The mean world of climate change

The Prime Minister has released India’s national action plan on climate change. For those engaged in the business of environment and climate, the plan may offer nothing new or radical. But, as I see it, the plan asserts India can grow differently, because “it is in an early stage of development”. In other words, it can leapfrog to a low carbon economy, using high-end and emerging technologies and by being different. Also, it prioritizes national action by setting out eight missions—ranging from solar to climate research—which will be detailed and then monitored by the pm’s council for climate change.

But the plan is weak on how India sees the rest of the world in this extraordinary crisis. Climate change is a global challenge. We did not create it and, till date, we contribute little to global emissions. We are, in fact, climate-victims.

Let us also be clear that international negotiations on climate change stink. The mood is downright belligerent and selfish. The club of rich countries, that once agreed to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (meaning countries would act based on their responsibility in creating the problem), are learning hard lessons. In the past 15 years, their emissions have increased, not decreased. Now, they want to find any which way to please their green constituency, but also balance their economic growth imperatives and ensure their industry remains competitive.

Their strategy has many parts and players. First, the most climate-renegade nation, the us, is allowed to point a finger at China, India and other emerging countries. The us is constantly allowed to get away by saying if these countries do not take action, it will not. Even if this means ignoring that us emissions, already one-fourth of the global total, have increased, and accepting what the us says: that its emissions will peak after 2025, or 10 years after what scientists say is the least risky target for global emissions to peak and then decline. Second, this strategy lets the guru of energy efficiency, Japan, provide an alternative road-map that is merely a win-win solution for its industry. Third, the green-czar, the European Union (eu) can use tough words, then cave in at strategic moments, for the sake of pragmatism in global action’s.

The stage is now set for the last act of this deadly climate-play. Let’s catch up with current events.

At the G 8 summit in Germany last year, leaders of the rich world agreed to “seriously consider a goal to halve world greenhouse gas emissions by 2050”. At the December 2007 climate change cop in Bali, Indonesia, the eu huffed and puffed about a proposal to cut industrialized country emissions by 25-40 per cent over 1990 levels by 2020. At this meeting there was a complete turnaround. Targets disappeared; what emerged in its place was a twin-track approach allowing rich countries to set voluntary targets or just reduction objectives.

Now rewind to February, 2008. Japan—the current G-8 president—proposed to set targets for 2050, not for total emissions but for emission intensity cuts in different sectors. This proposal provides for technology benchmarking of ‘polluting sectors’ by all ‘major emitters’ and the ‘transfer’ of high quality technology to reduce emissions in these industries. It includes countries like India in taking on commitments; it then identifies sector-specific best technologies and practices—which, naturally, countries like Japan possess, so becoming a big business opportunity. The proposal goes on to demand tariff reductions on these environmentally sound technologies. Now, pain can become gain and countries like Japan can sell expensive stuff to all the poor polluting sods. Brilliant.

In all this, the us has fast-tracked its own climate attack. It had already scored a coup, bringing all major emitters—China and India included—into one group, so blurring, indeed removing, the difference between rich countries legally required to take action and others. It cajoled countries like India by offering amnesty: join my club and I will protect you from taking commitments. Now, with the domestic mood changing, the us has changed tack. Instead of no commitments, it wants China and India to take on voluntary targets—‘aspirational’ in its language. The two are brought in, and the us ends up protecting itself, for the targets for action are set not for the interim (2020), but for 2050. Long enough for it to agree to do nothing, increase its emissions and grow. Climate-murder. But who cares?

Japan and the us (and all rich countries hiding behind their petticoats) are hell-bent on sweetening the deal further. They have proposed a change in the base-year from when emissions will be measured. Currently, rich countries have to reduce over what they emitted in 1990. Since then, their emissions have increased: the us by 20 per cent; Japan by 7 per cent; Australia by over 35 per cent. Even eu’s emissions have increased. So, Japan has proposed the base year be ‘shifted’ to 2008 so that its growth is ‘forgiven’. How convenient.

Last month, negotiators meeting in Seoul, South Korea confronted this agenda. The us and Japan resisted interim targets for 2020 and made China and India the scapegoats. And at the Hokkaido, Japan G-8+5 meet, our pm will be given the same treatment.

—Sunita Narain

PS: The G-8 met and agreed on 50 per cent cuts by 2050, but did not set the baseline. They did not set interim targets, but did harp on the fact that nothing could be done without China and India coming on board.

Pathetic. Criminal. It is time we suggested the way ahead—not just for us, but for the world.