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Time to get tough on emissions

By Darryl D'Monte

At the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development in February, US Senator John Kerry remarked that India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change lacked fixed targets and timetables. Is it time for developing countries to move beyond old uncompromising positions?

Any illusion that the Obama administration would be kinder towards India, China and other major developing countries when it came to getting them to accept targets on emissions of greenhouse gases was dispelled at the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development in February 2009.

During this annual event, organised by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon told N Ram, editor of The Hindu, that he had urged the Indian government “to engage in in-depth negotiations” in the 10 months before the UN conference in Copenhagen, when the Kyoto Protocol will be re-negotiated.

India, China, Brazil and a few other major emerging economies have all along taken the view that industrial countries, which have caused global warming in the first place, have to cut their emissions more drastically before getting others to commit to targets. Energy consumption in all these countries is rising.

In a video conference at the Delhi summit, US Senator John Kerry, who heads the influential Foreign Relations Committee, asserted: “We must finally give life and full meaning to the idea of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ among nations. In Kyoto, people stiff-armed that discussion. But the landscape has shifted over the past decade. China is now the world’s largest emitter and India the fourth largest -- and with its energy consumption projected to quadruple over the next 25 years, India will overtake Russia as the third largest emitter by 2015. In fact, developing countries will account for three-quarters of increases in global energy use over the next two decades… No matter how hard some of us fight, the Senate will not ratify one that exempts the developing world from playing some role in solving this problem.”

He added that India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, launched last year, was “lacking in fixed targets and timetables… Developing countries have to commit to a format, structure, timeline, which will vary according to capabilities”. The debate, he added, had to move beyond “old uncompromising positions”.

Senator Kerry, who guides US foreign policy on international treaties, did not answer the multi-million-dollar question, which was put to him squarely by a summit participant in Delhi: Would the Obama administration sign on the dotted line in committing to cut emissions before the UN conference in December? For, year after year, the tortuous process leading up to the Kyoto Protocol being ratified in 1998 and its aftermath has been a case of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, with the US, responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gases, refusing to sign it.

He didn’t accept that, citing how the administration had spoken to Carol Browner, slated to be assistant to the President for energy and climate change. She has twice served under the Clinton administration as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and is thus the longest serving US official on this vital sector. Senator Kerry also referred to a multi-billion-dollar escrow account for new and renewable energy technologies which, once again, posits too much faith in the market system to set right what is, by any reckoning, the biggest market failure in human history -- the present financial meltdown included. The US has some $30-40 billion in tax credits for renewables, but it is far behind countries like Germany and Japan on this front.

As it happens, several states in the US have been proactive on climate change, without waiting for a recalcitrant George Bush to come on board. Over half of US industries and services have accepted a cap-and-trade system -- there being excessive reliance on such market fundamentalism to keep the globe’s atmosphere under control. Senator Kerry cited how Portland, Oregon, had already put smart building codes in place, and altered its commuting systems. There was a “huge movement” in cities like Salt Lake City, in Utah, and other New England states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. As is well known, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has put in place stringent curbs which put the state virtually ahead of anywhere else in the world in respect of certain measures. Over 800 cities in the US have pledged to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets.

However, the mistaken emphasis on technological fixes was evident in his reference to how the new energy secretary, Steven Chu, is looking at geological and non-geological carbon sequestration which is a very untried, capital-intensive and expensive technology to trap carbon dioxide, for instance from flue gas in factory chimneys, and convert it into concrete.

Senator Kerry believed that the financial system and the planet had to be fixed together. He criticised the “unsustainable economic cycle” of the US, where the country sent money abroad to pay for oil, which came back as investment. He made a case for an alternative paradigm, whereby alternative energy systems produced a product which had a global demand -- for example, a new energy-efficient and clean combustion engine. Otherwise, there was no way to compete with low-wage economies.

These proposals were excessively optimistic. Later at the summit, any such US wishful thinking on the country emerging as a leader in clean and green technologies was demolished, appropriately enough, by the widely syndicated New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who reported how he had seen a billboard somewhere in Europe which stated that a particular car was made with German engineering, Swiss innovation and “American nothing”. He referred to the US as a “sub-prime” economy and, in a subsequent column, quoted Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, suggesting, only half in jest, that the best way to solve the financial crisis in the county of its origin was to import 2 million Indians, Chinese and Koreans who would buy up all the mortgaged homes, work 18 hours a day to pay for them, and improve the domestic savings rate in the process…

There was a great deal of discussion in Delhi on how to go about solving the globe’s climate crisis. Several speakers called for a new environment agency, while others advocated shoring up the existing mechanism. It is notable that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is the only UN agency to be located in a developing country -- Kenya. However, it has been bedevilled in the past for a variety of reasons. Possibly because it does not have the financial resources of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), firmly ensconced in New York, it has over the years turned into more of a technocratic institution. For instance, it houses in Paris the oversight machinery for the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances. When the global environment facility was formed after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the other two partners, the UNDP and the World Bank, exerted more clout than the UNEP.

Some countries have called for a World Emergency Organisation (WEO) to partner the World Trade Organisation (WTO). However, most developing countries look askance at the WTO on the ground that it unabashedly promotes free trade -- that is, free trade for industrial countries at the cost of developing countries. Were trade really free, with no trade barriers, there is hardly an iota of doubt that far cheaper commodities and agricultural products from developing countries would flood the world. Some speakers believed that the WEO could prove to be an institution that would supervise the far trickier aspect of climate change than mitigation, which is adaptation borne by poor countries.

There were references to a new Green Deal and how, under the Marshall Plan, there was a “massive” transfer of resources from the US to a war-ravaged Europe after World War II. Optimists believed that this new deal could tackle the severe economic downturn by encouraging technological innovation. They believed that the creativity of the market, combined with social responsibility, could deliver the goods. Germany, for instance, is moving towards meeting 40% of its energy through renewables by 2020, having already achieved 15%; that could produce 1.8 million “green collar jobs”.

It could well be argued, on the contrary, that the scale and dimensions of the global climate crisis are so immense that it is unwise and unproductive to rely on market mechanisms -- which have largely caused such problems in the first place. Instead, there is no alternative to imposing physical curbs on emissions. As Senator Kerry pointed out, even if the US achieved zero emissions there would still be a catastrophe because of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The big question, the inconvenient or inconvertible truth, is: Who has caused global warming and who is paying for it?

In a video conference with Delhi, former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan reminded his audience that as many as 50 countries in the world contributed less than 1% of the carbon dioxide emissions.

As one summit participant explained in Delhi, Africa was “at the wrong end of the problem”. Representatives from African countries cited case after case of how they were being affected by climate change. Mozambique, for instance, is “every year challenged by climate change”. There are now droughts every year, whereas there were floods earlier. It simply lacked the financial resources to adapt. The speaker believed, probably wrongly, that the country needed dams to better harness its rivers, but “all these actions are high cost; we can’t afford to pay the price for climate change”. Mozambique also found the procedures to claim certified emission reduction certificates under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism -- India has the largest number of such certificates; China the highest value -- too cumbersome.

In Rwanda, there was virtually “trench warfare” on disasters caused by global warming, with countries and communities blaming each other. Eighty-five per cent of the population of Niger has been affected by desertification. Since it is an animal husbandry-based society, this has led to social instability. There are conflicts between communities over grazing areas. Due to soil erosion, Lake Chad had shrunk. Mali is in somewhat the same boat and these countries appealed for aid to provide energy for sub-Saharan Africa. Sir Crispin Tickell from the James Martin Institute for Science and Technology in the UK pointed out that this very region, 500 years ago, had lush vegetation.

It took some plain speaking by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, from The Earth Institute in Columbia University in New York, to remind the summit about the neglect of Africa. As much as 95% of its agriculture depends on the rain; there is no large storage of water. “For 40 years, industrial countries had told fibs about aid,” he chastised the audience comprising multilateral institutions, western diplomats and foreign and Indian corporates. Rich countries were refusing to meet their aid pledges. In Gleneagles, the G8 had agreed to double their aid by 2010, but there was no sign of any such denouement, particularly in the meltdown scenario. France and Italy had actually cut their aid budgets.

“Without finance, there is no solution to the climate crisis,” he said. “Pretence won’t help. He made a strong case for a carbon tax. Since there were 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted into the earth’s atmosphere every year, a mere $10 a tonne would yield $300 billion a year, which could largely take care of adaptation to the crisis. “If rich countries don’t agree to this tax,” he warned, “everything else is mere words.” African countries had spent a lot of their time begging for aid: there was now a critical crisis of world governance.

This dilemma wasn’t related only to the poorest in the world, but also the poor in the richest economies. Professor Sachs noted that in the four US presidential debates, the world “poverty” was never mentioned, although the US officially has some 10% of its people living below the poverty line (in comparative terms). In his book How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, the environment editor of Le Monde daily in Paris, Herve Kempf, observes that 23% of Americans earn less than half the US median per capita income, which is poor by comparable indices. President Obama had, however, only instituted a new commission for the middle-class. The administration was spending almost $800 billion on bailing out the economy, but wasn’t prepared to hand out “a penny for the rest of the world”. And yet, more than global warming, this was a crisis which the US had caused domestically, but impacted the rest of the globe.

In 2008, at the FAO meet in Rome to discuss world food hunger, some $12 billion had been pledged, but this had not materialised. All that it yielded was “a series of photo-opportunities”. Years ago, rich countries had committed to pledging 0.7% of their GDP as aid. Only Scandinavian countries had met this target; Norway, in Professor Sachs’ words, proving “exemplary” in providing a full 1%. The US, by abysmal contrast, only provided 0.16%.

The choice of solutions in the climate crisis is very simple. As one participant at the Delhi summit noted: Would it benefit the under-2 billion well-to-do people in the world, or the over-4 billion have-nots?

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009