The world is waking up to global warming. A combination of documentaries like Al Gore's ‘An Inconvenient Truth', major scientific studies by the world's top scientists and extreme weather conditions in places like the U.S., Europe, Australia and the Antarctic, have finally convinced almost all the world's leaders that something dramatic is happening. And something has to be done.
Auroville is a little ahead of the pack in this respect. Information about global warming has been posted regularly on the Auroville intranet over the past few years and there is a general awareness of the problem. What was encouraging about the recent Earth Week celebrations in the community was that, in addition to awareness-raising activities and lectures, there was a clear focus upon practical action, upon what we, as individuals and as a community, can do to mitigate global warming now.
What is carbon-neutral?
The challenge, as it was presented to us by the organizers, was to make Auroville ‘carbon-neutral'. In simple terms, this means that the community would not generate more carbon dioxide (one of the main drivers of climate change) than can be naturally absorbed within the immediate vicinity. It could also ‘offset' the carbon dioxide it generates by, for example, planting trees (which sequester carbon dioxide) or installing alternative energy systems in other parts of India .
In broad terms, the picture is clear. One of the main sources of carbon dioxide emissions, in addition to cattle and the burning of biomass, is the combustion of fossil fuels. Vast amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted by petrol or diesel-driven internal combustion engines and by power stations using fossil fuels like oil, gas or coal to produce electricity. But then there are the less obvious sources of carbon-dioxide emissions. The production of materials like cement and steel puts huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Many common materials, like plastics, are oil-based and polluting in their production (as well as difficult to dispose of). Much of the food on supermarket shelves has been grown using oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, has travelled vast fossil-fuelled distances to get there (the average food item in the U.S. travels more than 1,000 kilometres) and is wrapped in (and often tastes like) plastic.
What can do Auroville do?
In terms of Auroville, then, the basic strategy would be to limit the use of fossil fuels while maximising nature's ability to absorb excess carbon dioxide. How can this be done? Presentations during Auroville's Earth Week gave some clues. These included increasing energy efficiency (through, for example, the replacement of conventional lights with CFL lamps) and using alternative energy. One major problem here is the high cost of installing a solar system. A cheaper option is a hybrid system where the conventional electricity supply is supplemented by one or more solar panels.
Meanwhile, Chandresh is promoting electric transport. The history of such initiatives in the community is not encouraging, but this time he seems to have found a willing customer-base for his ‘QT' (Quiet Transport). As yet, he has only a small number of the electrically-powered cycles he is hiring out, but eventually he hopes to have a small fleet of efficient vehicles which can be charged up either at home or at recharging stations around the community. Ideally, of course, the batteries would be charged using solar power. But even if conventional power is used, the electric vehicle will not pollute while on the road.
Simultaneously, Akash and Sukrit are working on an electric scooter project. Initially, the motors - which are by far the most expensive item - will probably come from China but finally they may be manufactured locally. Akash estimates that such a bike could cost around Rs 40,000 and have a range of between 30-50 kilometres between charges. Operating costs (including changing the battery every two years or so) would come out at between a third and a half of the cost of a conventional petrol-driven bike.
Another way of reducing our carbon dioxide emissions is by reducing our use or consumption of products which emit significant amount of carbon dioxide in their manufacture or transportation. Satprem points out that the Compressed Earth Blocks (CEBs) that he makes and employs in construction are ten times less costly to the environment than cement. Uma from Upasana is promoting a lifetime shopping bag as a first, small step towards eliminating the use of the ubiquitous plastic bag.
Meanwhile, a fascinating exhibition at Kala Kendra revealed the ‘food miles' of some of the common items we purchase in Auroville. Celery, for example, travels 400 kilometres from Bangalore; the wheat used in our bread comes from more than 1,000 kilometres away; processed coconut milk racks up 2000 food miles (the coconuts are grown in Kerala, transported to Nepal to be processed before the finished product travels the length of India again). Worst of all are the Chinese pears (4,000 kms.) and Washington apples which have travelled 10,000 kilometres. The message is clear. Eat local organic produce if you want to reduce your carbon debt.
Is it feasible?
So how feasible is carbon-neutrality for Auroville? What are the main challenges to achieving it? One is clearly the limitations of our knowledge. Manufacturers do not, as yet, include transport miles on the labels of their products, or information about how much carbon dioxide was emitted in their production and packaging. Most of us don't know how much carbon dioxide a tree absorbs over its lifetime or even what the other prime carbon ‘sinks' are.
However, there are more and more websites which do provide easy ways to calculate your carbon ‘footprint' and, even more interestingly, indicate what your ‘carbon allowance' is in global terms. This relates to an interesting concept developed by the Global Commons organization. The aim of the so-called Contraction and Convergence strategy is to contract global carbon emissions and converge per capita emissions across the global population. At present there are big variations between countries in terms of carbon emissions. Every American emits, on average, 20 tons of carbon a year (1 ton of carbon equals 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide). This compares to 10 tons per capita in the U.K. , 3 tons per capita in China and around 1 ton per capita in India .
A personal carbon allowance
Scientists agree that we are putting far too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at present and need to cut global emissions by as much as 90%. So what would be the global per capita carbon allowance if we wanted to prevent global temperatures rising by no more than 2 degrees centigrade (beyond which many scientists believe that positive feedback mechanisms may result in runaway global warming)? Paul Blanchflower, in his concluding presentation during Earth Week, mentioned that some scientists set this at 800 kilos of carbon per person per year, assuming a global population of 6 billion.
Could Aurovilians achieve this? Paul provided some figures. One litre of petrol equals 0.6 kilos of carbon, a gas bottle comes out at 10 kilos and if you consume 1500 KWh of electricity a year, that's another 175 kilos. “So our lifestyle is not so far away,” is his conclusion. The one huge blip on the chart, however, is long-distance travel. A local travel agent estimates that, over the past year, Aurovilians made the equivalent of 3,000 return trips to Frankfurt . One return trip by car to Chennai ‘costs' 20 kilos of carbon, while a return flight to London is a massive 488 kilos of carbon. In other words, journeying to Europe and back from Auroville consumes five eighths of your annual carbon allowance! One group of Aurovilians is so concerned that they are even considering chartering a ship (partially-sail) to take people to the West next year.
“Obviously we need to work on informing and mobilising Auroville to take the steps to become carbon-neutral,” says Paul. “We need translations into Tamil, investigations of the spiritual dimensions, and we need more events like this to raise awareness.” In this context, it's worth noting that a group of Aurovilians are organizing a concert in Auroville on 7th July to coincide with the Earth Aid concerts that will be happening around the world on that day.
Paul concluded his talk with a ‘reality check'. Is trying to achieve carbon-neutrality just one more burden, one more layer of complexity, for the average Aurovilian? Can we be bothered? Do we even think it is relevant to what we are trying to do here?
Our answers to these questions may well determine if we ever become ‘The City the Earth Needs'.
Practical steps towards becoming carbon-neutral
(Notes from a ‘conversation café' during Auroville Earth Week)
Cycle or go electric
Have emission-free zones in Auroville
Tax heavy carbon users, and provide credits for cyclists
Better cycle paths/more cycle repair shops
Car-share and motorcycle-share schemes
Promote community transport (preferably electric)
Communal shopping and deliveries
Eat local, organic
Eat vegan (cattle are a prime source of greenhouse gases)
Subsidize local, organic food to make it more attractive
Avoid plastic packaging and bags
Buy dry goods in bulk
Promote environment-friendly architecture
Do carbon audits for all new constructions
Do carbon audit on Master Plan
Plant more trees both in and outside Auroville and protect
Naturally recycle water
Minimise non-degradable waste
Encourage manufacturers to recycle their products
Practise organic low/no-till agriculture
Switch to alternative energy
Give 'eco-credits' for good environmental practices (can be exchanged for massages etc.)
Use low-wattage and energy-efficient appliances
Switch off electrical appliances when not in use (no stand-by mode)
Don't set air conditioners too low
Set up Carbon Awareness Group to disseminate information in different languages
Make carbon awareness part of core curriculum in schools
Products in Pour Tous to be 'carbon-coded'
Separate section in Pour Tous for low-carbon food
Show 'An Inconvenient Truth' whenever possible and make local version
Disseminate information in the villages and Puducherry
Have frequent musical/fun/celebratory events to raise awareness
Have carbon-neutral, environment-friendly last rites!
What would global warming mean for Tamil Nadu?
According to the key findings of the Stern Report on global warming, commissioned by the U.K Government, Tamil Nadu can expect increased frequencies of coastal storms, higher mean temperatures, reduced crop yields, more frequent droughts and sudden flash floods, as well as the inundation of low-lying coastal areas by rising sea-levels. "Only collaborative action by the government, the community and individuals can mitigate these effects," says M.S.Swaminathan, former Chairman of the Auroville Foundation and India 's foremost agricultural scientist.
See also: Earth Day 2007 photo gallery, for more photos