Wake up, South Asia, and Smell the Carbon

05/19/2010 10:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Climate change was the purported theme of the just-concluded summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Thimpu, Bhutan. Instead an Indo-Pakistan rapprochement hijacked the agenda. Countries most at risk in the region, Maldives and Bangladesh, pressed for firm commitments to combat global warming but all they got was a promise to inquire into the issue. Wake up, South Asia, and smell the carbon. Time and tide wait for no man.

South Asia is inured to natural disasters, both natural and man-made. But now man's excesses are provoking nature's wrath. Entire nations -- Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka -- are poised to go under. Inland terrains are not above it all either. Melting glaciers, rising oceans, widespread flooding, mass migration -- such promises to be the fate of a region boxed in by snowcapped mountains and deep seas. Monsoons, already fickle, could play even more truant. No matter how resilient, the region is just not equipped to cope with devastation of this magnitude.

But few in South Asia are losing sleep. Active on the world stage, India within itself confines climate to a high-brow discussion. Tiny Maldives' leadership is plunging to the ocean depths to grab attention but can only make so many waves. Pakistan has other things on its mind. A river water dispute with India has taken center stage with little realization on either side that this is just a portent of looming disasters.

To borrow from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, if ever there was a matter of life and death, this is it, this is it. Here then is a prescription for the region:

- India has emerged as South Asia's principal spokesman on climate change. SAARC needs to supplant it with a unified regional approach. At last year's Copenhagen climate conference, India partnered with Brazil, China, and South Africa to represent the developing world. Missing from the mix were Pakistan and Bangladesh, each equivalent to Brazil in population and three times South Africa. Collaborating on climate with its neighbours will engender tremendous goodwill for India. They in turn must not convolve the agenda with festering sores. A breakthrough here has overflow potential to heal old wounds.

- Articulate in layman terms how people's lives are affected by global warming and what can be done in mitigation. Conspicuous consumption marks arrival in the subcontinent. Most people remain blithely unaware of any impending catastrophe. To throttle emissions, lifestyles would have to be altered and ostentation tempered. Consumers will pay their share for remedies such as cap-and-trade, carbon and petrol taxes, and renewable energy equipment and must become aware. Here too a shared approach would be more effective than countries going solo because local mores and attitudes have much in common.

- Clamp down on power theft by installing smart electricity meters. Power cuts are crippling the economy and making life miserable. Approaching fifty percent, power theft in the region is amongst the highest in the world. Electricity is not manna from heaven that every other plant provides it for free. Smart meters are digital versions of the spinning electric meters ubiquitous today.

Each costs around $100 and virtually eliminates fraud by detecting when a meter is tampered with or when a wire is illegally hooked to a distribution line. Italy has already installed some 30 million smart meters. The Italians spent nearly $3 billion on them but are also saving $750 million every year, thereby recouping the investment in only four years. All of Europe and much of the U.S. are now following suit with millions of smart meters.

Moneyed classes in the subcontinent consume electricity worth hundreds of dollars, if not more, every month but only a fraction pay what they owe. Often the meter reader is paid off, whose pickings trickle upwards to the powers that be. By automatically transmitting meter data to a utility, smart meters do away with manual labour and ensure accurate billing. An investment in them could easily pay for itself in less than a year.

Lacking though is the political will to approve them. Surely for once the ruling elites can swap their greed for society's benefit. Not only will utilities be compensated for what they produce, the overall economy too stands to benefit. Sweden is gaining a third of a percent in annual GDP with smart meters. Imagine the possibilities in far more inefficient South Asia. The need for new power plants, which are mostly fired by coal, would also be curbed, avoiding expenditure and lowering emissions.

- Adopt emerging technologies, institute time-based rates, and make procurement transparent. On the horizon are new carbon-fighting technologies such as energy efficient appliances, electric vehicles, solar farms, and carbon capture and sequestration. And, just as cell phone companies offer cheap rates at odd hours to free up networks at peak usage periods, so too can electricity consumption be modulated through time-based tariffs. Both pecuniary and environmental benefits result. South Asian countries typically offer only a single rate for electricity and need to imbibe global best practices in intelligent rate design.

Finally, multi-national companies supplying much-needed infrastructure are leery of the subcontinent's opaque purchasing ways. The European Union has adopted Internet-based procurement to facilitate transparency. SAARC should consider something similar, at least for carbon-battling equipment. Otherwise small countries would struggle to attract vendors. Everyone would benefit from economies of scale.

Were the intra-regional cooperation on climate to succeed, South Asians could be rightly proud of a singular moment in their history when they unveiled a united face to the world, instead of incessantly airing their dirty laundry. Faced with an existential threat from the Soviet Union, age-old adversaries England, France and Germany came together. Then what stops South Asia from staging a climate concert to transform a common destiny?