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Shyam Saran: Leading at Paris

Business Standard, Delhi, 9th July 2014 A couple of years ago, on a trek to the Kanchenjunga Base Camp, one came across the ominous and probably permanent scarring of a pristine and sacred landscape. The final stretch to our destination, Goechala, at nearly 5,000 metres, lay over gravel and mud, left behind the retreating glacier, which had covered this area just 10 years ago and was now visible several kilometres to the north. The snow-capped Kanchenjunga peak still looked magnificent in the morning light, but the lower ridges seemed to have only a light dusting of snow. Over the years, in several visits to the Himalayas one has witnessed the relentless spoliation of the fragile mountain ecology as population pressure, the damming of swift mountain streams and the cutting down of forests has upset the region's ecological balance. And now global warming is not only exacerbating all the stresses and strains that have been multiplying over the past several decades, but adding a whole new dangerous dimension to the challenge due to the melting of the glaciers across the entire Himalayan range. The Himalayas are often called the Third Pole, due to the sheer volume of ice that has remained locked in its glaciers. The Antarctica and the Arctic are the two other ice-banks of our planet. What is happening in our own Himalayas is paralleled by the loss of massive walls of ice at the two ends of the planet, melting and floating away into the surrounding polar seas. The impact of these dramatic changes on the world's weather patterns, the ocean currents and, therefore, the livelihood of people is inevitable. The imminence of catastrophic climate change if business-as-usual scenarios prevail has been driven home with compelling evidence from the latest Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. And yet governments and societies the world over seem to suffer from collective denial when it comes to acknowledging the looming risks and confronting them. Global warming does not respect national or regional boundaries - it demands global and collaborative responses. The scramble to benefit from global warming that we are witnessing in the rush for exploration for Arctic oil and gas may bring short-term profits to a handful of Arctic states. The planetary emergency that is likely to overwhelm us - sooner, it would appear, than later - makes any concept of profit a vulgar absurdity. We are engaged in multilateral negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change with the objective of achieving an agreement, in a legal form, at the forthcoming climate summit in Paris in 2015. At the minimum, the agreement must result in climate action by negotiating countries that would limit global temperature increase to only two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial age average. This translates into limiting the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere - chiefly carbon dioxide - to 450 particles per million (ppm). We are already close to the 400 ppm mark. Climate change and energy are two sides of the same coin. It is the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - that is chiefly responsible for generating greenhouse gases, and whose accumulation in the Earth's atmosphere causes global warming. Therefore, it follows that unless the world as a whole undertakes a strategic and, given the urgency, an accelerated shift from patterns of economic activity based on fossil fuels to those based on renewable and clean sources of energy, climate change will continue and intensify. For this shift to take place, two key interventions at the global level are required. First, the price of carbon must become high enough to encourage a shift from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy. Secondly - and linked to the first - investment in fossil fuel exploration, production and consumption would have to be discouraged, while capital flowing into renewables must be significantly expanded. Unless the Paris climate summit is able to meet these two simple but compelling benchmarks, we would end up with another platitudinous outcome, which has minimal effect on restructuring the global economy and putting it on track to restoring the planet's ecological balance. According to a recent International Energy Agency report, global investment in fossil fuel exploration and production - mainly by Western oil and gas majors - is now close to $1 trillion in 2013. The figure for renewables is $270 billion. Considering the fact that such investments have a payback period of over 30 years, it is unlikely that the goal of low-carbon growth will be realised in the foreseeable future. A few years ago, the price of a unit of carbon in the European market was over euro 30. Today it is hovering around euro 1-3. At this price it is simply not worth the while for the European industry to shift away from the use of carbon-based fossil fuels. While the developing world is advised to adopt low-carbon growth strategies, the developed world appears to be intensifying its own energy and fossil fuel-led growth. India can expose this hypocrisy only if it refuses to be complicit. India's economic future and prosperity are best served by leading the shift from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy. Our import dependency in respect of oil is already 75 per cent. In a few years it will be 90 per cent. Recent events in West Asia, our chief source of imported oil, underscore the mounting risks this entails. Imported coal is already meeting a third of our requirements. In another 15 years, this may rise to 60 per cent. There are already international pressures to restrict and eventually dismantle coal-based power, which is India's chief source of commercial energy. It is obvious that from the point of view of our energy security and to meet the challenge of climate change, not only should we embrace the shift to renewable and clean energy, such as nuclear energy, but also lead a global movement towards the same goal. This is one issue where India's interests are fully aligned with the global good. This may enable India to grasp the initiative at the Paris summit rather than end up fending off pressures without many allies on its side.