2009 is full of promise
Sunita Narain, January 1, 2009
I spent a week at the climate change conference in Poznan, and realized the world is in deep trouble and deeper denial. Worse, the denial is now entirely on the side of action. It is well accepted that climate change is a reality. Scientists say we need to cap temperature increases at 2°C to avoid catastrophe, which means capping emissions at 450 ppm. We know global average temperatures have already increased by 0.8°C and there is enough greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to lead to another 0.8°C increase. There is still a window of opportunity, a tiny one, to tackle the crisis.

But where’s the action? In the 1990s, when the world did even not understand, let alone accept, the crisis, it was more willing to move to tackle climate change. Today, we are in reverse gear. The rich world has realized it is easy to talk big, but tough to take steps to actually reduce emissions. The agreement was that these countries would reduce so that the developing world could increase. Instead, between 1990 and 2006, their carbon dioxide emissions increased by a whopping 14.5 per cent; even green countries of Europe are unable to match words with action.

So it was that, at the Poznan conference, rich countries aggressively pushed a new climate-tack. They cannot reduce at home, so they have decided to find every way to (1) ‘offset’ their fossil fuel emissions by buying emission reduction certificates in developing countries; or (2) pay to protect emission-absorbing forests; or (3) simply pump their carbon deep into the ground. Indeed, every dirty way not to cut, but to pay, bribe and cajole others to cut will do. Then if all this fails there is the easy fallback: use China and India as punching bags as well as excuses for not taking on hard reductions at home.

In Poznan the effort was to devise a mechanism to pay developing countries to ‘avoid’ deforestation. Why? Because the Nick Stern report said 20 per cent of the world’s emissions were from deforestation in the developing world. Now, this has become a quick-fix solution: stop deforestation and take a 20 per cent advantage in our carbon balance sheet, without doing anything at home.

As a result the mechanism, in negotiators’ parlance called REDD or ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’—naturally, in developing countries—is being built with absolutely no understanding that forests here are not mere carbon sticks to beat the world’s conscience with, or sinks for garbage carbon, but habitats of millions of people. There is no comprehension of the role forests play in a developing country’s economy or in people’s lives. Instead, the intent is misbegotten and single-minded: pay as cheaply as possible to buy rights over forests in the developing world and build as many accounting and certification procedures as possible to make sure there are no ‘leakages’ in the transaction. It is clearly a great business for the crashed and failed consultancy companies of the western world—creative carbon accounting, this time in the forests of the poor. So, this opportunity, which could have enjoined the interests of forest-economies and its people to plant, protect and manage forests so that the world would in addition get the benefit of reducing emissions, is being lost to the self-interest of greedy polluters.

But this is not enough. The world’s addiction to fossil fuel is increasing. So, at Poznan, the second move was to aggressively push for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies—a delicious but still experimental and expensive way to bury carbon dioxide emitted from power plants deep underground —to be used, naturally, in the developing world. Rich countries—and, interestingly, their civil society—piled on to include this technology in the Clean Development Mechanism. Now the developed world, instead of cutting emissions at home, would simply buy carbon credits to invest in this technology in the developing world. More seriously, we would become guinea pigs, for very little is still known of CCS’s risks and viability. As a Venezuelan delegate at the plenary asked, why, if this was such a great technology, was the developed world not building more CCS plants in its own backyard.

But why ask? Just look at the European Union’s much awaited climate package, tactically released on the last day of the Poznan conference. It has a grand 20/20/20 objective—20 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, over its 1990 levels; 20 per cent renewables and 20 per cent energy efficiency target. But what the package forgets to highlight is that 80 per cent of these targets will be achieved through ‘offsets’—payments for action abroad. In all this, let us not even begin to discuss the Australian government’s gutless climate policy, ironically of the new Labour government which came to power on a climate vote, released in the week post-Poznan.

The gloves are off. There are also no real game-changers here. Today, western media, civil society and all its well-meaning and not-so-retired climate converts (Tony Blair to Al Gore and Nick Stern and others) have all bought this position—hook, line and sinker. They are madly running around the world convincing Indians and Chinese to change their behaviours and join the game. They all don’t speak of their country emissions. They only use our black smoke as their shield.

My cynical, year-end, response is maybe Indians and Chinese should join the party and take on emission reduction targets. Best to be on the drinking side; best to be so emission-tipsy that there is little to do. We, too, could play the same non-solution: emit madly but pay and fix others to clean up.

But this is not acceptable. Let’s work on a new future, 2009 on. This is my promise.

—Sunita Narain
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