Sunday, November 29, 2015

Climate Change talks, weighted averages and moral highground

It is that time of the cycle again. Where world leaders sit around, pontificate and negotiate how best to share the burden of cutting carbon emissions. It is that time where Tom, Dick and Harry from the media showcase fabulous moral outrage at how little world leaders have committed to, and how the human race is going to destroy itself by 20xx. The air is going to be thicker with the scent of sanctimony than an agraharam from the 1950's.

Competitive green grandstanding aside - we need to focus on two key questions. How grave is the problem? And what is the most just way of sharing the burden?

Science is now certain that the earth is warming, and weaseallably certain the humans are driving this temperature increase. There is no clear-cut prediction about how much warming will happen by when and how much it will affect the world. But let us accept that the problem is grave enough already. (Personally, I am uncomfortable with accepting mathematical models and so want to retain a speck of scepticism. But this is largely due to the fact that I worked in an industry where I created mathematical models to reflect my views)

Now, let us move to the second part of the problem. One of sharing the burden. The debate is outlined as follows. The stage is set as a face off between the Old Pollutants  - North America, Europe, Japan (OPs) vs. Aspiring New Pollutants (ANPs) - India, China.

The Old Pollutants' argument goes thus - We are facing a humongous task ahead of us. We need to share the burden. We do not have the luxury of 'allowing' you xx years of unbridled pollution and then think about increasing your share in cutting emissions. Just because you are new to the game, you cannot be given some time window.

The aspiring new pollutants argument goes thus - You guys had a go, you guys are rich. You take the lead in cleaning the place. We are just beginning to see the kind of growth you saw 30 years ago. Having an energy burden placed on us is unfair.

The Old Pollutants want Countries to commit to cutting their overall emission levels from current levels. The aspiring new pollutants want a time window before they make explicit commitments.

The Old pollutants have been very savvy in framing the debate and have taken any discussion of per-capita carbon emission off the table. Due to the relative bargaining power they wield, they have been able to force the ANPs to negotiate on overall limits. They have claimed "moral highground" by leading the charge on initiating action on climate change. This article from Willem Buiter showcases this line of thinking really well.

The Professor titles the piece - "Does poverty give a country the right to pollute the atmosphere?" straight-away climbing on to the moral high horse and refusing to come down. He goes on to say that Countries such as India suffer from post-Colonial hangover, argue that it is their turn to pollute, cite poverty as a reason when they still have military expenditure and are essentially shrugging off their moral obligation to fight climate change. If I were not inclined to give the benefit of doubt to the good professor, I would call the piece racist.

These arguments are spurious in the extreme. The ANPs are not claiming that it is their turn to pollute. The west seems to have the view that the top 'n' polluting Countries should pull together and lead the way. So, 1.2 billion strong India has a role, but no Country from the Middle East features on these lists. Technically, using this starting point, if India were to splinter and break itself into 30 Countries, we can use as much coal as we would want to, and then some. Utter balderash.

Per-capita numbers are out of whack in the extreme, but why spoil a good story with facts
By any yardstick, per-capita consumption is the apt parameter to compare emissions levels to be just. India can be asked to take the lead and begin chipping in even when it reaches, say, 75% of the per-capita levels seen in Western Europe. Right now, India hovers at around one-sixth of the per-capita levels seen in Western Europe, around 6-7% of the per-capita levels seen in the US, and less than one-third of the per-capita seen by fellow ANP China. Why India is even at this meeting and thinking of commitments baffles me.

The argument from India should simple. We will attend this meeting when our per-capita numbers are 50% of that of the developed world. 300 million Indians are below poverty line. To us, this seems a bigger, and more immediate problem than fretting about potential global impacts of warming a few decades down the line.

Accepting any form of carbon emissions control, any time in the future will be cruel to Indians. particularly the poorest Indians. We cannot afford to increase the cost of energy at this crucial juncture. The idea of limiting overall emissions is fatally flawed.

It's the weighted averages, stupid.
Let us see how the underlying numbers behave with a thought experiment. Let us say, we divide the Indian population into 5 different groups, A to E in order of their carbon footprint. 'A' being the group with the highest footprint and E being the group of people flirting with the poverty line. And let us say, the percentage of population belonging to each category and their respective emission levels are as follows (in some random units). Needless to say, the category A will have carbon emissions substantially higher than the rest. India being India, around half the population will have very low carbon emissions.

Now, let us say that Indians follow a regimen where each individual looks to cut emission Individuals in A, B and C should manage this. The emission number for E is probably just their share from common utilities such as Railways, Roadways etc. So, this probably creeps up a smidgeon. Conservatively, let us say group D stays flat. So, we have a table that probably looks like the one given below in 2020.

Now, due to natural progression seen in a developing Country, there will be some shifts from lower category to higher category. Even for India's level of governance and management, he percentage of people really poor should fall in 5 years. So, proportion of E should fall, and we should see a general bumping up across the board. The 2020 table probably looks like the one shown below.

Now, comes the funny part. The average emission levels of three out of 5 has fallen, one has been flat, and the least significant contributor has gone up a smidgeon.The fall has been steep in categories A, B and C. We are talking off a 10% cut in emission levels across multiple sections for a Country with a chronic power shortage. So, one might expect that the overall emission levels would be lower.

However, the overall average emission in 2015 is 15.9 while the one in 2020 is 17.2, about 9% higher. So, under aggressive assumptions about cut in emissions in each category, we still see an increase in overall emission levels. This is the case even under the assumption of modest shifts in weightages across categories. This is probably what will happen in India over the next 10 years or so. So, if we assume that folks riding bicycles would want to upgrade to motor bikes, and the ones with motor bikes will want to upgrade to cars, then even if we are careful across the board in each category, the overall emission level will probably increase. (And we have not even factored in population increases)

Any commitment India makes, or hints at potentially making in another 5 years time will be suicidal. The western world's moral high ground is utter tosh. India sells ten times as many bikes as cars each year. Ten times! In the west, they use motorbikes only if they want to make a statement. Motorbike transport is considered so blatantly risky that no self-respecting westerner will use it as a regular vehicle to commute. In India, the ones travelling by motorbikes are the luckier, wealthier lot.

The audacity with which these climate change negotiations have been outlined by the developed nations is spectacular. The irony of the developed world leading this need for lowering emissions is completely lost on most participants. The most benign nation and carbon-friendly western Country cannot begin to understand the first ideas of a "scarcity economy".

Scarcity Economy: Hands up if you have you heard of Compression Xerox
I worked in a bank in London where it was fashionable (for a while) to do photocopies back-to-back. This way we could all kid ourselves about doing something for the environment. I graduated from one of the better colleges in the Country where the education was heavily subsidized. On an average, students studying there were wealthier than 90% of their compatriots. This does not mean they were rich, it is just another number to say how poor vast parts of the Country were/are. Quite a few students used to study with compression xerox copies of their classmates' notes. This way, on an A4 page you could go back to back and squeeze 4 sides on to this.

This does unseemly things to the eyes, but budgetary constraints demanded this kind of cost-cutting. And I graduated in the 21st century, so I am not narrating some independence-era sob story here. At a cost of around 40 paise (that is less than 1 cent)  per side of photocopying, Indians in the 90th percentile or above as far as wealth was concerned found the need to reduce this cost by 60%without really evaluating the health cost associated with it (On top of this, we used to share these photocopies. But lets ignore that for the time being). The annual cost of photocopying the normal way would have amounted to $10 per student. We were screwing over our own eyes by attempting to slash this by another 60% or so.

Type in Indian middle class mentality, and you will see gazillion articles on top 10 habits followed by Indians in a bid to cut corners. Squeezing the life out of a toothpaste tube, adding water to 'draw' the last droplets of shampoo, 'merging' two bars of soap are all part of the normal upbringing for Indian kids. Shekar Kapoor has actually written a very interesting article on how this mentality might be holding us back. As an entrepreneur, the one thing that keeps me up at night is the worry about whether I am not thinking big enough.

On more real world metrics, a majority of Indian states face regular chronic power shortages, a decent proportion of our villages still do not have electricity. Actually, make that an indecent number of Indian villages still do not have electricity.

A scarcity economy whose individuals have been frightfully economically conscious historically, whose citizens on a per-capita basis pollute less than 10% of the guys on the other side of the table is being asked to reduce overall emissions when 20% of its population is still below poverty line. This would be satire gold if it were not so tragic.

And India still has the gall to attend global climate change conferences. And the world still has the gall to demand that India chip in at an overall level to combat climate change. On top of all this, the developed world wants to pretend as if all this is done as a moral obligation to save the world. What about the moral obligation to improve the life of the poorest billion in the world? What about the morality of imposing extraordinary cost on the current generation of really poor people, in a bid to potentially improve the lives of the next-to-next generation of reasonably well off people?

Moral high ground is just a facade, this is old-fashioned bullying. Either that, or the greens have hijacked this debate so much that no one cares about the poor of NOW, half as much as they worry about 'generations to come'.

I want to get on top of some mountain and say "Saving the world is a bloody first world problem. All you holier-than-thous can take your global warming agendas and shove them where the Sun dont shine. Spend 3 weeks in a poor village in Bihar, see their energy 'consumption' level, remove your effing blinkers off and dont every effing talk to India about Green agenda again."

Unfortunately, the pseudo-greens in my own Country have taken to talking about climate change and environmental protection. Caring about the environment and getting suckered into a commitment on climate change are two entirely different things. The Narmada bachao Andolan and efforts taken to protect Indian forests are Indian initiatives to protect the environment. These deserve a giant share of our time and energy. Climate change is a global problem. To put it bluntly, we have no business on that table. If the rest of the world is inviting us, shame on them. If we land there and pretend that is our problem also, shame on us.

Even India's so-called right wing has been suckered into this. Apparently, our venerable PM Shree Shree Narendra Modiji has mentioned Climate Change as a possible reason for the unusual rains in Chennai. How immensely it can strengthen our negotiating position I can only imagine.

Indian liberals have always preferred grandstanding to hard bargaining
The Indian left has been talking about India adopting Green measures and reducing emissions voluntarily. The left claims to represent the poorest people in the Country, and claims that any harm to the environment disproportionately affects them. This is true, if we considered local environmental damage. But on a global level, the opposite applies.

Again let us look at a hypothetical scenario. Transitioning from Bharat Stage II to Bharat Stage IV (or some such tripe) increases the cost of a truck by perhaps Rs. 1 lakh. It takes the monthly EMI up by perhaps Rs. 2000. This means the average trucker (a giant 200000 strong unorgainized segment) probably needs to spend an extra 2 days on the road every month to bring in the same amount. Somewhere, there is a Freakonomics level research piece waiting to be written on the correlation between AIDS and BS transition. A trucker who might have had 5 days free per month now gets 3 days free thanks to contributing to the environment. Ergo, increased AIDS.

Before the Green brigade jumps on to me on just putting random hypotheses out there, I am not saying there is a correlation here, I am not implying that there would be. I am not saying that we should not care about the environment. I am just saying that any deal India signs on climate change is going to affect the poorest Indians adversely. Something all liberals - Indian and Global, refuse to acknowledge. And that is the biggest travesty in this whole effing fiasco. Their fetish to pretend to do the morally correct thing blinds them to some basic realities.

The well-sold story has made us all lose sense of key priorities
The doomsday predictions from Climate Change impact that might be seen a few decades from tug at heartstrings. But the solutions being discussed are all going to make the current, visible real lives of extremely poor people noticeably worse. Somehow this perversion has gone unnoticed by the world. I am not making a case for not caring about the environment. I want to make a case for fighting malaria and diabetes. These are disproportionately bigger problems for India. Climate Change is a problem either for the first world or for tiny island states. Just like how Greece was a first world problem.

Recently, when attacks happened in Paris and Lebanon, the entire world's attention was on Paris, with Lebanon barely a footnote. Many found it perverse that one set of lives was considered noticeably more important than another. The Climate Change hoopla is far worse. Loss of quality in the future lives of people is considered a bigger crime than the poor quality of present lives of some others. The bigger irony is that the presently poor people/nations are being made to think like that.

Imagine a poor lamb merrily laughing its way to the slaughterhouse thinking how great it would be to feed the people who 'need' the proteins. India participating in Climate Change talks is similar to that. 

1 comment:

  1. Very informative, well explained and to the point. Not using a pollution metric that is based on per capita is insane.