Global Warming – The Disaster that has Long Been Brewing: Nagraj Adve

Guest post by NAGRAJ ADVE

This essay is the first of a two-part excerpt from the booklet by Nagraj Adve, Global Warming in the Indian Context: An Introductory Overview (Ecologise Hyderabad, 2019). This covers the basic science of global warming, the roots of the problem, and how inequality relates to climate change. The  second piece, to appear soon, will focus on impacts in India, both on humans and other species, and the reasons for urgency in tackling the problem. You can read the second part here.

 What they told us in Gujarat

A few years ago, a group of us went to northern and eastern Gujarat to find out how climate change was affecting small farmers there. In villages in eastern Gujarat, they told us that the wheat and maize crops had been getting hit for some years during winter. Wheat and maize are important sources of nutrition for poor households in these and nearby regions. But because winters have been getting warmer, the dew (os) had lessened, or stopped entirely for the last few years. For those without wells—most of them poor households—dew is the only source of moisture for their crop. With less or no dew falling, either their crop dried up, or they were being forced to leave their lands fallow.

When we asked them why the winters had been getting milder, the people’s response there was interesting: “Prakruti ki baat hai (it has to do with Nature).” They did not consider it imaginable that human beings had the power to alter Nature on this scale. We do.

 

Sick Earth
Sick Earth, image courtesy Epispastic clipart (UI-Ex.com)

The Earth’s razai is getting thicker

Whenever we burn coal, gas, and oil—the fossil fuels that are the engine of all modern societies, now and for the last 250 years—the carbon in those fuels combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide (CO2). Like oxygen, it is invisible; nor can it be smelt. Unlike oxygen, carbon dioxide has the capacity to absorb and trap some of the invisible heat radiation emitted by the Earth. There are other gases that do this, such as methane (from natural gas) and nitrous oxide (from fertilizers), but carbon dioxide is the most important because it lasts for tens of thousands of years in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide though is not the villain; in fact, it is essential to life on Earth. Without carbon dioxide being naturally present in the atmosphere, the Earth would have been 30 degrees Celsius colder, and not habitable for humans. It is this presence of carbon dioxide that maintained temperatures which helped the growth of agriculture and the spread of human civilizations.

But we have been adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We dig coal, oil, and gas out from under the Earth, and burn these fossil fuels to run factories, make cement, drive cars, generate electricity and light up our homes, make steel, run ACs, fly planes, transport goods, fight wars. Some of this is essential activity, some socially wasteful, and some extremely damaging. In such activity, the world as a whole sent up 37 billion tonnes (1 tonne = 1,000 kilos) of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and cement production in 2017, the latest year for which worldwide data is available [EDGAR data]. Another four billion tonnes of carbon dioxide got added by cutting forests and forest fires; when wood burns or rots, it emits CO2.

The contribution of the other greenhouse gases is calculated as an equivalent of carbon dioxide in their capacity to cause warming. Methane’s share is nine billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent, and nitrous oxide and other gases, four billion tonnes. Hence a single year’s emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide totalled 53 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent. And more, year after year.

Our rate of carbon emissions is far more than the Earth’s natural capacity to absorb it. Since 1750, little over a quarter of all the carbon dioxide we emitted has been absorbed by the oceans; it has made their waters much more acidic. About the same amount has been taken up by trees, soil, and grass, etc on land. The rest—little under half—has remained in the atmosphere. In 2018, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere averaged 406 parts per million (ppm). It was 278 ppm at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and 315 ppm when daily records first began to be maintained in 1958. It has not crossed 400 ppm for the last four million years.

Up there in the atmosphere, it acts like an invisible razai, or blanket. As we know, a blanket does not create its own warmth, it traps heat. Similarly, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases trap some of the invisible heat radiation emitted by the Earth, and hence cause global warming. Adding over fifty billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and other gases to the atmosphere each year is like adding layer after layer to the blankets we have already covered ourselves with. A thicker blanket traps even more heat.

The excess heat being trapped by these gases is so massive, it’s equal to the energy of four Hiroshima nuclear bombs every second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Over ninety per cent of it goes into the oceans, because water has a high heat absorption capacity. What’s left melts the glaciers and ice, warms the soils, etc. Making the oceans warmer is disrupting the hydrological/rainfall cycle, makes cyclones more intense, and causes sea level rise.

Global warming is measured by taking the air temperature just above the land and ocean surface and seeing how it has changed over time. This is done at thousands of locations all over the globe, since 1880. How much warmer has India become? Average temperatures here have increased by about 0.8⁰ C since 1901. But the rate of warming has speeded up since 1981, and our average temperature is rising by 0.17⁰C per decade. And this temperature rise is only an average; the Himalaya is warming twice as fast. And heat spikes and heat stress have become more common in a warmer India.

What about the world as a whole? Scientists compare current average temperatures with the baseline average of 1880–1920, a reliable substitute for temperatures at the start of the Industrial Revolution. The Earth is currently (in mid-2019), after accounting for short-term variability and natural fluctuations, 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial average. Again, some regions and ecosystems, such as the Arctic, North Africa, and southern Europe are warming a lot faster. These increases may not seem large, but planetary systems and many life forms are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature.

One crucial point here: all the warming does not happen as soon as carbon is sent into the atmosphere. There is a gap of many years between heat going into the oceans and the full surface warming it causes. Hence, some of the heat taken up by the oceans, a consequence of the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases we have emitted over the last few decades, are yet to be felt. This unavoidable, further warming will be at least another 0.6 degrees Celsius, likely higher, over and above the current 1.1 degree C rise.

Who is responsible for global warming?

There are different ways of approaching this question. World over, by sector, the energy sector is responsible for 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture, deforestation, and forest fires 24%, industry 21%, transport 14%, and buildings 6%. If one includes the heat and electricity used by each sector (indirect emissions), the share of industry rises to 31%, and buildings to 19% (IPCC, Synthesis Report 2014, p 46). This sectoral data implies that we need to broaden our thinking and interventions to all transformations in all sectors, not just on coal/electricity/energy. Different systems need to change.

Coal thermal plant, image courtesy Hindustan Times
Coal thermal plant, image courtesy Hindustan Times

Another approach is: which areas are emissions coming from? Only 30 per cent comes from rural areas. As much as 70 per cent comes from urban areas, which tend to have a lot of wasteful consumption by the better-off, air-conditioning, malls, etc. Cities also have a lot of structures, which though used by most people, take a lot of resources and energy to build, such as bridges, Metros, flyovers, etc.

A third way—a very common approach—is to see which nation is responsible for how much emissions. China, at about 10.9 billion tonnes out of the total of 37 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2017 [EDGAR data], has leapt way past the United States (5.1 billion tonnes). India at 2.5 billion tonnes is a distant third, followed by Russia (1.8 billion tonnes), and Japan (1.3 billion). The EU totals 3.5 Gt CO2. Include methane and other gases, and India’s total jumps to nearly 3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent.

The US’ and Europe’s emissions per person though are a lot higher than China’s or India’s. It is even higher if one considers per capita emissions based on consumption. Taking imports into account, each North American currently emits each year on average 22 tonnes of greenhouse gases, a European 13 tonnes, an average Chinese 6 tonnes, and a person from South Asia 2.2 tonnes, compared to a world average of 6.2 tonnes (Chancel and Piketty). It is also higher if one were to consider the historical emissions of industrialized countries, what each country has emitted since the start of their industrialization.

Each of these frameworks has its merits, and would strengthen some of our demands, such as, say, that more public transport is necessary, or that rich, industrialized countries pay for the ecological damage they have caused. But they do not address issues at the heart of global warming. At the core of the problem are forces driving the modern capitalist economy, primarily the relentless quest for profits and growth. Also crucial are the growing differences in incomes, consumption, and wealth, in India and worldwide.

These factors have also caused a range of other ecological crises, both local (air and water pollution), and global, such as biodiversity loss, overfishing, deforestation, loss of species, resource depletion, plastic in the oceans, etc. A landmark report released worldwide on 6 May 2019 said that 1 million animal and plant species already face extinction, many within decades. Land degradation has occurred on 23% of the global land surface. Urban areas have doubled since 1992. Plastic pollution has increased ten-fold since 1990. Wetlands have shrunk by 83% since 1700. Though our main concern in this booklet is global warming, these extraordinarily grave crises have common roots.

The roots of the problem

The development of industrial capitalism powered by fossil fuels around the late 18th century marks a radical shift for what we are discussing.

One, in the use of energy sources. Although coal was used in London and a few other cities for some centuries earlier, the scale of its use, with the spread of the industrial factory system in England in the late 18th century and the development of railways, was qualitatively different and massive. Emissions from oil began in 1870, and from gas in 1885; all these three fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—are very energy- and carbon-intensive.

Two, profits—from anything—became a primary driver. Corporations profit by using the cheapest sources of labour and raw materials. By making workers work for longer hours, and making them work faster. Companies also profit from exploiting Nature. They do so by gaining access and control over the commons resources used by and meant for everybody, such as forests, coastlines, the seas, and rivers, and by land grabs. It is not a coincidence that China became the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in recent years. By the first decade of this century, manufacturing, urbanization, and other infrastructure had expanded massively in China, which has lots of coal and relatively cheap labour. By 2015, it was making a quarter of all the world’s goods! Though this generated millions of stressful jobs, it came at a huge ecological cost, for Chinese people and for the world. But then corporations seek to maximize profits at any cost, the people and environment be damned.

Some of the surplus they extract is reinvested in the company to expand the business—buying new buildings, machines, computers. This accumulation, with the objective of making further profits, is a compulsion for all businesses. Because of competition, companies that do not do this would over time stagnate and close down, or be bought up by others. And because it is a compulsion, they can’t stop trying to reinvest and expand. Maximizing profit, accumulation, and perpetually seeking growth are part of capitalism’s DNA.

Adani coal plant Nandikur

As a consequence, the world economy, which grew at barely 0.1 per cent a year for well over a thousand years before 1700, has grown much faster since. Economic growth—calculated for a state, country, or the world as a whole—is a rise or fall in output, value of service, or income over a period, usually a year. Inching along for centuries before that, the world economy grew at 1.6% a year between 1700 and 2012, and in the last seventy years at over 3.5% a year (Thomas Piketty’s data). In 1820, global output was 694 billion dollars, in 1917, it was 2.7 trillion (a thousand billion) dollars. By 1973, it had grown to 16 trillion dollars; by 2003, 41 trillion. In 2018, the world’s annual GDP was over 84 trillion dollars (IMF data). It keeps ballooning, and in larger volumes. Keeping in step, half of all carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-18th century has occurred just since 1986.

World economic growth is currently 3% a year, and is expected to continue at approximately that rate for some years. Carbon emissions don’t rise at the same rate as GDP; that depends on our energy mix of renewables and fossil fuels, and how efficiently our products and activity use energy. Over the past twenty-five years, CO2 emissions for the world as a whole have risen 0.5 per cent for every one per cent rise in world GDP, that is, at half the rate of GDP growth. That improved in recent years as coal consumption slowed down in China, the US and other major economies use more gas, and the prices of renewables, particular solar power, fell sharply. Carbon dioxide emissions were flat for three years, raising illusions of a decarbonization of the world economy. But they rose again in 2017, and greenhouse gas emissions as a whole continued to rise throughout that period. The science demands that emissions should fall sharply, by 6% each year, to reach safer levels in the atmosphere. However, worldwide economic growth, at 3% or thereabouts, would mean that overall greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, in spurts, particularly from the expanded use of oil and gas.

To sum up, the roots of global warming lie in the inherent drivers of the world economy — maximizing profits and growth. Those who see and discuss the issue only in nation-state terms or in other frameworks miss this underlying logic. Most public meetings I attend are silent about it. We can’t hope to solve a problem if we have not defined it correctly in the first place.

Emissions, Unequal Consumption, and Wealth

How many gadgets does one use regularly at home? Does the house have a fridge, one AC, more than one AC? Do we take a bus, the metro, or drive a car? Our carbon emissions depend on all of these things. When going out of town, do we take the train, or fly? Say, if you took a train from Bombay to Delhi—1,384 kilometres—you would emit roughly 31 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide. In a plane, each passenger would emit over 150 kgs. And they would cause 13 times as much warming as someone taking the train, because planes emit condensation trails that trap even more heat.

All of this obviously depends on one’s income and consumption, which are strongly connected. The huge differences of incomes and wealth in India have deepened over the last twenty-five years. There has been some improvement in the lives of sections of the poor either due to government policy (for example, the expansion or upgradation of the village road network by nearly 5,00,000 kilometres since 2001), or the spread of mobile phones, or the rise in agricultural wages until 2013, but this improvement has been partial and unequal. Incomes and consumption of the better-off have risen sharply, and there’s been an explosion in the wealth of the very rich: 1% of Indians own 58% of the country’s wealth, says a report. At the same time, the real wages of factory workers (after taking inflation into account) was 5% lower in 2014 than they were in 1996.

This deepening inequality is reflected in energy access and use. Though the number of households with access to electricity has risen in recent years, yet over 250 million people, including about 25 million in urban areas, don’t have access to any electricity in their homes even now, and another 300 million get it for a scant few hours daily. This is despite the fact that India’s electricity generation capacity has trebled over the past decade, to well over 3 lakh megawatts (3,49,288 MW as of 20 Feb 2019).

A colleague conducted workshops in colleges in Delhi on measuring how much carbon dioxide a household emits. With his help in working through the numbers, we found that most of Delhi’s middle class emits 4–5 tonnes of CO2 per person a year; the rich households in India emit much higher, European levels. Factory workers and security guards earn Rs 8,000–9,000 a month. Domestic workers take home Rs 5,000–6,000. Agricultural workers’ earnings are seasonal. How much carbon dioxide can they possibly emit?

Inequalities in emissions from current incomes and consumption are deepened by inequalities in emissions embodied in the products and property one owns. To take just two examples: in a car—which just 5% of India’s population owns—3,500 kg of carbon dioxide are emitted just in making the aluminium that goes into the car, because the process is so energy-intensive. Or take a house. The larger or more pucca one’s home, the higher the embodied emissions in it, because cement manufacture—like aluminium—is a huge source of carbon dioxide. And it has become common for the upper middle class or the rich in India to have at least two houses, one where they live and one more “in the hills”.

A nation-state framework of analyzing global warming chooses to ignore these huge internal differences of income and wealth. The stand of successive Indian governments has been that “India’s per capita emissions are low”. It is hiding behind the poor. There is no one ‘India’. In international negotiations, the government rightly argues for equity between nations. But the principle of equity should also apply within a nation, not only between nations. Greater equity implies that the rich in India should be made to consume less than they do, through higher income and wealth taxes, and a progressive carbon tax. That is one way there can be ecological space for the poor to improve their lives further. How we ensure that and yet generate decent work and employment for the millions of young people seeking jobs each year is one key question.

(Next: Impacts and urgency)

Nagraj Adve works and writes on the science, impacts, and politics of global warming. His booklet has been translated into Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil

2 thoughts on “Global Warming – The Disaster that has Long Been Brewing: Nagraj Adve”

  1. It is one of the best articles that I reas regarding global warming .we let things happen and it will happen Mr adve requires gradual and definite thanks to make the people understand that it is not mandatory to take life for granted but to understand that which are the fundamentals that make the life exist. most uneducated people does and most educated don’t. For life to sustain now it is compulsory that one has to understand predominantly so called progressive and educated people that why it is so for what it is so or face the consequences series which inevitable follow.

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