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Banning HFCs: Too Late and Too Slow

The chief source of new problems is solutions to old problems. The ammonia that we used in domestic fridges as a coolant in the early 20th century was poisonous if it leaked, so in the 1930s we replaced it with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which you can breathe all day without harm. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, it turned out that CFCs, when they leaked, eventually rose into the stratosphere where they began destroying ozone. The ozone layer is the only thing protecting us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, so countries responded quickly in the 1980s when scientists discovered a spreading “ozone hole” over the Antarctic.

In only a few years the world’s nations negotiated the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which mandated the elimination of CFCs from all industrial processes by 1996. The deadline was met, and the latest projection is that the ozone layer will recover to 1980 levels between 2050 and 2070. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the CFCs were replaced in most fridges and air-conditioning units by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). They don’t hurt the ozone, but they are very powerful warming agents – 10,000 times more powerful than the same volume of carbon dioxide – when they escape into the atmosphere.

Global warming was not seen as an urgent threat in the 1980s, so the negotiators were not much concerned by that. If the warming turned out to be a major problem, it could be dealt with later. But it did turn out to be a major problem, and later is now.

The rapid industrialisation of the warmer parts of the world (India, China, Brazil, etc.) has led to an explosion of demand for air conditioning and other cooling technologies. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, about 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be switched on worldwide by 2050.

HFC leakage from air conditioners alone will raise the global average temperature by half a degree Celsius by mid-century. When all the world’s government are pledged to stop the warming before it reaches plus 2 degrees C, and we are already well past plus one degree C,
an extra half a degree is a lot.

So we needed another miracle like the Montreal Protocol – and now we have it. On 15 October, in Kigali in Rwanda, almost 200 countries signed an agreement to curb the use of HFCs being used. US Secretary of State John Kerry called it “the single most important step we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet.”

Well, yes it is, but you are probably noticing a pattern in all this. It’s not so much that we keep getting it wrong. It’s the time it takes to put it right: a century so far, and we’ll still be at it for at least another 30 years before all the HFCs are out of the system.

When you read the fine print of the Kigali Amendment, it turns out that the United States (the second-biggest HFC polluter), the European Union, and some other rich countries will have to achieve their first 10 percent cut in HFC production by 2019 – but the schedule for further cuts is not clearly defined, apart from the fact that they must be down by 85 percent by 2036. (That’s twenty years from now.)

The majority of the world’s countries – including China, the biggest polluter – will only have to freeze their production level in 2024. (At the moment, their production of HFCs is going up by an average of 16 percent a year, which means it could almost triple by 2024.)

The first 10 percent cut by these countries is only due in 2029, and it will be 10 percent of whatever they are producing five years from now – possibly double the current amount. They will then make further cuts in 2030-2045, getting production of HFCs down by 85 percent by the latter date (three decades from now).

India, Pakistan and most of the Middle Eastern countries don’t even have to freeze production until 2028, and their target date for getting to 85 percent cuts in production is 2047. At a rough guess, global HFC production will peak some time in the late 2020s, and will be back down to the current level by the mid-2030s.

Don’t get angry. Countries don’t know how to negotiate any other way: nobody gives anything away if they don’t absolutely have to. But if you want to despair, go right ahead. The pace of the political process does not remotely match the speed with which the threat is growing.

We have to do much better than this if we are to avoid crashing through the plus-two-degree limit and tumbling into runaway warming. We are not ready to make those deals yet, but when we finally are we will have one small consolation. This deal has been far easier to make because it is an amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, not a whole new treaty.

The more treaties we have on climate matters now, however imperfect they may be, the faster we will be able to move when we finally do take fright.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 13. (“Global…2050″; and “India…2030s”)

China’s Quarter-Century

The picture of the two Asian giants that most people carry around in their heads shows China racing ahead economically while India bumbles along, falling ever further behind. People even talk about the 21st century as “China’s Century”, just as they called the 20th century the American Century. But it may turn out to be only China’s Quarter-Century.

The headline economic news this year is that India’s economy is growing faster than China’s. Not much faster yet, according to the official figures – a 7.5 percent annual rate for India vs. 7.4 percent for China – but there is good reason to suspect that the real Chinese growth rate is considerably lower than that.

Anybody who goes to both countries can see that India has a huge amount of catching up to do. The contrast in infrastructure is especially striking: China has 100,000 km of expressways (freeways, motorways); India has only 1,000 km. But the differences in income and productivity are also very big: Gross Domestic Product per capita in China is between three and five times higher than in India, depending on how you calculate it.

But that is a snapshot of now. It was very different thirty-five years ago, when per capita income in India was still higher than it was in China. It was then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision in 1978 to open up the Chinese economy that unleashed the spectacular economic growth rates of the recent past, and an economy growing at ten percent a year doubles in size every seven years.

That means (allowing for a little slippage) that the Chinese economy has grown more than twentyfold since 1978. That’s why it is so far ahead now. India’s growth rate was a quite respectable three or four percent for most of that period, but that gave the Indian economy a doubling time of around twenty years, so it has only grown around threefold during the whole period. India is not chronically poorer than China. It just missed that particular bus.

The next bus has now arrived: India actually could catch up with China if its economic growth rate is now really surging ahead of China’s. There is good reason to believe that it is, because China’s declared growth rate for this year is pure fiction.

China avoided the global recession after the 2008 crash by opening the credit taps to full and embarking on the largest spending spree on infrastructure (roads, housing, railways and airports) that the world has ever seen. But capitalist economies cannot avoid recessions forever. The country is now full of empty apartment buildings, the private debt load has doubled in five years – and the recession is coming.

More than that, China’s period of high-speed growth was probably always going to be limited. Japan enjoyed a quarter-century of ten percent annual growth in 1955-80 and became, for a while, the world’s second-biggest economy. But once its per capita income reached developed-world levels, the growth rate dropped down to developed-world levels too: between two and four percent. (Now it’s almost nothing.)

In fact, all the East Asian economies (except North Korea, of course) have followed the same pattern: a lengthy burst of ultra-high-speed growth, followed by a fall to the developed-state norm once a certain level of prosperity has been achieved. South Korea and Taiwan both did it – and then subsided to a growth rate not very different from that of the United States.

China has also had its quarter-century of ten percent growth, and it is probably over. The official figure for economic growth last year was still over seven percent, but the less easily manipulated numbers for rail freight, electricity production and bank lending suggest that the real growth rate was only around three percent. That is to say, less than half of India’s.

The other thing that will hold China back in future is a steady fall in the population of working age. India’s birth rate is still 2.7 children per woman (though it’s falling fast). China’s is at most 1.7, and the one-child policy means that it may even be lower than that. So fewer and fewer young Chinese are entering the work-force, whereas there will be no shortage of young Indians.

India’s total population will overtake China’s in less than five years (they are both around 1.3 billion), and after that the gap will steadily widen. While China’s population shrinks and its economic growth slows, India is only now entering the golden quarter-century of high-speed economic growth. In 25 years’ time, India may be back in the position it occupied for most of the past two thousand years: the biggest economy in Asia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9 (“In fact…States”)

The End of the BRICs

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable,” said John Kenneth Galbraith, the wisest American economist of his generation. (“A paltry honour,” he would have murmured.) But you still can’t resist wondering when the Chinese economy will be bigger than the US economy – or the Brazilian bigger than the British, or the Turkish bigger than the Italian – as if it were some kind of horse race.

The latest document to tackle these questions is “The World in 2050″, drawn up by HSBC bank, which ranks the world’s hundred biggest economies as they are now, and as (it thinks) they will be in 2050. It contains the usual little surprises, like a prediction that per capita incomes in the Philippines and Indonesia, now roughly the same, will diverge so fast that the average Filipino will have twice the income of the average Indonesian by 2050.

The Venezuelan economy will only triple in size, but Peru’s economy will grow eightfold. Per capita income will double-and-a-bit in Nigeria; in Ethiopia it will grow sixfold. Bangladesh powers past Pakistan, with a per capita income in 2050 that’s half again as big as Pakistan’s. (It’s only two-thirds of Pakistan’s at the moment.) And so on and so forth: local phenomena mostly of interest to local people.

But what’s happening at the top of the list is of interest to everybody. That’s where the great powers all live, with the BRICs nipping at their heels. Or rather, some of the BRICs are nipping at their heels, and some are not. That’s the big news.

We owe the concept of the BRICs to Jim O’Neill, who came up with it almost fifteen years ago when he was head of economics at Goldman Sachs. He was the first to realise that some big, poor countries were growing so fast economically that they would overtake the established great powers in a matter of decades.

The really impressive performers were Brazil, Russia, India and China, so he just called them the BRICs – and pointed out that at current growth rates the Chinese economy would be bigger than that of the United States by the 2040s. We’re quite familiar with that kind of prediction today, but at the time it was shocking (especially to Americans), and the term BRIC has become firmly entrenched in the language. Just in time for HSBC to spoil it.

By now the BRICs are formally the BRICS (with a capital S added for South Africa), . But the South African economy is only in the group out of courtesy, because you couldn’t leave Africa out altogether. It’s much smaller than any of the others and growing very slowly, so you can safely leave it out of the calculations altogether.

China is performing roughly as expected, and by 2050 its economy will be around 10 percent bigger than that of the United States. (Per capita income, of course, is a different matter, and even then China’s will be only a third of America’s.) India will come next, but with an economy only one-third as big as China or the United States
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But the other BRICs practically vanish from view. Brazil hasn’t even overtaken Britain by 2050, despite having three times as many people. And Russia’s performance is downright embarrassing: its economy barely doubles in the next 35 years, and it ends up smaller than Spain’s. So six of the top ten countries in the 2050 list are already there today, and the world isn’t going to look so dramatically different at all.

Now, predictions like this are open to all sorts of criticism. China’s growth rate has consistently been two or three percentage points higher than India’s for several decades. Project that to 2050, and China ends up far ahead of India. But China’s growth rate is falling, and India’s may even overtake it this year.

India will almost certainly grow faster in the long run, because it has a young, rapidly growing labour force and China does not. There’s enough time for that to change the pecking order radically by 2050.

The recent performance of the economy obviously affects the long-range forecast more than it should, so Russia drops down the list and Mexico goes soaring up. Five years ago it would have been the other way around, and yet there’s no reason to believe that the fundamental strengths of either economy have changed.

And then there are the “Black Swans”, events like the Sarajevo assassination that tumbled the world into the First World War and invalidated all existing assumptions about the economic future. Not to mention the disasters that you know are coming, like catastrophic climate change – but leave out of your calculations anyway, because you don’t know how to quantify them and don’t know when they will arrive even to the nearest decade.

All that said, some sketchy notion of what the future may bring is better than no idea whatever. And the basic idea behind the BRICs is still sound: the centre of gravity of the world economy is moving south and east.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 12. (“The Venezuelan…people”; “By now….altogether”, and “The recent…changed”)

Lifespan: Three Months a Year

Everybody knows where the population explosion came from. Two centuries ago birth rates and death rates were high everywhere, and population growth was very slow. Then clean water, good food and antibiotics radically cut the death rate—and the human population of this planet increased 300 percent in the past 90 years.

Eventually, as people moved into the cities and big families were no longer an advantage, the birth rate dropped too. The world’s population is still growing, but it will only increase by 50 percent in the next 90 years. So far, so obvious. But what’s happening to the human lifespan is equally dramatic.

Here’s the key statistic: the average human lifespan in a developed country has been increasing at three months per year ever since the year 1840.

Everybody assumes that lifespan grew much faster in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is growing much slower now. But no. It has plodded along at the same rate, adding about three months to people’s life spans every year, for the past 175 years. And yes, that does mean that a baby born four years from now can expect to live, on average, a whole year longer than a baby born this year.

There have always been some people who lived to 70 or 80, but the average age at death in 1840 was only 40 years. By the year 2000 it was 80 years. That’s 40 more years of life per person in 160 years.

And lifespan is still increasing at the same rate. In Britain, for example, the average lifespan has increased by 11 more years in the past 44 years. Three months per year, just like in the 19th century.

This is why actuaries predict that babies born in the year 2000 will have an average lifespan of 100 years. Give those babies the 80 years of life that people who died in 2000 enjoyed, then give them an extra three months for every one of those 80 years—and they will have 20 years more years to live. That is, an average of 100 years.

This sounds so outlandish that you instinctively feel there must be something wrong with it, and maybe there is. The fact that it has gone on like this for 175 years doesn’t necessarily mean that it will go on forever. But it’s not stopping or even slowing, so the smart money says that it will continue for quite a while yet

What about the developing world? Most of it has been playing catch-up, and by now the gap isn’t very big any more. In China the average lifespan was only 42 years as recently as 1950—but then it began increasing by six months per year, so that the average Chinese citizen can now expect to live to 75. Once you hit an average lifespan of 75 years, however, the pace slows down to three months per year, the same as in the developed countries.

India is a little behind China: average lifespan was still 42 years in 1960, and is now 68, so it’s still going up at six months per year. But we may expect to see it fall to the normal three months per years in about 2030, after the average Indian lifespan reaches 75.

All the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are in the same zone. The sole exception is Africa: where 35 countries have average life spans of 63 years or lower. But even most African countries are seeing a slow growth in average lifespan.

So do we end up with a huge population of people so old they can barely hold their heads up, let alone eat solid food? Probably not.

Three hundred years ago Jonathan Swift wrote about people like that in his satire Gulliver’s Travels. Struldbrugs, he called them: people who could not die, but went on ageing until they were so decrepit and disabled that death would have been a mercy.

They were declared legally dead when they reached eighty, as otherwise their longevity would mean they ended up owning everything. But they weren’t really dead; now it was the public that had to support them for the rest of their interminable lives.

In real life, crippling diseases and disabilities are still mainly a phenomenon of the last decade of life, and as the lifespan lengthens that final decade also moves.

Demographers now talk about the “young old”, who are in their 70s and 80s and still in reasonably good shape—and the “old old”, in their 90s and 100s, who are mostly frail and in need of care. So the time is probably coming when people must work until into their 80s, because the over-65s will amount to a third of the population. No society can afford to support so many.

But by then people won’t be decrepit in their 80s. And the only alternative is dying younger.