Climate lectures don't make lessons

There was a jamboree in my town recently, a gathering of the powerful and famous, to discuss the climate change agreement the world must carve out in Copenhagen by end 2009. But what happened was rather discomforting: We Indians were publicly lectured, castigated and rapped on our knuckles for being bad boys and girls by one and all. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told us developing countries must make more efforts to address climate change and get on-board with industrialized world for solutions. “They have to do more”, he said, because the climate crisis was a common and shared responsibility and “countries should not argue on who has contributed more or less to tackle global warming.” So, in one stroke, the key issue of differentiated responsibilities and the key fact the industrialized world was not cutting its emissions were swept aside. Instead, we were told, sternly, President Barack Obama had assured the secretary general he would do his best. What this meant in real terms—US carbon dioxide emissions have increased by over 20 per cent in the last 15 years—was another matter, of course. We pupils should not question.

Finnish President Tarja Ha-lonen also chipped in: “India must do more”. unep head Achim Steiner went further and asked for a voluntary cap on greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. US Senator John Kerry, on long-distance link, repeated the old Bush line that climate renegade usa would take action only if China and India took binding commitments. All in all, we were firmly shown our place, properly admonished.

The Indian side was stunningly silent. Our foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, who inaugurated this bash-India do, was sidelined as he repeated the now much-abused position: “We did not create the problem and we are not required to solve it”. His call that climate change should not add to a greater burden, by imposing conditionalities on countries like India, was scoffed at. Instead, leaders of the western world got a great opportunity to inform the Indian public of the inadequacy of the government’s position.

In this round of the climate change public relations game, the Indian government lost badly. Worse, it has lost an opportunity to tell the industrialized world how it wants the entire world to deal with this global catastrophe, already beginning to hurt us. We are victims of climate change and the world must not be allowed to forget this.

What should India have made clear?

One, the industrialized world get its act together to cut its emissions, and not just talk big. Our foreign minister should have shown the door to the European leaders, who glibly said they would cut their ghg emissions by 30 per cent by 2020, if other countries joined. He should have asked each industrialized nation to explain—to convince us—how they would actually cut their emissions domestically, given a pathetic track-record. The hosts of the next conference of parties, the Danes, should have been told, without mincing words, their emissions are increasing and that is not good for the world.

All these nations should have been rapped for inaction. They should have been hauled up for saying they would ‘help’ reduce emissions in the developing world, taking the cheaper route of buying into ways to ‘offset’ theirs. Because it is in all our interests, we should have pushed the industrialized world to reinvent and transform its energy system, drastically, starting now.

Two, we should have said, at the conference and so to the world media, India was serious about climate change, aware of cutting emissions and already doing a lot, at her own considerable cost and pain.

For instance, the government should have boasted it had agreed—and perhaps it is the only one—to fund public transport buses, not private cars, as part of its financial stimulus plan, a move that will transform mobility patterns and reduce emissions in the years to come. It should have explained that the Union ministry of urban development, managing this programme, had already announced that purchase of buses would require cities to undertake internal reform, including compulsory waiver of taxes on public transport and increased taxes on private cars. Here was a car-restraint strategy even the richest have not attempted. We should have challenged the world to learn and emulate.

We are also learning the great leapfrog—jumping the fossil fuel trajectory by cutting before we add to the emissions pool. For instance, large numbers of Indians, particularly poor and energy-insecure, have already jumped to using compact fluorescent lamps (cfls), side-stepping the inefficient bulb. Many states are undertaking this programme—to push for efficiency—at their own cost; these appliances are more expensive than what we currently use. In other words, we are not waiting to first get rich and then move towards a low-carbon trajectory, as the western world has done.

This is not to say we are doing enough or cannot do more. Fact remains our constraint is the making of the rich world. We need funds to be able to move faster, to make investments today, not tomorrow. We can, would like to, build solar powered facilities that would substitute the coal-powered stations of the future. But we know this energy source is still expensive. We know this because, even as the rich world lectures big on good behaviour, it has done little to change its energy systems towards renewables.

It is time the Indian government made this clear: we are not the climate renegades. We can change. We are ready to believe. Till date, all we have got are lectures, but no lessons. That is not good enough. Not for us. Not for the world.

—Sunita Narain