wrong - but probably the best that uninformed unadventurous minds can come up with, But we'll get into that in another post.] But the poor nations get blamed anyway - like Hillary Clinton's (whose own carbon footprint is probably larger than that of a few villages in India) recent stand that India ought to do more to cut its own paltry carbon consumption.

These seemingly contradictory goals of development and abating climate change can be achieved by an extremely parsimonious form of engineering that is being called 'Gandhian Engineering'. While it is inevitable that India and Africa (and other under-developed regions) will try to get a taste of the good life, whoever said that it should be extremely inefficient, like it is in the US? Can, using really smart engineering, India increase its standard of living without increasing its per-capita GDP to levels comparable?

Given the tremendous pressure on India's natural resources due to large population densities, a tremendous focus on miserliness (called 'value for money') and efficiency of resource utilization exists. Such pressure on resources exists nowhere else on this planet (perhaps with the exception of Japan).

A case in point, of course, is the Tata Nano. If the bottom billion of this planet were driving cars, would the environmentalist in you rather have them driving around in Hummers or Nanos? The tata Nano has the smallest carbon footprint amongst all vehicles in the market now. Even though the Prius gets a comparable mileage, but it takes a significant amount of energy to build and transport.

Do you think that every room will be air-conditioned in a developed India? I suspect that bathrooms, corridors and kitchens will be left out - and perhaps even living rooms. Do you think Indians will ever build those palatial monstrosities that pass for houses in Houston or Dallas? Nope. My money is on reasonably spacious apartments.

All in all this will mean that India's GDP (PPP) will not be comparable to America's $40k per person - or even Japan's $30k per person. If the emissions are to ever be controlled, the onus will be on the west to do the cutting(possibly by reducing its per capita income, ultimately, possibly through 'cap and trade?'). And since a lowering the standard of living will not be an option - guess what the west will have to adopt. Gandhian engineering!

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