Global warming in an unequal world

Back to Basics by Anil Agarwal

When is one tonne of carbon dioxide equal to another tonne of carbon dioxide?

Protecting the world's climate is humanity's biggest challenge. Nobody knows how climate change will affect different regions. Europe, for example, could become warmer. But if the melting Arctic turns off the Gulf Stream, it could also go into a permanent freeze like the northern regions of Canada. One thing, however, is certain: it is the poor who will suffer the most. Their poverty will make it impossible for them to bear the cost of adaptation. More floods, more droughts and more storms will affect them more than anyone else. Storms kill tens of thousands in India and Bangladesh. But when they hit the US they do not kill even half a dozen though, of course, they destroy a lot of property. Since global warming is mainly caused by the energy consumption of the rich whereas the greatest sufferers will be the poor, it is vital that all rich nations and all rich individuals work hard to prevent climate change - to the maximum extent possible as some of it already looks inevitable now. The world will definitely become more feverish. All that we can now do is to prevent it from catching high fever.

Preventing climate change is not just an economic or an environmental issue. It is above all a moral and ethical issue. And it is going to be the biggest cooperative enterprise that the world has ever seen - one in which all big and small, rich and poor, powerful and powerless will have to cooperate to achieve a global objective for the global good. This can only happen if there is a sense of fairness in the burden-sharing arrangements. Which raises some very difficult questions. For example, when is one tonne of carbon dioxide equal to another tonne of carbon dioxide? Is one tonne of a greenhouse gas produced by a New Yorker or a Londoner equal to a tonne of the same gas produced by a peasant in Guatemala, Chad or Bangladesh?

The simple, moral answer is 'no'. The first tonne is the result of luxury. The second tonne of basic survival. Both of them go into the atmosphere. But one needs to be controlled and the other needs to be supported. Maybe there is even a need to create more atmospheric space to produce more tonnes of the latter type.In other words, 'luxury emissions' must go down to provide space for more 'survival emissions'. And all this has to be done only because scientists tell us that the global bowl can only take a certain number of tonnes without catching an explosive fever.

Unless we do a Western-style eco labelling programme for every tonne of carbon dioxide or methane produced, the simple answer lies in ensuring that every human being has the same number of tonnes to live with - to survive or to indulge. This is why equity is such a central issue for all climate change negotiators. Nobody can get away from it. Today or tomorrow.

So, please everyone, let's get back to the basics.