As the floods recede in Kerala the focus will shift from the urgency of relief and rehabilitation to more lasting concerns. It will be no surprise if a fair amount of the post-flood narrative is concentrated on pitched political battles on who is to blame for failures in relief. Given the active political culture in the State, it perhaps cannot be otherwise. But the attention will hopefully shift sooner rather than later to a more fundamental lesson from the disaster: the serious consequences of global warming on different parts of India. And an effective strategy to deal with this crisis would have to take on board the near inevitability of urbanisation in India.
There is now fairly widespread scientific acceptance that global warming brings with it extreme climate events. As floods and other extreme climate events make their presence felt with increasing frequency, there is a growing need for an effective strategy to mitigate future disasters or even to adapt to them.
Fortunately, India has moved away from its preoccupation with the distribution of the burden of the measures to control global warming. There has been a growing recognition in official circles over the last decade that India needs more than indignation that the developed countries, who contributed the most to global warming, are now expecting others to sacrifice their development to bring climate change under control. This indignation may make for egalitarian rhetoric but does little to prevent future extreme climate events.
Even as India continues to demand that those who created this crisis should do the most to mitigate it, it has also taken steps to reduce its contribution to global warming. It has taken effective measures to encourage the use of renewable fuel sources. And as the cost of solar and wind energy begins to come down to a point where they are competitive with energy based on fossil fuels, there is talk of India demonstrating an alternative renewable energy based strategy for development that could be a path less developed countries could follow.
The development of an effective energy strategy that gives the less developed world the hope of development without taking global warming to unacceptable levels, may however require us to look beyond merely identifying specific technologies of renewable energy. An energy intensive growth path could raise the demand for energy to levels that would continuously raise the demands being made of renewable energy sources.
An effective strategy would then look not just at the supply of renewable energy but also the demand for all energy. A less energy intensive growth strategy would increase the development benefits of whatever shift there is to renewable energy sources. An effective strategy to reduce the demand for energy would necessarily look beyond the energy sector at the question of whether the development patterns need to be as energy intensive as they are. And among the silent contributors to the energy intensity of development in India is the pattern of urbanisation. There are several elements of this pattern that can raise the demand for energy.
Growth in India has seen a focus on a few urban centres, usually in metropolises or in their vicinity. These engines of economic growth often demand labour that they cannot generate internally. The relatively better paid labour can migrate to the city and bear its higher costs. But there are large numbers of workers, especially in construction, who cannot afford to bring their families to live permanently in the cities. This labour typically tries to earn a livelihood in the city and spend their earnings on their families in villages. This leads them to continuously move between the village and the city. This has led to an increase in the demand for low cost transportation often over very long distances, contributing to the development of small service towns along the way. The cost of transporting millions of workers from villages to cities and back, sometimes involving travel across the country, generates a huge demand for energy that does not always get the attention it deserves. To make matters worse the insensitivity to the demand for energy occurs within metropolises as well. The emphasis on individualised transport rather than public transport has contributed to traffic congestion being greater than necessary. The absence of effective urban strategies to reduce the distance from work to home increases the demand for transportation within the city.
In addition, the absence of any policy to reduce the distance children travel to school places a burden not only on the child but also on the energy footprint of small children.
An effective response to the challenge of global warming is thus not only a matter of identifying the appropriate energy saving technologies and making them economically viable, but also one of paying greater attention to the quiet urban sources of avoidable demand for energy.
The writer is Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru