Bangalore Environment Trust Newsletter, March 1997

Sat, 03/03/2007 - 20:03 admin


Global Warming : From Speculation to an environmental threat

Pollution does not stop at national boundaries. One country's waste all too easily becomes its neighbor's problems and this is particularly true for water and air-borne pollution.

There are, in general, two types of pollution -- flow and stock. The former presents less intractable environmental problems and can be measured relatively easily. It normally degrades and disappears from the affected area in course of time. For instance, smoke, dust, noise, chemical spillage and odour, created mostly by local industry, causing loss of amenity, health and general comfort in the immediate area.

Stock pollution accumulates in the environment over time. It remains unnoticed until a threshold is reached.

There are three serious types of air pollution - the `greenhouse' effect, the destruction of the ozone layer, and acid rain, all resulting from gaseous emissions into the atmosphere.

Over the last few years, global warming has transformed from a scientific speculation to an environmental threat of global dimensions. The awareness and seriousness of the problems is underlined by the fact that virtually every nation has signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was initiated at the Earth Summit in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

Scientific , monitoring has established the build-up of the main greenhouse gases carbon-dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Not all greenhouse gases, however, are created equal. Carbon-dioxide - mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, of which coal produces the most carbon per unit of heat - has been and will be mankind's largest contribution to global warming.

Radiation from the sun heats the earth's surface and this is balanced by the emission of long-wave thermal radiation. Gases such as carbon-dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane absorb well the long wavelength radiation and return part of it back to the surface, causing an increase in the surface temperature. This process, known as the greenhouse effect, has been happening over the last 200 years.

The US is the biggest carbon-dioxide 'emitter'. Its per capita emission is 20 times as much as India's and more than twice of the EU average. Though this accounts for approximately a quarter of total global emissions, even its cutting unilaterally the emissions would have a limited impact on total output. Over the next 50 years, it is reasonably certain that the US' share of the total will decline substantially, as the developing economies grow and increase their use of fossil fuels.

The current per capita fossil fuel use in India and China is low by the industrial countries' standards. If they, as planned, follow the path of development of the industrial world, these per capita levels will grow substantially. They do not see their national interest served in the abandonment of economic growth to slowing global warming.

Table 1: Emissions, income and population: Selected nations, 1990
  Carbon dioxide
per capita (tonnes)
Carbon dioxide
per unit of GDP (tonnes per thousand $)
GDP per capita (thousand $) Population (millions) Carbon dioxide
total (mega tonnes)
Share of world total
Us 21.39 1.09 19.59
USSR 13.01 1.50
EU 8.47 0.61
Japan 8.68 0.58
China 2.37 7.54
India 0.84 3.03


Table 1 shows how nations differ in the efficiency in fossil fuel burning - and hence, carbon-dioxide emissions - into national income. The erstwhile USSR emitted over twice as much carbon-dioxide per dollar of national income as the EU and Japan, and the US 40 per cent more. This suggests considerable scope for efficiency in energy use, and reduced emission's per unit income in such places.

In India and China, the emissions per unit income are much higher than in the industrial nations. However, given the low income levels and the technologies employed, the scope for increased efficiency in energy use in such countries is seen as relatively limited, in the foreseeable future. At the stage of development they are in, significant reductions in energy - fossil fuel - use would be seen as prohibitively costly in terms of the material living standard improvements foregone.

Global warming will have a variety of effects (see figure 1) -,either market related - effects which will become manifest in the national accounts - or non-market related - the impact affection `intangibles' such as ecosystems or human amenity.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) foresees a shift in the current agricultural production pattern away from the current production areas to more northern latitudes. Together with changes in groundwater availability, the increased occurrence of climatic extremes and crop diseases, this may lead to an overall reduction in agricultural yields, and could result in serious regional or year-to-year food shortages. The panel further predicts that the increased stress on ecosystem may lead to the extinction of species unable or too slow at adapt.

The rise in sea levels connected with a warmer climate will threaten low-lying coastal areas. The sea level rise will particularly affect densely-populated coastlines and small island states. Extreme events such as floods and droughts may occur more frequently.' Health experts expect a rise in climate-related diseases such as heat strokes and a spread of vectorborne diseases such as malaria into areas so far unaffected. Others have warned about the consequences of increased water shortages. Global warming may trigger large-scale climate refugees away from the worst-affected regions and coasts.

As a consequence of scientific focus, studies on the economic costs of global warming have also tended to concentrate on 2xCO2. By far, the best-studied aspects are those on agriculture and the cost of sea-level rise. Some further studies exist on, for example, forestry, but hardly any attempt has been made to assess the other aspects, particularly the damage to non-market sectors. Several authors have, nevertheless, tried to provide a first-order assessment of the total global warming damage, including non-market aspects.

The pioneering paper trying to provide a first-order assessment of greenhouse damage in economic terms was a well known study by Nordhaus (1991). Concentrating mainly on the costs of agriculture and sea-level rise, he estimated an overall damage of global warming in the order of a quarter per cent of world GNP. To allow for the many non-market impacts neglected in the study, this value is raised to 1 per cent, with a range of error of 0.25-2 per cent. The figures are based on American data, but Nordhaus claims that they may hold world-wide.

Nordhaus estimated the highest damage loss at $ 10 billions from the rise in the sea level whereas other effects are minor. However, the less developed countries with their dependence on agriculture and the vagaries of nature, are more vulnerable to climatic change. Other estimates put the total damage as $ 48 billions - 1 per cent of world GNP.
Cline's estimates are more alarming. The loss for agriculture is $ 15 billions and the total $ 53 billions - 1.2 per cent of world GNP. The energy loss is estimated at $ 9 billions.
Samuel Fankhauser in "Valuing Climate Change" has come out with detailed sectoral estimates of global warming damage due to carbon-dioxide emissions. He covers the sea level rise, dryland and wetland losses, ecosystems losses along with that of species, forestry, fisheries, energy, water, other sectors. The assumption is that carbon-dioxide concentrations are doubled.

The extremely high estimate for China is caused by two factors - agricultural loss and life/morbidity impacts - both of which are very volatile, and the probability range of total damage is, therefore, particularly wide for this country. Similar values could also apply to India.
In the literature of valuations of loss of lives (VOLLs) in industrial countries, values range from $ 200,000 upwards, with an average of $ 3 millions; Fankhauser chooses a `fairly conservative' figure of $ 1.5 millions. He chooses $ 150,000 - one tenth of the industrial country valuation as the VOLL in low-income developing countries, such, as China, which is envisaged to lose 48.960 lives per year, is more than in all the OECD countries together.
Economists have pointed out that VOLLs do not measure what human lives are `worth'. Rather, they are derived either from considerations of lifetime production, or from the willingness to accept risk as shown in differential wages. Either way, it is "'right" that poor peoples' lives are valued at less than rich peoples'. Fankhauser explains: "(The different valuation) merely reflects the fact that the willingness to pay' for increased safety (a lower mortality risk) is higher in developed countries."

Forecasting the structure of the future societies confronted with climate change is extremely difficult, Predicting the preferences of future generations for commodities affected 1 by the warming is a near impossibility. For this reason, damage estimates will, of necessity, always be uncertain even if scientific uncertainty is resolved.

Table 2: 2xCO2 damage for different regions
  In billion $ (1988) %GNP (1988)
European Union  63.6 1.4
United States 61.0 1.3
Other OECD 55.8 1.4
Japan 8.68
China 2.37
India 0.84

Enumerative estimates usually circumvent this problem by imposing 2xCO2 on an economy with today's structure (table 2). In most studies, the base period damage is then assumed to simply grow in proportion to GNP. This is clearly an approximation and we can expect some damage aspects (for example, the value of endangered ecosystems). to grow faster than others.

It is useful to distinguish three years of policy response: 

  • Prevention policies, intended to slow or halt the rate of increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

  • Mitigation policies, to offset or ameliorate the climate effects of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

  • Adaptation polices, to facilitate human adjustment to the impacts of climatic change consequent upon increased greenhouse gas concentrations.

These are not mutually-exclusive classes of policy response. Policies intended to slow the rate of increase in concentrations could, for example, be combined with those to adapt to some climate change. Examples of each type of response in relation to carbon-dioxide are:

  1. Reductions in the use of fossil fuels. Switching between , fossil fuels with different carbon contents. Removal of carbon-dioxide from power plant smokestacks, its sequestration as carbon, and disposal in such manner that there is no leakage to the atmosphere. Switching from fossil fuel combustion to biomass combustion, with the biomass harvested on a sustainable basis. Reforestation, with the timber eventually harvested to be used so as to prevent carbon-dioxide releases into the atmosphere, such as be encasement in plastic.

  2. Releases of particulate into the atmosphere. Release into the atmosphere gases that offset the effects of the greenhouse gases. Promote cloud formation. Steer tropical storms away from populated areas.

  3. Stop new development in low-lying coastal areas. Change agricultural practices, use different plant and animal varieties. Research new plant and animal varieties.

The lessons from Surat: Many cities are still at risk

The background

The plague in Surat city in September 1994 caused 58 deaths and direct economic losses estimated at Rs. 12,000 crores. This staggering impact forced the government of Gujarat and municipal and health planners across India to ask hard questions about why Surat proved so fertile an environment for the rapid spread of plague. The answers were not hard to find: both on visual inspection and in terms of quantitative yardsticks, Surat was at the time of the plague amongst India's filthiest cities, if not arguably the filthiest. The city generated between 900 and 1100 tonnes of garbage (solid waste) everyday, but only 450 tonnes or under 50% was cleared daily, leading to a massive accumulation of uncleared filth. Compounding this was the extreme congestion of its slums with population densities of 20,000 persons per sq. km.

In May 199.5, the Government of Gujarat appointed S.R. Rao, IAS, as Municipal Commissioner of Surat Municipal Corporation with the express objective of cleaning up the city. Rao's efforts have been dramatically successful, and several independent agencies including INTACH have ranked Surat as one of the cleanest cities in India. Indeed, with its current garbage clearance rate of 850 tonnes per day, representing 94% of total garbage generated, Surat is indisputably one of India's cleanest cities ranking behind only Chandigarh on its parameter. Consequently, Surat is probably no longer seriously at risk of another devastating plague epidemic, but studies conducted since the plague indicate that many of India's smaller cities, and the outer fringes of some of its metropolises are still as dirty as Surat once was, and are therefore at risk of epidemics of killer diseases of the kind that ravaged Surat.

Cities at risk

Studies conducted at The All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Calcutta, show that many smaller Indian cities exhibit high levels of inefficiency in garbage removal, with a significant number falling below the 50% efficiency level. Comments Dr. A. Ravindra, Chairperson, Swabhimana, 'We will be paying too heavy a price to wait for a plaque or some other deadly diseases to clean up our cities. Surat learnt from plague. Other cities can learn from Surat". Initial studies indicate that cities such as Baroda, Kanpur, Varanasi, Agra and even the outer fringes of Calcutta record 50-60% collection efficiency putting them at risk. Many of India's metros, which on average have 80-90% collection ratios, harbour pockets which are extremely filthy, and thus a threat to the surrounding cities. 'We have no option but to quickly and effectively clean up our cities". says S.R. Rao.

Privatization of garbage' removal

Fortunately, as the Surat success story shows, cleaning up our cities is neither expensive nor difficult, though it does require determined leaders and popular support. The total annual cost of removing an additional 400 tonnes of garbage per day from Surat was Rs.30 crores representing a mere 37 paise per capita per day. The Surat example shows that garbage removal can easily be privatised, avoiding the necessity for large investments in transport facilities. Rao negotiated a deal with private contractors entailing a payment of Rs. 130 per ton of garbage removed, and enforced stringent conditions to discourage non-performance, including fines for underloading, spillage of garbage during transit and failure to make the specified number of haulages per day. Tight supervision ensured that the scheme worked well and continues to work today. 'There is enough profit margin in garbage removal even at these prices so it should be feasible for other cities to use this approach for effective garbage removal, provided municipal authorities supervise the process vigorously" adds Rao.

In a sense, garbage removal from specified garbage dumps is not such a difficult task. Much more difficult ' is ensuring that garbage from homes and commercial establishments are transferred to collection dumps. Householders and commercial establishments in Surat, for instance, were habituated to dumping garbage into the nearest drain or street, making it virtually impossible for sweepers to collect and transfer it to specified collection dumps. Rao established a regime of punitive measures including on the spot collection of administrative charges for littering, combined with a sustained programme to educate citizens on the necessity of packaging garbage and disposing- it at specified sites.

Building popular support

Frequent contact between senior municipal officials and citizens ensured that the message got across, and today the average citizen and shopkeeper in surat routinely packs garbage and transfers it to the nearest collection point. "Building acceptance and trust between municipal authorities and the people at large is central to any clean up operation. If this trust is to be built, the citizens must first see tangible evidence of the municipality's sincerity and seriousness. They must also feel involved in the process, which requires frequent contact and communication between municipal authorities and the people. 'We took a lot of trouble to build this trust through a system of compulsory field visits for all municipal officials. In the process, the citizen could see first hand that we were sincere, and we meant business" adds Rao.

Rao set up a system of complaint redressal which also played a big role in cementing trust between citizen and municipal officials. Before he came on the scene, Surat residents would sporadically complain about unremoved garbage or choked drains, but when no action was forthcoming, gave up. Rao changed all that with a centrally monitored complaint redressal programme. Every citizen who made complaint at a local municipal office was issued a red card or a white card depending on the nature of the complaint. All complaints were then centrally monitored, and Rao insisted on replies being sent to complainants within 24 hours in case of minor complaints, and 7 days for more serious ones. "Today, we are able to solve 85% of our complaints within a week, and this has helped greatly in building credibility and trust."

Surat has been transformed from one of India's dirtiest cities to one of its cleanest within a year, and with very minimal additional investments. This success was largely due to the leadership of a inspired city manager supported by a core team of dedicated officials. What they did was simplicity itself, but the results are dramatic. The real import of the Surat success story is that it is easily replicable in other high risk small cities.

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