Consenting adults in a hot world

Back to Basics by Anil Agarwal

Why is equity so important for mitigating climate change?

Very simple: because we are all human beings. Not Americans, Europeans, Japanese or Chinese. Or more intelligent or less intelligent. We are humans. Just humans. Full stop. Now we have to decide whether we want to be like a bunch of raucous kids or a group of consenting adults.

Mitigating climate change will be the biggest cooperative enterprise that humans have ever embarked upon. But cooperation, especially willing cooperation, only comes to humans when there is a sense of fairness. This is the only way humans have behaved since times immemorial. Coercion also works but rarely lasts. Long-term willing cooperation only comes when there is a fair deal. One alternative is to offer crumbs to get cooperation but we all know that countries which use this alternative soon run out of crumbs. The supply usually begets its own demand and for crumbs too big a one.

At Rio in 1992 and Berlin in 1995, industrialised countries agreed to take the lead to reduce their emissions. But sooner or later developing countries will have to engage as well. We all know that. The US and EU delegations do not have to keep reminding us of that. The material- and energy-intensive technological model of the 19th and 20th century West, which is slowly spreading is tentacles across the world thanks to the consistent efforts of Western governments, multinational corporations, international financial institutions and educational institutions like MIT and Oxford, will one day make developing countries as big polluters as Western countries today. Unfortunately, the Earth's atmosphere can only take that much abuse. Already, the emissions of just the industrialised countries have gone beyond 'that much'. The signs of trouble are already here. The decade of the 1990s was the hottest of the millennium.

In other words, all people have to work together in the 21st century to reinvent the world's energy system - the very system that drives all modern industry, agriculture, transport and lifestyles. Unless we all want to go back to pre-modern lifestyles or accept huge ecological and economic damages that will affect the poor the most, industrialised countries have to start reinventing their energy systems today and developing countries tomorrow. It will be the biggest hop, skip and jump we have ever seen and all partners will have to shuffle around in tandem. And they will do it only if there is 'equity'. Crumbs offered by the Clean Development Mechanism are neither enough nor will they last long.

What then is the equity issue in climate change? Firstly, the totality of greenhouse gases that we emit has to be limited and shared. But these emissions are closely linked to economic growth, and if we remain in a carbon-driven economy for long, then restricting carbon dioxide emissions in particular will also mean limiting economic growth. Who wants to accept a freeze in economic inequalities? Definitely not democratic and free people, especially given the fact that democracy and freedom was the biggest gain of the 20th century. Even within the EU, when emissions reductions targets were set, equal per capita emissions allowances were used to calculate commitments from the household sector. So equity is not just a Southern issue, it is a global issue.

So what is the answer? Simple: share the total greenhouse gas emissions on an equitable basis for as long as our economies remain carbon-driven, and move towards a zero-carbon economy as fast as possible so that there are no harmful emissions. All this can be done and it can even be done reasonably fast. But it needs co-habitating adults.