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Blowing in the wind

The need of the hour is to keep the rising mercury below the 2°C mark: a figure that scientists regard as the tipping point, writes Prakash Chandra.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2007 21:45 IST
Prakash Chandra

Climate change talks are a lot like arms control negotiations — the more arms you possess, the less you would want to give up. The climate change conference in Bali was no exception, with countries that pollute the most arguing for the smallest cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Delegates from 198 countries duelled into the final hours of the fortnight-long meet, thrusting and parrying over the composition of the text of the so-called “Bali roadmap”. This sets the stage for nations to debate and negotiate their way to binding emission cuts by 2009 when world leaders gather in Copenhagen to flesh out a global warming pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, this gives time to set in motion measures like expanded carbon markets, so that emissions targets could be achieved from 2013, just after the Kyoto deal runs out. At least that’s the general idea.

In reality, though, it’s hard to dismiss the sense of déjà vu here. Previous climate summits at Rio de Janeiro and Berlin, too, saw similar — if less dramatic — commitments from participants. It is naïve to believe that major polluting countries like the US will suddenly sit up and worry about the air-conditioning bills of future generations now. Despite being the biggest polluter, the US still treats Kyoto as if it were part of the problem rather than the solution. Washington contends that it would not only damage the American economy but is also a ‘lopsided’ treaty that doesn’t require developing countries to reduce pollution the way developed countries must. Kyoto requires 37 industrial nations to cut output of CO2 and other GHGs by 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Treating developed and developing countries differently is one of its fundamental principles.

At Bali, this is what the US tried to subvert. Never mind if Washington eventually lifted opposition to a call by developing countries for technological help to battle rising temperatures. For grand words must be matched with grand gestures and the US rarely thinks twice about trashing any commitment that it finds uncomfortable. Remember how the Clinton administration actually endorsed Kyoto, only to have President Bush dismiss the very idea of climate change as fantasy? And even when Bush grudgingly acknowledged its reality in 2002, all he did to address the issue was propose his “sink” philosophy. He said the US could avoid emissions cuts by creating new forests, both in the US and in developing countries. These “carbon sinks”, he claimed, would soak up CO2 from the atmosphere. This was, of course, dumped when scientists pointed out how it would only increase global warming: dark leaves and bark of trees against light backgrounds, particularly in higher latitudes, stop sunlight being reflected back into space! Another Bush brainwave was to feed cattle special anti-flatulence diets to reduce levels of methane — a GHG!

It’s no secret that the richest countries are responsible for the immoderate depletion of a disproportionate share of Earth’s resources. Since their economic might owes to polluting technologies of the industrial revolution, it makes sense that they should foot a larger bill in pollution control. Although the US still refuses to commit to emissions cuts, its willingness at Bali to discuss controls beyond 2012 (when Kyoto runs out) is a positive step. For this will ensure the Americans remain involved in discussions until President Bush stands down in 2009, and is replaced, hopefully, by someone more open to multilateral diplomacy.

In that sense, the Bali document is more of a weather vane than a roadmap, pointing to an uncertain future. The emissions reduction achieved by 2012 under current targets will be too insignificant to make a difference. While leaders argue what to do after 2012, GHGs — whether from an Okhla power plant, or an Ohio taxicab — are pushing environmental degradation beyond all predictions.

At this rate, countries will have to cut emissions by over 50 per cent within the next decade if temperature rises are to be kept below 2°C by 2050. We already see conditions that weren’t predicted until well after 2050. Ocean and land ‘sinks’ (which take CO2 out of the atmosphere) are now fully saturated. So any generalised dialogue that excludes concrete targets — as the US wants — will not arrest the planet’s fever. The need of the hour is to keep the rising mercury below the 2°C mark: a figure that scientists regard as the ‘tipping point’ that could trigger irreversible global changes. Otherwise, when all is said and done, a lot more will have been said than done in Bali.