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Who started the emission rot?

Equity and ethics must form the basis of the climate debate between developed and developing nations, writes Rahul Bose.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2009 23:35 IST
Rahul Bose

Tomorrow, I travel from Paris to Copenhagen for the conference on climate change as a global ambassador for Oxfam International. As conflicting reports come out of the meet, I am reminded of a question I was asked two months ago while in Canada as a representative of the Climate Action Network.

“So is there going to be a deal in Copenhagen?” The journalist waited, her pen poised. My thought went back to the front-page articles in Vancouver papers that day, which quoted government officials righteously querying why there could not be different degrees of emission cuts in different parts of Canada(!). I answered, “Probably not.” Predictably, her next question was: “Why?”

Here is the answer.

The climate change debate boils down to ethics. Developed countries accept that climate change is a clear and present danger that will affect all countries. They believe all nations should cut back on consumption of energies that emit carbon and greenhouse gases. Some rich countries are even reasonable enough to say that the cuts can be in proportion of the percentage of pollution each country is responsible for. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Hold your horses.

Our needs, their needs Developing countries have a very different reading of the situation. They believe that the present state of affairs has been caused by the developed world and so those countries should cut first and the deepest. That sounds fair too. But, they go on to say - and here lies the rub - that no developing country should have any legally binding compulsion to cut its emissions. Oops, that sounds a bit biased, surely? Listen on.

Their argument is that if (and now these are my words) a nation has to develop, it needs to achieve the basic triangle of education, health and employment. For this it needs massive amounts of energy to build schools, roads, hospitals, factories… you get the drift.

While no nation-builder is ever going to stop the consumption of energy that serves this triangle, the developing world accepts that there must be some way this energy can be extracted from fossil fuel. Today, clean technologies such as wind, water and solar exist. But no developing country would sink thousands of crores every year on accessing and converting to these technologies.

But, they aver that they are willing to make the shift and sacrifice the time taken, provided these technologies are transferred to them by the developed world for free. This they see as the price that the developed countries should be only too willing to pay for their unbridled consumption of fossil fuels over the last century.

Not only this. They demand an equal amount of aid to invest in methods that make their future development activities climate-resistant.

How much will technology-transfer and climate change - resilient development models -cost? A $200 billion each per year, spread over 77 countries (if that sounds steep then compare it with the $1,000 billion that the US alone spent in a year on the bailout of one country.)

I am on the developing world side of the fence, not because I belong to that part of the world or that I am an ambassador of a non-profit organisation that advocates more stringent position than even the G-77 (group of developing countries) plus China holds, but because, in my opinion, ethics have to go hand in hand with equity.

Life at the bottom

The present position of the developing world is clearly the most just ideological stance on the issue.

Here are my reasons why: Climate change hits the poor hardest. Almost all of the world's poor reside in the developing world. In our country, seven out of ten Indians depend on the predictability of the weather for their livelihood. They are our farmers, fisherfolk and foresters. A one-degree rise in temperatures will wipe out the incomes of 55 million Indians - families of our poorest farmers who already live on a knife-edge of loans, low rainfall, fragile soils and poor market access.

Climate change hits women hard, and poor women the hardest. Seventy per cent of those living below the poverty line are women. Yet they are responsible for the preparation of 80 per cent of all food. They help cultivate crops, collect water and fuel. Climate change makes them walk more miles for water and go deeper into the forest for fuel.

The wronged ones

Climate finance is needed in poor countries for two purposes: one, money for low-carbon development is needed to cover the incremental costs of clean development - of the extra costs of investing. Two, spending on adaptation to climate change can change according to local needs: to cope with more severe hurricanes - upgrading early warning systems and community awareness; to cope with lower, more erratic rainfall - researching, testing and growing drought-tolerant crop varieties; to cope with increased flooding - building new homes and schools on raised foundations.

And yet there will be no agreement in Copenhagen. Because developed nations are behaving like a team that has cheated its way to the finals of a tournament and is caught. It says, stop everybody else cheating and we'll stop too. The question is - who started the rot? It all boils down to owning up to one's faults, having the character to live by a code of ethics.

— Rahul Bose is an actor and a social activist. The views expressed by the author are his own.