Climate Change: We need strong vision, more than negotiations

Climate change is the mother of all conservation battles. It has implications for species extinctions, changes in vegetation, migration patterns of insects and birds, and much more. It threatens us humans too. Many low-lying islands and coastal areas are in danger of being submerged, thus turning millions of people into refugees. Weather patterns are likely to become unpredictable and swing between extremes, affecting food production. A problem of this magnitude should have brought the leaders of the world to the table to find a way out.

Instead, for the last 20 years, international climate change negotiations have been deadlocked. India, China and other rapidly developing nations argue that the First World polluted earth’s atmosphere and reaped the benefits, and should therefore bear the primary burden of reversing greenhouse emissions. Collectively, the industrialized world caused about 75% of global stocks of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere over the last 100 years. The US alone belched out 29%, while India can be blamed for a measly 2.3%.

However, the US and European countries contend that emissions of emerging Asian economies are fast approaching their own high volume levels. China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. India ranks fourth. So the developed countries claim that they alone cannot prevent climate change damages and developing countries also need to accept legally binding standards. In this game of “you first, you first,” no country has committed to do anything about climate change.

Children play cricket on the dried bed of river Ganges. Reuters

Although international positions are polarized, views on climate change within India are by no means unanimous. The recently published ‘Handbook of Climate Change and India,’ edited by Navroz K. Dubash, offers a spectrum of views from government officials, policy makers, activists, and researchers, revealing the many debates taking place under the radar of mainstream media.

Ever since ‘Global warming in an unequal world,’ a seminal article by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain was published in 1991, India has held fast to the argument that every human has an equal share of the atmosphere, and the US and other Western countries have used up their share many times over. According to 2005 emissions data, an average American is responsible for nearly 20 times the emissions of an average Indian. So in a just world, the polluters should hold their fire and repair the damage they have caused, while allowing the less privileged countries to get their moment in the sun. In other words, India wants a free ticket to pollute for the next few decades.

India is joined by three countries that form the BASIC group in this policy position. But oil producers such as Saudi Arabia fear that any action to arrest climate change will result in less fossil fuel consumption, hitting their bottom line. And then there are small island nations who are under threat of submergence by rising sea levels if the world doesn’t act yesterday. Most of the other developing countries take a middle course between these two extremes.

Another consideration in India’s climate change policy is the job of pulling a third of its citizens out of poverty. However, does increasing development translate to a better standard of living? According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) Report, 2011, Gujarat’s GDP is growing at an annual rate of 12%, and its per capita growth is more than three times the all India average. Despite this glowing state of the economy, the state fares poorly in overall hunger and nutrition levels. Even strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir performs better in these parameters. Conversely, Kerala’s economy has been in the doldrums for years, and yet its HDI is among the highest in the country.

Who benefits from India’s growth story? According to Shoibal Chakravarty and M.V. Ramana of Princeton University, it is the top 10% of the population, more particularly, the top 1%. There is a glaring disparity in living standards, consumption and emission levels between India’s poorest and richest. While we argue about equity in the international arena, there is no equity in benefit-sharing within the country.

It’s not just an issue of who benefits but also who pays the price. Several people, including activist-writer Praful Bidwai, say that while the richest benefit from development, the poorest pay the harshest price for climate change-related damages. Our poor are less adapted to withstanding these changes than rich Indians or the average citizen of the West. Yet, while committing little for its poorest citizens, India brazenly invokes their name for a free ticket to pollute thereby safeguarding the benefits accruing to the richest.

It’s hypocritical to argue for a rightful quota of atmosphere to pollute because neither the benefits nor the damage wrought by climate change are distributed equitably.

As Jairam Ramesh, the former Minister of Environment and Forests, writes succinctly in the foreword of the book, India is especially vulnerable to climate change because we are overly dependent on the monsoon. Over the last 50 years, variations in the monsoon caused half the fluctuations in GDP. He states, “To my mind, what happens to the monsoon is the single largest determinant of prosperity in India.”

He adds, “Saying that our per capita emissions will not cross the per capita emissions of developed countries is an excellent starting point but cannot be the sole element of our approach. It has to be per capita plus [emphasis in original].”

According to D. Raghunandan of the All India Peoples Science Network, developing nations contributed more than half of the total global emissions of the year 2004-05. By the year 2050, they will contribute more than 75%. To halve the total estimated emissions of the year 2050, as required by the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, developing countries will have to reduce their emissions, even if the developed world emitted nothing.

Narasimha Rao of the Indian Institute of Applied Systems Analysis says no one knew the environmental price of industrialization until 1990 when the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released. Can we hold the West responsible for using up its quota of the atmosphere when it didn’t even know it had a share?

During a discussion in the Lok Sabha in the lead up to the Copenhagen meeting in 2009, Jairam Ramesh called India’s huge population “an accident of history.” If we couldn’t prevent our “accident of history”, can we hold the West responsible for its historical mistake? Unsurprisingly, framing the debate against such historical fault lines led to a stalemate.

However, now that climate change is common knowledge, none of the major developed nations has proactively taken the lead in reducing emissions. No US President, Democrat or Republican, has made a strong commitment. The problem of climate change is caused by the cumulative impact of past emissions, and obviously this is of more pressing concern than the current emissions of developing countries. Over the last decade, developing countries have made numerous concessions to get the US to commit to emission reductions to no avail. In the meantime, the dangers of doing nothing are snowballing.

Developing countries are agreeable to legally binding limits if the West will transfer green technology and monetary compensation. But clearly the latter sees green technology as an emerging area of trade and revenue. Additionally, the US’s threat of imposing a tariff on carbon-intensive imports from countries that don’t have a policy on cutting greenhouse gas emissions similar to its own was met by a howl of protests. For America to dictate from the heights of economic power without committing to reductions in emissions despite historically high levels is preposterous.

India and China don’t want a legally binding commitment for some time. America will not commit as long as these two Asian powers are left out of any agreement. The EU and the association of small island nations are the ones pushing for an agreement, perhaps because the former has green technology to sell and the latter has the most to lose from climate change. The national interests of individual countries trump the interests of earth as a unified ecological whole.

What is the way forward? Navroz Dubash says India should stop thinking of climate change mitigation as a stumbling block to growth and poverty alleviation. This is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Investing in public transport helps poor people get around, reduces the use of fossil fuel and the resulting emissions, and as an added bonus, decongests our roads. In climate change lingo, that’s called “co-benefits.” Instead, we are setting up more car factories and investing in better fuel emission technology for private vehicles.

Not all of climate change action will fall into neat win-win options. We need to take painful decisions. Do we value forests more than the minerals embedded beneath them? Do we opt for low-cost but high-emission coal, or high-cost but clean solar? There is no escaping the fact that the cheapest way of providing electricity to 60% of the country that lacks power is by burning coal.

Girish Sant and Ashwin Gambhir of the Prayas Energy Group point out, “The Indian power generation mix already has over 10% of renewable energy by capacity, which is comparable to that of the EU and China, and more than twice that of the USA.”
But India could do much more. As Dubash comments, “So far, however, there appears to be an accidental quality to the co-benefits approach: we will pursue our development interests, hoping they lead, almost serendipitously, to climate gains.” To pursue co-benefits and balance development aspirations with climate concerns, India needs to have a vision.

In December 2011, India’s policy, a one-trick pony based on “per capita” and “equity,” was given an unceremonious burial at Durban. Despite the emotional bluster, Jayanthi Natarajan, the Minister for Environment and Forests, signed an agreement for a legal instrument for emission reduction applicable to all countries, developing and developed, with no provisions for technology. There is mention of a $100 billion fund for poor nations but who will finance, who will receive hasn’t been discussed. The EU outmaneuvered both India and China by rallying other developing nations and the US. The ganging up didn’t occur suddenly, there were clear signs of what was to come at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010.

With its 20-year-old policy and its alliance with other developing economies lying in shambles, India needs a vision first, and then a negotiating strategy with which to face this brave new world.


Published Date: May 13, 2012 11:18 am | Updated Date: May 13, 2012 11:21 am


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