The change of a lifetime

December 22, 2009

Now that the jury is out on the very real threat of climate change, we must focus on what needs to be done. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) should make climate-sceptics like us president George Bush blush. It establishes that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased manifold; that this increase is due to human activity, and is leading to the warming of the climate system, evident in increases in global air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising sea levels. All that was feared is coming true, in our lifetime.

We are devastatingly vulnerable. Recent studies in the Himalaya by Indian scientists confirm glaciers are receding, at unnatural rates. This means our northern rivers, fed by glacier melt, will first see floods and then shortages of freshwater flows. We will also see more heat waves, more extreme events—floods—and loss of crop productivity. And we are not talking about the far future, but changes as early as 2030.

The industrialised North has done little to reduce emissions so that we can grow. The growing cry is that India and China must join in cutting emissions. The global media is replete with images of polluting factories in China, of growth in India, of reasons these countries must take on emissions reduction. The cry is becoming a scream. George Bush and his ilk have always argued that the Kyoto Protocol was fundamentally flawed because it excluded big polluters like China or India. Now, even our very own Davos-returned glitterati are making similar noises: “So what if we did not create the problem in the first place? So what if our emissions are much lower than the rich north, historically and even presently? We must join in”.

A re-cap is in order here. In 1991, as the world was first learning about climate change, my colleague Anil Agarwal and I published a report, provocatively called Global warming in an unequal world: a case of environmental colonialism . We established that the Northern countries had a natural debt—borrowed emissions from future generations—and like the financial debt of the poorer countries it needed to be paid. We also put forward the proposition of trading in the unused emissions of the South so that it would provide these countries with incentive to invest in technologies that were energy efficient or low in carbon emissions. But so that the trading system would not discount the price of carbon, we suggested a system of per capita rights and entitlements to be established.

Our logic was used in the climate change negotiations. But instead of a regime built on rights of individual nations over the global commons, a compromised deal was struck to set up the clean development mechanism (cdm). It was established on the principle of the emission-indebted North paying Southern countries to invest in cleaner technologies. But its rules were made (as we had cautioned) to ensure the North got the cheapest deal to reduce emissions. cdm today is profitable for certain companies of the South, but is not leading to real and effective change. It is not made to pay for the transition needed in our countries. It pays peanuts and gets monkeys.

In all this, the Indian government is lost. It believes if it raises the spectre of climate change, it will be forced to take on commitments. It knows that growth of greenhouse gas emissions is linked to economic growth. This is why the rich world has found it difficult to substantially cut and restructure its economies. Therefore, it finds comfort in ostrich-like behaviour—don’t fuss about climate change; don’t do anything that will rock the boat or force scrutiny on our emissions. Simultaneous play the cdm-game, which is benefiting a few industrialists. Don’t worry. Be happy.

This is not the time for weak-hearted and mild reactions. The challenge of climate change means we demand much more than the pusillanimous actions the rich are prepared to undertake.

One, we must be strident in demanding deep cuts in emissions from the rich world. We must put forward the best science that shows adverse impacts on us, our economies and our people, to explain the costs of the rich world’s emissions on, particularly, the poor in the world.

Two, we must use our good offices, or bad ones, to insist the us and Australia take on emission reductions. We must immediately walk out of the dirty deal we have signed with the us and Australia, innocuously called the Asia Pacific Partnership. This deal was and is designed to destroy the multilateral agreement on climate change. It will give the world’s dirtiest polluters a way out. It is unacceptable we should be party to it.

Three, we must be willing to engage in climate reduction targets. Not by taking on commitments, but re-designing the clean development mechanism for effective action. We should examine sectors in our own economy where we can take advantage of clean technologies and reduced cost of fuel—power, public transport, energy-intensive sectors like steel or cement. We should benchmark the existing technology and the cost of where we can go with the best and most energy-efficient and alternative technology in the world. We should demand this be paid for, so that we do not invest today in something that will make the world more insecure.

Four, we should create an internal entitlement system at the national level. The rich in India also overuse the share of the climate quota. The investments in low carbon technologies must be used to provide alternative energy and economic options for the poor, who under-use their share of the global commons and provide the rich ‘space’ to exhale.

Sunita Narain