Sunday, December 27, 2009

Developing World and Climate Change

I have been the US for the last four years as a PhD student. I have gotten used to American customs, American televisions, American politics and American residences. I have seen America elect its first African American leader - Barack Obama. I have also seen the US suffer through the Bush years. I have seen the US fall into an economic abyss - which it is still trying to fight its way out of.

I have seen the Republican war on science in the US. There are nut cases here that deny human evolution. There are more nut cases who deny anthropogenic global warming - despite mountains of conclusive evidence to the contrary. I have seen policy made by people who have absolutely no empathy for the millions of people in the world who are suffering in war zones. There are some in this country who think that Afghans and Iraqis should have gratitude towards Americans for helping rape and pillage their motherland.

All that aside, I have seen that Americans are some of the most polite, least xenophobic and most accepting people in the world. Racism is frowned upon by both liberals and conservatives in this country - and those who practice it are usually marginalized. At the personal level, interaction with each and every American person has been very pleasurable. It is far more likely that I walk out of a business establishment upset in India than the US! Also, I have it from fairly unimpeachable sources that Americans are certainly less racist than Europeans - probably a consequence of the US being such a melting pot. As a consequence, I feel right at home in the US - because the American people are so warm and welcoming.

It is quite tough to reconcile these two Americas. But I will try to do so here, by addressing a current sticking point: emission cuts pertinent to climate change.

Population Issues:

People in the west say that there's too many people in India.. and that's a bad thing. They have this picture of India as one of those places that each familiy has a gazzillion children and that the population growth rate is absolutely out control.

While the above might have been the reality a few years ago, things have changed these days. India right now has a 2.7 children per woman rate fertility rate. India's population growth rate blew up in the 1960s-80s due to revolutions in sanitation, food availability and medical care. As dramatically more people started to survive, India's population started to grow. Indian reproductive practices took a little more time to adjust to the reduction in death - and this transient differential resulted in a population explosion. Now that birth rate has gone down to values close to the developed country average - and is still heading in the correct direction, it is unlikely population growth will ever be a problem in India.

What will be a problem is that a lot of these desperately poor people will start to become richer, and hog resources. So, it's not a population problem in India any more. It is a prosperity problem. Indians are beginning to consume more. The average Indian consumes 20 times less than the average American. Indian emissions are going to shoot up because the average Indian is likely to emit only one fifth the average american, rather than one-twentieth.

Lifestyles and Emissions:

Americans and the other inhabitants of the first world want the developing world do everything to ensure that their future emissions are under check.

Here's the scenario:

(1) The west has developed until now without any restrictions on its emissions because they did not know that CO2 emissions were contributing to climate change. The current emissions of the west have pretty much saturated (and just track the population expansion rate).

(2) The developing world, on the other hand (a) Is increasing in population (b) Is getting richer, and therefore increasing its emissions dramatically.

The recent increase in emissions, the western world argues, is due to increasing population and prosperity in the developing world.

Given that the increase in emissions is due to the developing world, the developing world ought to be the ones that should discipline their power plants and cut their future emissions. They can do so with foreign aid - because the rich world was responsible for the emissions until now. Some amount of emission cuts must also come from the developed world - and this can be accomplished by a cap-n-trade system.

This was essentially the import of both the Kyoto and Copenhagen declarations. The former resulted in a protocol calling for drastic cuts in emissions from the developed world. The latter was a blatant failure, resulting in a statement. If treaties are meaningless (like the Kyoto thing has proven to be), what hope does one have of declarations?

While the Copenhagen statement seems to be perfectly reasonable at first glance, a deeper look shows it to be horribly inequitable. I will try to elucidate how in the remaining space.

American McMansions vs Indian Apartments

For just argument's sake, let us consider the apartments that some of the richest people in India stay in. I'm not talking the Ambanis or the Birlas here - they're exceptions to the rule. I'm talking of people who are the General Managers in large companies (or even CEOs/Vice Presidents). I'm talking of professors at IITs (even though the latter are grossly underpaid).

And on the other side, let us consider mansions owned by large proportions of 40-somethings in the US. They need not be in the top income bracket - they could, say, own a shop in the downtown of a typical American town.

How big is the house?

Indians, listen. Americans want you to cut emissions. You know that extra table fan you bought to negotiate the 45C summer (with 90% humidity)? Well, they want you to trash it in the name of cutting emissions. If you don't throw away that table fan, they will threaten to impose climate sanctions on you.

And while you're getting rid of the table fan, the Americans will be sitting in their swimming pool cum Jaccuzi that they have just installed.

The American house under consideration has, on the average, four bedrooms, two studies, two living rooms, four bath rooms, a washer-and-dryer (which dries clothes completely, since clotheslines are not permitted by real estate developers). It is not uncommon for most houses to have a massive swimming pool in the garden - as well as the aforementioned Jacuzzi. The water in the Jacuzzi is usually heated to the correct temperature by in-line water heaters, sucking in kilowatts from the power grid. Poorer americans might not have such large houses - they might skimp on the pool and the jaccuzi - but not on the number of bedrooms and living rooms. The average American house has a square footage of 2400. [Very informative article, I must add.]

The Indian house on the other hand (and here, I am talking about the rich Indians) has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a decent sized kitchen and a hall-cum-dining room. Gone are the days of the bungalow - land cost is extortionately exorbitant (due to lots of people speculating on land - i.e. buying and hoarding land because they see it as an investment to pay for their daughters' weddings, in the process driving up the price for people who really want to build a house there.)

How much of the house is centrally air conditioned?

Just to get an idea of the contribution of air conditioning to energy consumption, let me tell you about our electricity bills in Texas. Our summer electricity bill (in the months of July and August) averages to around $150 a month. In winter, when we usually do not have to use the heater or the air conditioner, we pay only $50 to $70 every month. Central air conditioning accounts for around 50% of the energy consumed by the house.

In the US, each house, each kitchen, each hall, each Walmart, each library, each mall, each skating rink, each airport terminal, each auditorium, each basketball court is fully air conditioned. When the outside is at a hot 34C, the room is called to a bone chilling 16C. When the outside is sub-freezing, the room will be maintained at the same 16C. To the Indian this would seem like hedonistic overindulgence. To the American this is just business as usual. And the American has the gall to ask the Indian to reduce emissions?


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