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Genuine progress, or so much 'Balihoo'?

By Darryl D’Monte

The best that can be said about the recently concluded Bali climate change conference is that negotiations didn’t break down altogether. Although India is being unnecessarily self-congratulatory about the correctness of its stand at the UN conference, it should adopt a much more proactive position on energy consumption at home  

Contradictory though it may sound, the position of India and other developing countries at the recent UN climate change conference in Bali was not inconsistent with that of industrial countries. This depends, of course, on which side of the divide the problem is viewed from.

For the uninitiated, the catch is the 2012 deadline, which is when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change comes to an end. Under this treaty, 36 industrial (read rich) countries had to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 5% below 1990 levels, between 2008 and 2012. With a handful of exceptions, mainly Scandinavian countries, no one has done so.

The biggest polluter of all, the US, which has not signed the Kyoto Protocol, has resolutely failed to do anything of the kind. Indeed, between 1990 and 2005, emissions of all industrial countries have actually increased by 11%. The US’s emissions have gone up by 20%, and Australia, which has belatedly signed the protocol, by a whopping 37%. Both are major coal producers (like India).

Under the guise of bringing everyone to the table, industrial countries, particularly the US, are trying to arm-twist China and India into agreeing to cut their emissions in the second phase of the protocol. In this year’s Human Development Report, the UN Development Programme advocated that developing countries cut their emissions by one-fifth by 2050, the target year that everyone is now looking at. In the same breath, however, it stipulated that rich countries must reduce theirs by 80%, which is being even-handed.

The US had its proxies at Bali -- Saudi Arabia (major oil producer and US political ally, whose fortunes are inextricably linked to this fossil fuel), Japan, Australia and, somewhat surprisingly, Canada. Environmentalists castigated all these countries and singled out for condemnation James Connoughton, who chairs President Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality, who stated: "The US will lead, and we will continue to lead, but leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow." By contrast, the EU took a much more globally responsible position by asking their own ilk to tighten their belts.

Developing countries will be well within their rights to refuse to cut their emissions -- the consumption of energy is umbilically linked to economic growth -- until industrial nations put their money where their mouths are. After all, it is the 250 years of industrialisation that have caused global warming in the first place. In brutally simple terms, it means that the pioneering industrial country, Britain, and others that followed in its wake, have appropriated for themselves a hugely disproportionate share of the earth’s atmosphere. Others, mostly poor countries, are paying for this extravagance.

Despite all the worldwide concern about climate change, the average American continues to emit 20 times more than an Indian, who makes do with one tonne a year. Shockingly, President Bush has stated in the past that the US wouldn’t cut emissions because American lifestyles were not negotiable. At Bali, the EU tried to convince the US, Canada and their allies that industrial countries should agree to cut their emissions by 20-40% of 1990 levels, by 2050. In the end, after nearly derailing the conference, the countries agreed to "deep cuts". Despite the lack of clearly-set numerical targets, Yvo de Boer, the UN climate conference secretariat head, said that the mid-range target of 25-40% was implicit -- "an inevitable stop on that road" -- in the quest for a 50% reduction by 2050.

The best that can be said about the outcome of Bali is that negotiations didn’t break down altogether, as could well have happened. The recalcitrant nations clearly felt the pressure of other countries -- not least, the more committed Europeans. It also, yet again, demonstrated the overwhelming need to negotiate such tortuous agreements through the UN system, instead of resorting to bilateral, trilateral and other agreements which bypass this system.

Typical of the latter was President Bush’s 2005 initiative called the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. This patently fraudulent "public-private" project sought the participation of China, India, Japan and the Republic of Korea in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It sought to provide American and other advanced industrial technologies to China and India, thereby undermining the Kyoto Protocol which, the US has insisted, does not do enough to tackle global warming. India, it should be said, has succumbed to this allure of technologies at a preferential rate, quite unaware or unconcerned about the fact that it was colluding with the world’s biggest polluter in derailing the Kyoto Protocol. This is nothing short of a betrayal of the UN multilateral system, for a handful of silver!

While the Bali targets remain tenuous, India is unnecessarily and unconscionably in self-congratulatory mode about the correctness of its stand at the UN conference. Dr Prodipto Ghosh, former environment secretary, who must have formulated much of the country’s position in the build-up to Bali, has described the EU and US stands as "indefensible" -- indeed, as so much "Balihoo". The fact remains that per capita emissions remain very low, but with the economy growing at nearly double-digit figures, India’s overall emissions are rising rapidly. It is already the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter. By 2030, it could be second only to China.

India rightly has to call for "common but differentiated responsibility" at all multilateral environmental meets. But at home it should adopt a much more proactive position on energy consumption. Whether it obtains technologies at reduced rates or not, it has to find the ways and means to cut its carbon emissions. Judging by the precursor to Kyoto, which was the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, it would be highly inadvisable to rely on such agreements to obtain know-how to combat global warming at preferential prices.

Although the Montreal Protocol is held up as the exemplar in international environmental treaties -- without it, CFCs, which have a much higher life in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, would be the number one greenhouse gas today -– the actual contributions by industrial countries to the voluntary fund for purchasing CFC-free technology for developing countries amounted to $ 200 million some years ago. Since there is no compulsion under Kyoto to provide funds to make this switch to less polluting technologies possible, who will fund it?

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the only instrument available is the much-vaunted -- but equally much derided by environmentalists -- Clean Development Mechanism, which relies on the market. Polluting countries can pay those whose emissions are under the limit to install technologies which take care of the warming. In other words, it amounts to rich countries paying the poor to absorb their dirt, somewhat like global scavengers. This is environmentally, economically and, most of all, morally unjust.

There is no telling what will happen in the post-2012 scenario: if there is no market incentive to keep emissions below limits, the trade in carbon will simply grind to a halt. On the other hand, if the trading regime continues in the second phase and beyond, what price -– currently a credit of reducing one tonne of carbon costs around $ 15-20 -- will developing countries pay once countries like China and India cross their limits? It is the exact equivalent of forest-dwellers selling their timber to make a quick buck, or farmers disposing of their land for industrial or urban projects, only to repent later for their folly.

Developing countries, for their part, should realise that making their economies much more energy-efficient and less polluting is not only a recognition of the global environmental crisis but makes sound economic sense. China, for instance, is about to take steps to curb the number of cars on its roads, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, for fear that certain events -- like bicycle races -- will not be held due to poor visibility, thereby disgracing the country in the eyes of the international community. In India, we are bending over backwards to make more room for private motorised transport -- the Tata Rs 1 lakh car will prove to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin. The quadrilateral highway project, in much the same way, perpetuates the country’s excessive reliance on fossil fuels, when the railways should be used for long hauls of goods (not to mention passengers!).

In future, only energy-efficient economies will be economically competitive. Thus India, instead of waiting for hand-outs or Certified Emission Reduction certificates from industrial countries, ought to put its own house in order.

The construction industry, to take another example, can do better than emulate the design paradigms of western countries. The architecture in temperate countries is designed to keep heat in, thus all the glass and steel monstrosities that are pockmarking our metros are highly impractical in their use of energy. Even Mumbai, which till now was insulated against power cuts, will face them sooner rather than later, leaving these high-rise office complexes stranded like beached whales. India Inc, which sees trading in carbon as a god-sent business opportunity, should be the first to see the writing on the wall.

Another cop-out at Bali appears to be the decision to launch a new funding mechanism to combat deforestation. Globally, this form of environmental degradation is estimated to cause one-fifth of greenhouse gases. The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice to the Bali meet, which is headed by Kishan Kumar Singh, observed that 13 million hectares of forest were destroyed every year between 1990 and 2005.

This fund will be distinct from the Clean Development Mechanism. In a paper to the UN climate change secretariat, India earlier this year proposed a "compensated conservation" plan for countries that reduce the degradation of forest cover, which acts as a sink for carbon dioxide.

This harks back to a proposal by the former Malaysian Prime Minister M Mahathir, just before the historic Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. At a meeting of Asian environment ministers in Kuala Lumpur, he stated that every country ought to keep 30% of its land area under forest cover, and those that did not maintain this proportion ought to pay those that did. At the time, observers felt that this was so much rhetoric, though it did help to turn the tables on developed countries that wanted their poorer counterparts to sign environmental treaties which would prove restrictive.

The present move appears to be the brainchild of the present government in New Delhi, which believes it is yet another opportunity to earn dollars and euros from such international environmental transactions. It also seems to have the blessings of the paper and pulp industry which wants to earn credits on its extensive plantations. According to reports, commercial interests in both developed and developing nations want the regulations that govern these funding mechanisms diluted. Astonishingly, they also want big dams and even nuclear plants to be accepted as carbon credit projects, demonstrating the utter lack of scruples on the part of the promoters. No environmentalist worth his salt would ever champion either of these sectors, which are considered intrinsically destructive.

The real solution, which no one seems to be talking about, is to apply true market principles and make polluters pay. Years ago, the Worldwatch Institute in Washington recommended a $ 50 a tonne carbon tax which, it then calculated, would yield sufficient revenue not just to arrest environmental degradation across the planet but also meet the development needs of the entire globe. But since this hurts key sectors of the economy, no country will countenance it, though some European nations have introduced variants of a carbon tax.

According to the International Energy Agency, an industry body, the world needs something in the order of $ 20 trillion within 25 years to meet the burgeoning energy demand. On the other hand, if the world was to ensure that by 2030, emissions were at the level of what they were in 2000, this would require an investment of $ 200 billion per year in clean technologies. Is this going to be business as usual for all the companies that at one time polluted the atmosphere and are now developing alternative technologies?

BP, for instance, has reinvented itself -- with a finesse that only the amoral multinational oil industry is capable of -- as Beyond Petroleum, to position itself as a market leader in an era where fossil fuels are on the way out and new renewable technologies are surging ahead. The British oil giant that pledged to find cleaner ways to produce fossil fuels is accused of abandoning its "green sheen" by investing nearly £ 1.5 billion to extract oil from the Canadian wilderness, using methods that environmentalists say are part of the "biggest global warming crime" in history.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2007