No more kindergarten approach to climate

My worst fears are coming true; and that has more to do with the politics of climate change than its reality. While concern on global warming reaches a crescendo, the world, instead of finding resolutions, is hurtling towards discord and dispute. Let us be clear: we do not have time to waste on bad politics and bad politicians.

Currently, two things are happening. One, China and India are being projected as the new villains—they pollute; they will increase emissions; they don’t want legally binding commitments and are, therefore, blocking global negotiations. Two, the climate-profligate and renegade nations—the us and Australia—are being treated with kid gloves. They, we are told, want to work in global interests but their efforts will be negated by the growth of emissions from dirty China and India. In this, Europe and Japan are playing mediator—bringing warring sides together; asking China to relent so the us can bend. Little is said of how Europe’s emissions have risen in the past year.

If China raises equity issues—saying how the rich world is responsible for climate change—it is told it is obstructing action; that the time for this blame game is past; that the world must act decisively. In other words, what we did, we did for our growth, but you must not do the same in the interest of the planet. It is forgotten that China will also be a victim of climate change. It is forgotten that this is not a problem it created.

If we had time for games, this shadow boxing would be entertaining. But we are running out of time. What we need is politicians to lead us out of this mess. We need leadership and sagacity; not shenanigans and procrastination.

I believe we have a basic frame within which we can move ahead. First, we need to agree once and for all that the industrialised world is responsible for climate change. The facts are clear. There is a stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, built up over centuries in the process of creating a few people’s wealth. This has already made climate unstable. Poorer nations will now add to this stock through their drive for economic growth. But that is not an excuse for the us (and the rest of the rich world) not to take on tough and deep binding emission reduction targets.

The second part of this agreement is China and India need to grow. Their engagement will not be legally binding but based on national targets and programmes. We know it is in our interest not to first pollute, then clean up; or first to be inefficient, then save energy. The question is to find low-carbon growth strategies for emerging countries, without compromising their right to develop.

This can be done. But it will need much, much more than the pusillanimous and politically naïve report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on mitigation. The report gives a menu of options—nuclear power, biofuel, carbon storage and others—to save the world. In addition, it mouths platitudes about the need to change consumption patterns. We don’t need a bunch of top economists and scientists telling us something schoolkids know better.

The fact is that the world knows what needs to be done to combat climate change. The question is why this is not happening. This is what we need to address, this is what we need to resolve.

There are two problems. One, technologies exist, but they are costly. It is not as if China and India are bent on first investing in dirty and fuel-inefficient technologies. They invest in these because they cannot afford high-end technologies. They will do what the rich world has done: first add to emissions; make money; then invest in efficiency.

This is not rocket science. The question is why the world is not able to find ways to fund these technologies in the emerging world? Why is it that it talks big but gives small change? The clean development mechanism was purportedly set up to do just this. But the rules, designed by rich governments, industry and civil society, have ensured that this mechanism is cheap, corrupt and ineffective in making the transition in the South. This mechanism has been designed to get the cheapest emission reduction options for the rich world; and to be profitable for some industries in the rich and emerging rich world. It promotes the mutual self-interest of polluters. This must change and it can.

The second problem is more difficult. The already rich world has filled up the available atmospheric space with pollution, now there is little room left for the rest of the world to grow. Just consider this: carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased from a pre-industrial value of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 379 ppm in 2005. Scientists tell us that the remaining budget is 450 ppm (to keep risks as low as possible) and 550 ppm to be adventurous. The only way the poorer world can take up this remaining carbon budget is if the entire emissions of the industrialised world stop now.

The question is how we will share this space. This requires us to find ways of reducing our emissions by changing the way we do business. It is not enough to talk glibly about efficiency and technology. It is important to restructure economies so that consumption is cut. Sufficiency is as important as efficiency.

Again, this can be done. For instance, we know we have to invest in public transport and restrict cars. Singapore has done it. It is neither poor, nor stupid. The question is why London, New York or any rich world city hasn’t made a serious dent in numbers of vehicles?

Perhaps they don’t because the victims of climate change can’t force them to. This is what we have to remember. This is what we have to change.

Sunita Narain