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No room for hot air

On any criterion of environmental equity, India must stop whining about pressure to cap its emissions, and move towards real cuts, writes Praful Bidwai.

india Updated: Jul 02, 2007 00:22 IST
Praful Bidwai
Praful Bidwai

Tony Blair will be remembered by his critics and supporters for one thing: bringing China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa into a dialogue on climate change with the G-8 industrialised states. But as on Africa, Blair’s exertions on climate change have produced no tangible results. The summit after the G-8 meet, along with these Outreach Five (O-5) states, has failed to generate an agreement on combating the greatest menace to civilisation as we know it: global warming. This was as true of Heiligendamm this month as of Gleneagles in 2005.

Neither these 13 of the world’s 25 biggest economies, nor any other forum, have responded adequately to the unprecedented public concern about climate change. A survey covering 14 countries finds that 86 per cent of people feel “anxious” about climate change, and want governments to fight it proactively. A majority says it’s the world’s greatest challenge. Four-fifths say it should become easier to buy renewable electricity; nine-tenths want at least a fourth of all electricity generated from renewable sources.

There is a stark contrast between the gravity of this concern, and the promise made at Heiligendamm to negotiate a multilateral pact on global warming, beyond the Kyoto Protocol's expiry (2012). The G-8 lamely pledged to give “serious consideration” to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (over 1990 levels). What the world needs is 80 per cent emissions reduction and a shift to a new energy paradigm — through legally binding targets.

The industrialised nations of the Global North have all along failed to agree even to cap their emissions although that would cost less than what they spend, for instance, on toys or cosmetics. Fifteen years after the Rio conference, they are back to square one. Meanwhile, the South’s bigger economies are imitating their consumption patterns. Alarmingly, China has already overtaken the US as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, years ahead of earlier forecasts.

<b1>It’s plain that alternative leadership on climate change won’t come from countries like China, India or Brazil. They doggedly refuse even to discuss capping their emissions, leave alone cut them. India’s position on this is especially deplorable. It says “growth … prospects in the developing world” must in no circumstances be “constrained”; higher GDP growth “is the best way for developing countries to address … the issue of … protecting the climate.”

India emphasises on the “principle of common but differentiated responsibility”. This is shorthand for asking that the North pay the bulk of the costs for reversing climate change. India also demands concessions like patent-free “clean energy” technology transfer and financial assistance.

True, the primary responsibility for reversing climate change is the North’s, because it is historically responsible for causing it. The average Indian and Chinese contribute respectively one-twentieth and one-sixth as much to global warming as the average American.

However, it’s also imperative that rapidly growing Southern countries, including India, undertake obligations to cut their ballooning emissions. India’s overall emissions are growing almost four times faster than the global average. They are expected to rise two-and-a-half times by 2030. Vehicular emissions are projected to rise about six-fold.

Even if the North reduces its emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, developing countries, including India, will still need to cut theirs by about 60 per cent. This must immediately translate into quantified stage-by-stage emission cuts. Instead, all we have is the parrot-like emphasis that India won’t be a “significant” greenhouse emitter “in the foreseeable future”.

This flies in the face of facts: India is already the world’s fifth largest emitter, and will soon overtake No. 3 and 4, Japan and Russia. Surely, the responsibility for reversing climate change — a global, universal good, if there was one — cannot be confined to the top four emitters, or, for that matter, 20. The South cannot evade the secondary onus, or postpone its obligations indefinitely.

It’s pernicious to cite per capita emissions as the sole ethical criterion for defining global responsibility. Per capita numbers mean little in India's highly unequal, stratified society, with some of the world's highest rich-poor inequalities. Nor do they take into account India's low per capita access to “natural sinks”, like oceans and forests.

It is not India’s poor, the bulk of whom survive at subsistence level, whose emissions are rising. It is the 80 to 100-million-strong rich and middle-classes, who are on a consumption binge — as if there were no tomorrow. Their insatiable appetite is driving an unprecedented boom in automobiles, air-conditioners, washing machines, microwave ovens and plasma TV.

It is unethical and cynical for the government to obliterate this crucial distinction and hide behind the poor. It should admit that there is not one India, but two, as regards climate change: the 700 million who lack access to modern cooking fuels and tap water; and the elite with its wasteful luxury consumption. The world too should treat India as a dual entity.

Three other points are pertinent. First, India admits there is a universal obligation to mitigate climate change. A universal objective is worth pursuing; it is intrinsically a global good. No conditions should be attached to it — e.g. extraneous benefits such as free technology, or a Marshall Plan-II, which subsidises the South.

Second, there is a strong case for freeing all technology of patents. But that is a generic argument against allowing monopolies in the name of supporting “innovation”: in fact, over 95 per cent of patents are never worked; they are used to claim denial and exclusion, which leads to misanthropy, as in the case of HIV-AIDS drugs. The argument cannot be used selectively for emission-reducing technologies alone.

Third, India cannot convincingly claim it is on a low-emission path by citing CNG buses, the Metro Rail, reductions in energy use per unit of output in certain industries, and by arguing that its environmental and energy efficiency programmes have produced handsome results.

No study has demonstrated that the Metro contributes to emission reductions, especially compared to public buses, or that its efficiency overcomes its adverse environmental, energy and economic impact, including concentration of high-rise districts. For every unit addition to such expensive “public” transport modes, there is a several-fold increase in privatised transport: India’s car production has doubled in six years.

Most countries have seen a decline in energy consumption per unit output. India’s performance isn’t impressive. India’s emissions per absolute dollar of GDP are four times higher than America’s. India’s highly carbon-inefficient economy ranks 85th among 141 countries. India is more carbon inefficient than Bangladesh, Brazil or Indonesia; or even Northern countries like Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and Sweden.

India’s environmental record is embarrassing: the extensive deforestation, relentless pollution of rivers, runaway growth of hazardous industries, construction of big dams (which cause a fourth of our emissions), and promotion of technologies like nuclear power, which produce long-lived wastes. India is indisputably on an ecologically unsound growth path.

On any criterion of environmental equity, India must stop whining about pressure to cap its emissions, and move towards real cuts. That is the best way of laying claim to global moral and ecological leadership-and the ideal means of recovering, and making an example out of, our rapidly eroding tradition of austerity.

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