The just framework for climate

Let’s cut to the chase. If we are serious about climate change then we have to be serious about changing (drastically) the way the world generates and uses its energy. But even as the rich world talks glibly about ‘decarbonisation’ of its economy it has done precious little to reinvent its energy system and to wean itself from its fossil fuel addiction. Between 1990 and 2005, emissions from fossil fuel have actually increased, in these countries. In this period, their emissions from energy industries have increased by 24 per cent and from transport by a massive 28 per cent. The only reductions, marginal at that, have been in the manufacturing and construction sectors, which many would say is only because production has moved to China and other countries.

Forget the grand energy transition towards renewables. We are on reverse gear. Between 1900 and 2000, world energy use grew more than ten times. And even though energy from renewable sources increased nearly five-fold during the century, its share in total energy use dropped from 42 per cent to 19 per cent. By 2004, this share was down to just 13 per cent. What is more, the bulk of the renewable energy budget was made up of old renewables like hydroelectricity and poverty related renewables like biomass burning—women cooking food on stoves using firewood. The contribution of new renewables—wind, solar, tidal or geothermal was as little as 0.9 per cent of the world’s energy supply.

Even as the world quibbles and works overtime to shift the burden of reducing emissions to countries like China and India, it is forgetting this core mission. Clearly, it is then time we took the lead to put forward the framework for an effective climate agreement for the entire world.

The framework must be based on the two climate imperatives. One, to share the global commons equitably, because we know that cooperation is not possible without justice. Two, to create conditions so that the world, particularly the energy-deprived world, can make the transition to a low carbon economy. It is here that the opportunity lies.

The tragedy of the atmospheric common has been the lack of rights to this global ecological space. As a result, countries have borrowed or drawn heavily and without control. They have emitted greenhouse gases far in excess to what the earth can withstand. This was because they could emit without limits or quotas and were “free riding” on this natural capital. Some researchers have called this the natural debt of the North as against the financial debt of the South. In this situation, curtailing the emissions can only be done through the creation of rights and entitlements of each nation to the atmosphere so that future responsibilities are clearly demarcated. In other words, the world needs to adopt the concept of equal per capita entitlements to greenhouse gas emissions.

The entitlements can be based on the apportionment of the world’s natural sinks—its oceans, which absorb and clean emissions—to every individual. The other option is to distribute the global emissions budget among nations in the form of equal per capita entitlements. For instance, if we assume a target of 450 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent then each person is entitled to 2 tonnes per year. In 2005, the average emissions of the world already crossed 4 tonnes per person per year with us and Australia leading with 20 tonnes per person per year. The entitlements taken together will be the “permissible” level of emission of each country, which can be the basis of trading between nations. The country, which exceeds its annual quota of carbon dioxide, can trade with those countries with “permissible” emissions. Countries with permissible emissions will have the financial incentive to keep their emissions as low as possible and to invest in low-carbon trajectories. The equal per capita entitlements framework is then the tool to make the much needed energy transformation in the world.

As much as the world needs to design a system of equity between nations, nations of the world need to design a system of equity within the nation. It is not the rich in India who emit less than their share of the global quota. It is the poor in India, who do not have access to energy who provide us the breathing space. Currently it is estimated that only 31 per cent of rural households use electricity. Connecting all of India’s villages to grid-based electricity will be expensive and difficult. It is here that the option of leapfrogging to off-grid solutions based on renewable energy technologies becomes most economically viable. If India were to assign its national entitlements on an equal per capita basis, it would provide both the resources and the incentives for current low energy users to adopt zero-emission technologies. In this way, too, a rights-based framework will stimulate powerful demand for investments in new renewable energy technologies.

Let us be clear. Climate change is a make-or-break challenge before the world. It forces us, perhaps for the first time in our history, to realise that we exist as one in one Earth. It tells us that there are limits to growth and more importantly that growth will have to be shared among all. The big question is will we prove to be equal to the challenge. We have no choice. There is no other way.

—Sunita Narain