Monday, June 29, 2015

19 Climate Change Strategies and Forests in India-I. The climate change prognoses

Introduction and summary

It is now accepted by the majority of people that climate change due to human activities is going to be a reality in the very near future, and that we may even currently be seeing some of the early manifestations in the form of increased fluctuations in weather and related phenomena, frequent extremes like excess rainfall leading to floods or deficiencies resulting in droughts, accelerated melting of glaciers, and so on. While every natural disaster or unforeseen event should not be linked directly to the effects of global warming and climate change, it is also not easy to ignore the warning signs that human pressure on the environment and natural resources is at unprecedented levels, and the damage to property and lives is also becoming unacceptably high because of the high populations, huge amount of built infrastructure, high financial stakes in extractive industries, and so on.

All this leads to a heightened concern to find ways to reduce or slow down the impacts of climate change through mitigative and adaptive measures. While the rhetoric of sustainable development is heard strongly on every forum, it is a different thing when it comes to concerted action. As can be seen from successive international meetings on climate change, there have been many disagreements on the relative responsibility of countries at different levels of aggregate and per capita incomes, and agreement has still not been reached on the balance between gross and per capita consumption of environmental resources and the concomitant obligations to the world at large of each country.

What then should be the optimal strategy for a developing country like India, faced with the twin problems of low per capita consumption levels (which demands  a many-fold stepping up of use of natural resources, especially fossil fuels and minerals), and the high contribution to global pollution (because of the huge population)? Although we would all love to rise to the challenge of capping the carbon levels in the atmosphere, and arresting the drift to higher global temperatures, when we look at the choices in the framework of common pool  resources and the divergence between private and public costs and benefits, we will be forced to take a more pragmatic and even selfish stand. While a developing country has to be mindful of the global effects of its increasing consumption, it also has to make a dispassionate calculation of what effect any sacrifices in current consumption will have on the global trends and global climate change scenario.

It appears that any sacrifice by India at the current low levels of per capita consumption will have negligible impact on the global trends, whereas it will cause economic distress within the country, for example to the poor who are yet to achieve reasonable standards of consumption. In such a situation, as Mancur Olson (1965) has demonstrated, the rational (and thereby sensible?) choice would be to make the minimum contribution to the collective good that will keep the protagonist from being criticized as uncooperative in the next climate conference,  while maximizing private (here read country) returns.

However, there is also the danger that most of the incremental benefits of development may be cornered by the already well-off, with little improvement in the plight of the poorest. Such a country or government then could justifiably be pilloried as hypocritical, that is claiming a larger share of the global carbon load on the plea of poverty and low human welfare indicators, but actually ending up with a rich class that lives as well as the better-off in the already developed world. In order to make wise choices that do not result in more poverty in the name of development, we may therefore have to devise and apply more sensible measures of well-being, rather than blindly following the high-consumption paths of the developed world.

The climate change prognoses

The world’s climate is like a global commons; a large number of countries, and billions of individuals, are doing things that are affecting the world climate in unexpected, and unpleasant, ways. This of course is only the latest addition to various other global commons that are known to be under unprecedented pressure, such as the air and water quality, the environment in general (especially the load of chemicals), the soil and vegetation (the erosion of land and forest resources), the natural habitats (forests, wetlands, grasslands, arid lands and wild areas in general), the world’s stock of species (biodiversity), and so on. In more philanthropic spheres, there is concern at the gradual erosion and impoverishment of traditional cultures and societies, with the consequent erosion of languages, local knowledge, art, culture, oral histories and literature, religions, and so on.  These effects are all traced back to the global adoption of western economic and technological models of development, coupled with a gradual homogenisation of cultures and mores, that have amounted to a second wave of domination over the less developed third world after the winding up of the imperial project of the last couple of centuries of the European powers.

Ever since the global environment has become a subject of study, discussion and action in the world forums, it is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has been the main source of our understanding of climate change issues and our main guide to policy. It would be instructive, therefore, to take a brief look at the IPCC reports before going on to analysis of our options. The latest tranche is the Fifth Assessment Report, AR5, 2014, and naturally it has generated a plethora of documents by a large number of authors and drafters, that are available on the internet (thankfully they do not have to cut down too many trees to reach them to us nowadays, but on the other hand, the relatively negligible incremental cost of publishing encourages enormous output!). It therefore becomes difficult for any one individual to access all of these documents, let alone understand or analyse them; we will, therefore, fall back on the executive summaries provided, and refer to published independent critiques to bring in some element of critical understanding.

Let us, then, take a look at one such document: Climate Change 2014. Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Summary for Policymakers, (IPCC, 2014), which is the Working Group II contribution to AR5 (at, accessed on 25 May 2015). The claim is made in this document, that climate change effects are becoming distinguishable from other influences or causes in recent decades: changing precipitation, (accelerated) melting  of snow and ice affecting water resources, shrinking of glaciers, permafrost warming and thawing, shifting geographical ranges of many terrestrial and aquatic species, and a few recent species extinctions (op. cit., p.4). Negative impacts on crop yields have been more common than positive, although some gains have also been studied in high-latitude regions (ibid.).

In all this profusion of information, what can be said with a high level of confidence, according to the WG2 report, is that “it is not yet clear whether the balance of impacts has been negative or positive” (p.5). However, they do ascribe recent periods of “rapid food and cereal price increases” in key producing regions to climate extremes; as also “increased heat-related mortality and decreased cold-related mortality in some regions as a result of warming” (op. cit., p.6). Marginalized, poor people are adjudged (not surprisingly) as more vulnerable to climate change, “and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses”. Impacts are considerable even from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, showing a “significant vulnerability” and “significant lack of preparedness” to current climate variability, in some sectors (ibid.).

A possible source of relief for us in India is that the WG2 report ascribes only “minor” contribution of climate change (medium confidence level) to food production in the subcontinent (Figure SPM.2, p.7). A previous report Turn Down the Heat of the World Bank (2013), which was released even as devastating floods were wreaking havoc in Uttarakhand state in June 2013, suggested that South Asia would be especially impacted by climate change as the world atmosphere warms up from the present level of 0.8°C to say 4°C above pre-industrial times by 2100, with sea levels rising by over 100cm, monsoon rains becoming more variable, while floods (and droughts) would be more frequent and damaging  (Balasubramanian and Dilip Kumar, 2014). Kolkata is suggested to be among the 10 most exposed cities to flooding, and a significant reduction in crop yields is to be expected due to extreme heat by the 2040s. Reduced water availability due to changes in precipitation levels and falling ground water tables are likely to aggravate the situation. The worst effects, it was suggested in the report, could be avoided by holding global warming below 2°C (above pre-industrial times).

We need not cover the climate change prognostications in any further detail here, because the material is available everywhere at whatever level of expertise is required. However, a few considerations come up immediately to the discerning observer. One is, of course, what is the rigour of these exercises: are these prognoses just guesses, or are they based on specific cause-and-effect models or formulae. Can we take them on face value, as actual predictions rather than just alternative scenarios? Secondly, what will be the likely actual rise in global temperatures due to human activities, especially the addition of carbon due to a greater burning of fossil fuels as the third world countries seek to increase their production levels? Thirdly, what will be the efficacy of the mitigative (and adaptive) measures usually suggested (e.g., limiting the additions of each nation’s future carbon contributions, investing in additional carbon-absorbing measures like new forests), and how would these measures relate to the quest for better standards of living and higher incomes in the poorer countries of the world? Finally, what should be the policy to be adopted by India (and other developing countries with large numbers of poor), that will balance the needs of growth and development in the immediate future, and the justifiable demands of the world at large, and of future generations of our own countries, to a fair and equitable share of the world’s resources, which include the global climate commons? 

Turning to the first issue, that of the dependability of the prognoses, the problem is that there is a wide range in the predictions according to different assumptions or scenarios. The IPCC reports ascribe different levels of confidence to their statements, but it is easy to be somewhat mislead, because the words “high confidence” are often juxtaposed to projections or to the possible impacts of mitigative and adaptive measures, whereas they usually refer to phrases in the earlier parts of the respective paragraphs that refer to other aspects, not the measures themselves. A simple example is this one on p.9 of the WG2 summary (IPCC, 2014):

“Responding to climate-related risks involves decision-making in a changing world, with continuing uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts and with limits to the effectiveness of adaptation (high confidence).” (emphasis in original)

This sentence suggests, to an unwary reader who is skimming the text, that there is a high confidence in the severity and timing of climate change impacts, and in high effectiveness of adaptation, whereas the text actually suggests the exact opposite: there is high confidence in the continuing uncertainty of impacts and in the limits to the effectiveness of adaptation.

From the figures accompanying these paragraphs in the WG2 report, it appears that there will be warming almost everywhere, except a few patches in the north Atlantic, where however the moderate cooling effect is “not statistically significant”.  What we are given to understand is that the projections (which range from say 1 to 4°C above pre-industrial times) by 2100, are based on a combination of diverse sources:

“…empirical observations, experimental results, process-based understanding, statistical approaches, and simulation and descriptive models. Future risks related to climate change vary substantially across plausible alternative development pathways, and the relative importance of development and climate change varies by sector, region, and time period (high confidence). Scenarios are useful tools for characterizing possible future socioeconomic pathways, climate change and its risks, and policy implications. … Uncertainties about future vulnerability, exposure, and responses of interlinked human and natural systems are large (high confidence).” (Op. cit., p.11, emphasis in original)

Once again, the casual reader may well go away with the impression that future vulnerability, exposure, etc. are large, whereas the sentence only states (with high confidence) that the uncertainties are large.

In a long and detailed critique of such dire environmental prognoses, Bjørn Lomborg (who describes himself in his Preface as “an old left-wing Greenpeace member”), also addresses the issues of global warming and climate change (Lomborg, 2001, Ch.24). On considering all the evidence, Lomborg concluded that there has been a rise in temperature of some 0.6°C over the past century, and it is reasonable to ascribe this partly to an anthropogenic greenhouse effect,  “although the impression of a dramatic divergence from previous centuries is almost surely misleading” (op. cit., p.317). He points out the basic weakness of the prognoses, that still are unable to say with certainty whether a doubling of CO2 concentrations will lead to a rise of 1.5°C or the “dramatic” high estimate of 4.5°C.  A weakness he points out is that the IPCC models do not deal with other effects (water vapour feedback and clouds, for example), that may reduce the impact. Lomborg feels that the large number of “scenarios” presented  indicates that the IPCC has “explicitly rejected making predictions about the future, but instead gives us ‘computer-aided storytelling’, basing the development of crucial variables on initial choice and depicting normative scenarios ‘as one would hope they would emerge’ “ (quoting de Vries et al., 2000, p.170). Indeed, Lomborg points out that some of the scenarios even suggest a net gain in incomes in both the developed and developing worlds.  

Not only is the quantum of temperature rise uncertain, but the consequences are also not as devastating as people have been led to assume: “Global warming will not decrease food production, it will probably not increase storminess or the frequency of hurricanes,…” and so on. However, it will have costs (to the order of $5 trillion), and it will “hit the developing countries hardest”,  “primarily because they are poor – giving them less adaptive capacity” (Lomborg, 2001, p.317-18).

As can be expected, such sceptical ideas have not been received kindly, and there are numerous counters, e.g. the Danish biologist Kåre Fog’s website, dedicated to debunking Lomborg’s arguments. This paper does not claim to be a scientific assessment of these arguments and counter-arguments, and concerned readers would do well to delve into the voluminous literature available. Fog states that it is not sufficient just to read Lomborg’s book and think of the ideas in it, but one has to go back and check every piece of information to see whether it is “true” and if “the presentation is balanced” (Fog, op. cit., probably 2004, accessed 31-08-2015). Of course, we would have to state the same of the climate change prognoses as well, such as are contained in the IPCC documents. Obviously, every reader cannot undertake such a verification, and since the effects are far out into the future, it becomes a matter of strategic choice how far the arguments are pursued (especially as regards national actions in response to the prognoses).

It would perhaps be fair to state here that Lomborg himself seems to be not so much a climate-change denier today, as advancing arguments based on strategic priorities to use the available money, especially international development assistance, in areas that will offer the maximum gains in terms of human welfare: public health, for instance. Academics tend to dismiss this as pseudo-science, which provides for a lot of heated arguments in the media and on public platforms. 

What about the likely impact of the mitigative measures that we are all exhorted to take in the present so that our futures can be secured? Once again, we turn to an IPCC “Summary for Policymakers”, which is all that the average reader is going to have time to look at, this time of the Working Group III to the fifth IPCC report (IPCC, 2014b). This report, like the previous one cited, is prefaced by an equally punctilious and precise statement of the basis of the uncertainty evaluations. The report points out that “Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently”,  which therefore demands “international cooperation” (op. cit., p.5). This immediately brings up “Issues of  equity, justice, and fairness”, because past contributions to global CO2 have been different (we point fingers at the industrialized countries), and current challenges (to reduce poverty, to increase incomes) and capacity to take up mitigation and adaptation measures also differ (developing countries are at a disadvantage here). Further, “Climate policy intersects with other societal goals creating the possibility of co-benefits”, which suggests a stronger basis for undertaking climate action, and so on (ibid.).

An important part of the WG3 report is the information on the trends in greenhouse gases (GHGs) and their drivers (op. cit., p.6 et seq.). We are told that total anthropogenic GHG emissions grew by around 1.0 gigatonne CO2 equivalent (a rate of 2.2% per year) from 2000 to 2010, as against just 0.4 Gt per year (a rate of 1.3%) from 1970 to 2000. It may be noted that these are just year-to-year increases in the annual GHG emissions; the actual emissions were of the order of 49 Gt in 2010 (the highest recorded so far). The major contribution to the annual GHG emission increase is said to have come from CO2 emissions from Fossil Fuel combustion and Industrial Processes: in 2010, these contributed around  65%,  followed by other major sources like CO2 from Forestry and Other Land Use (11%, with a very large uncertainty of the order of +/- 50%), methane (16%), nitrous oxide (6.2%), fluorinated gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol (2.0%) (op. cit., p.7). Population and economic growth have been the major drivers of increases in CO2 emissions, and have outpaced emission reductions from improvements in energy intensity (op. cit., p.8).

What are the prognoses for global CO2 levels? Without additional efforts at mitigation, the growth in emissions is expected to “result in global mean  surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7°C to 4.8°C compared to pre-industrial levels”,  disregarding climate uncertainty, with a three-fold increase in CO2 concentration levels from around 430 ppm CO2 eq in 2011 to 1300 ppm by 2100 (op. cit., p.9). The WG3 summary document goes on to discuss mitigation measures and their possible costs, based on a collection of about 900 mitigation scenarios based on integrated models, which would leave the CO2 load by 2100 between 430ppm and 720ppm (op. cit., p.10). As can be imagined, it is not easy to comprehend all these variations and their implications, but it appears that a concentration of around 250ppm would be likely to keep temperature rise below 2°C. Pledges made at Cancun are said to be “broadly consistent with cost-effective scenarios that are likely to keep temperature change below 3°C” (p.13). Lomborg (2001), however, has earlier cautioned that any action to reduce emissions in the immediate future will have heavy costs into the future, and we have to carefully balance the potential gains from accelerated development (and consequent higher welfare) in the intermediate run against the admittedly highly uncertain penalties that will come in the far future, on the unrealistic assumption that no improvements will take place in technology (even new sources of energy, for instance).

Having covered briefly the possible impacts of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, we go on in the next section to the strategy choices that a developing country like India is faced with.

(This article series is based on my paper prepared for the “International Conference on Climate Change and Social-Ecological-Economic Interface-Building”, May 20-21, 2015, organized by the Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources (CEENR), Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru-560072, India. Uploaded at:


Climate change, green-house gases, development strategy, natural resources, forest, carbon sequestration, IPCC, REDD


Balasubramanian, M. and P. J. Dilip Kumar. 2014. Climate Change, Uttarakhand, and the World Bank’s Message. Economic & Political Weekly, Vol.XLIX No.1, January 4, 2014, p.65-68.

de Vries, Bert, Johannes Bollen, Lex Bouwman, Michel den Elzen, Marco Janssen and Eric Kreilman. 2000.  Greenhouse Gas Emissions in an Equity-, Environment- and Service-Oriented World: An IMAGE-Based Scenario for the 21st Century. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 63:137-74. (Quoted by Lomborg, 2001, p.317).

IPCC. 2014. Summary for Policymakers. In:  Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC  AR5). [Field, C.B. et al.]. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom and New York, USA, pp.1-32]. (, accessed on 25 May 2015).

IPCC. 2014b. Summary for Policymakers. In:  Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC  AR5). [Edenhofer,O., et al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom and New York, USA, pp.1-32]. (, accessed on 25 May 2015).

Lomborg, Bjørn. (1998) 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist. Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press, UK and New York.

Olson, Mancur. 1965, 1971. The Logic of Collective Action. Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (USA).

World Bank. 2013. Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the case for Resilience. World Bank, Washington, D.C. (, accessed in January 2014)

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