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Negotiating on climate change

The Indian position on climate change ought to be unequivocal -- we should not agree to any cap or cuts on emission until G8 countries agree drastically to cut their own emissions, says Darryl D’Monte, adding that the Global Responsibility Capacity Index might serve as a more progressive climate tax

There may be genuine differences within the country over whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a gaffe when he signed the Major Economies Forum and G8 declarations in Italy recently, accepting that India would agree not to allow global temperatures to rise 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Those who think he didn’t, including Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, Shyam Saran, the chief climate negotiator, and Dr R K Pachauri, who heads the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), believe that India was only endorsing what is a widely accepted scientific fact. Further, these declarations are merely political statements that have no bearing on India’s stand in the ongoing negotiations which will culminate in Copenhagen in December.

The sceptics, however, believe that these negotiations are at a very tricky stage: give an inch and the industrial countries will take a mile. One has only to read the remarks of UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and others who cite how this was the first time developing countries had agreed to the cap. It will be difficult to wriggle out of this position now in the ensuing months. Even if industrial countries agree to make the cuts that developing countries are asking them to -- around 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, twice what they are committing to at this stage -- there is no way that global average temperatures can be prevented from rising above 2 degrees without developing countries agreeing to cut emissions as well. China and India, the two most populous nations, are singled out in this regard. The temperature has already risen by 0.8%; many experts believe there is little to stop it from crossing the tipping point, beyond which there is no hope for the planet.

There is a close parallel between these negotiations and those concerning trade-related intellectual property rights, or TRIPs, during the Uruguay Round some two decades ago. As Arvind Subramaniam from Johns Hopkins University in the US points out in a recent article, India and developing countries “had a good, or at least very reasonable, economic and moral case. Then too, the industrial countries were united in pushing their interests strongly in international negotiations. Then, industrial countries prevailed. It is necessary to understand why and draw the appropriate lessons”.

He argues that US negotiators were able to make out a strong case that if TRIPs weren’t enforced, pharmaceutical companies, for instance, would have no incentive to bring out new life-saving drugs. This camouflaged the fact that such patent laws keep the prices of drugs prohibitively high and actually prevent the poorest societies from accessing these vital technologies. In much the same vein, US climate negotiators -- although they are a far cry from the anti-environment fundamentalism of Bush -- are holding China and India responsible for holding the world to ransom. This, when everybody knows that the US is the most profligate user of energy on the planet, and that all industrial countries increased their energy consumption till 2007.

The Indian position ought to be unequivocal. We should not agree to any cap, or cuts, until and unless G8 countries agree drastically to cut their own emissions. US President Obama has only outlined reductions of 14% below 2005 (not 1990) levels by 2020, even if the US converges with the EU’s commitment of 80% by 2050.

However, if one accepts the 2 degree cap, the phasing of reductions become extremely important. As Dinesh Patnaik, a ministry of external affairs negotiator, argues: “For any long-term goals, there have to be credible mid-term goals.” The US Waxman-Markey Bill, which seeks to cap domestic emissions, kicks in towards the end of the period, while some experts argue that global emissions must drop by 10% from 2010 itself, and 25% by 2012, building up gradually and not deferring cuts till some politically acceptable deadline. Without resorting to black humour, in this case John Maynard Keynes’ memorable quote may be unerringly accurate: “In the long run, we will all be dead.”

Subramaniam is not far off the mark when he says: “The US position is that of a serial philanderer who promises in the future to become an episodic philanderer, and then demands as a moral right that his chaste partner wear a chastity belt. Unfortunately for India, this narrative -- in which the philanderer is the good guy while his chaste partner is the bad gal for forswearing the use of the chastity belt -- is acquiring broad resonance in the rich world.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, William Antholis, who served in the US National Security Council during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, acknowledges that Manmohan Singh has “become the spokesperson for ‘equity’ in emissions reductions”. The Economist also recently lauded Shyam Saran for adding to the climate lexicon by referring to how industrial countries have appropriated “carbon space”. But both influential journals make no secret of their antipathy towards the yardstick of per capita -- as against overall -- emissions. Indians now emit an average 1.2 tonnes of carbon per head a year, as against 20 tonnes by Americans. Antholis argues, astonishingly, that the US, EU and Japan could not be held responsible because they “did not know at the time that they were threatening the climate”.

He goes on to make the case that population growth can’t be ignored. In the latter half of the 20th century, population growth “exploded” in developing nations. India went up from 350 million to an excess of 1 billion -- an increase of 182%. By contrast, the US grew from 157 million to 187 million, well below the global average. “If developed nations are held responsible for emissions that they historically contributed to, oblivious of their impact on climate change, why shouldn’t developing nations take responsibility for producing generations of people who will generate emissions into the future? Put another way, it is unclear whether we should use the population figures of 1950, 2000 or 2050 in judging per capita contributions to climate change.”

Antholis’ views deserve to be countered because he is not part of a lunatic fringe but was a key negotiator to the Kyoto Protocol, which President Bush refused to sign. If one was to employ his same warped logic, an Indian could well argue that millions of poverty-stricken people in villages were and are equally unaware of how they are contributing to altering the climate. One has only to hark back to the late environmental journalist Anil Agarwal’s formulation as long ago as in 1991 that it is a mistake to equate the “luxury emissions” of the rich with the “survival emissions” of the poor, in the climate debate. There are 400 million Indians who are denied electricity today, whose energy consumption obviously needs to increase rather than be capped. One can certainly leapfrog the energy-intensive growth path, but this requires funding to achieve.

If one looks at the carrying capacity of nations, measured by their ecological footprint, the entire picture becomes clear. This measures what area, in hectares, a citizen of each country appropriates to himself by way of land and water resources (including the oceans) to obtain natural resources, across national boundaries. Each American uses 9.3 hectares across the globe by way of consuming resources in the shape of food, energy, minerals, building materials, etc ( What’s more, US consumption has been rising precipitously since the 1960s. The average Indian uses 0.8 hectares, and has remained at the same level or lower since the 1960s (in part due to population growth). The global average is 2.7 hectares.

This provides, in a snapshot, the true picture of the injustice when it comes to the environment. There is simply no escaping the fact, despite all the bluster by mainly US experts, that industrial countries have caused the problem and owe it to the rest of the world to clean up their act before expecting developing countries to follow suit.

It is true that India, and to a larger extent China, has elites whose consumption almost approximate those of industrial societies. Western critics are right in saying that these sections shouldn’t hide behind the poor. As it happens, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and three other organisations have worked out a Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, which addresses both total versus per capita emissions, as well as ‘historical emissions’ which refer to the accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide generated by industrialised countries since the mid-18th century. It also includes the energy use of elites within developing countries.

This framework uses the more appropriate measure of $20 a day based on purchasing power parity to assess those below the poverty line, which is much greater than the bare subsistence of $2 a day. By this yardstick of $7,300 a year, there are only 5% of Indians who exceed this development threshold, one-fifth of Chinese and all Americans. During the ongoing negotiations, a figure of 0.5-1% of global GDP is being cited as the funding required to cope with climate change. At a slightly higher figure of 1.3%, it works out to $1 trillion a year.

Using the SEI’s ‘global responsibility capacity’ index, in 2010 (next year) the US, accounting for one-third of the global burden on the planet, would have to pay $331 billion. The EU, with 25%, would have to bear $257 billion; China, with 5%, $55 billion; and India, with 0.5%, $5 billion. This serves as a progressive climate tax, which is not a carbon tax per se but one based on responsibility and capacity to pay. From any viewpoint -- ecological, economic, social and moral -- no one can quibble with this measure. It highlights the paucity of current funding proposals, which hover around $100-$150 billion per year, and will set in only in 2020.

It would be a mistake to imagine that these sums will flow to developing countries as new and additional overseas development assistance or aid, levels of which have already declined sharply. Instead, particularly at the prodding of the US, these sums will flow in kind, in the form of energy-efficient technologies. The issue of patents on these still has to be resolved, but industrial countries must hope that there will be a situation where such know-how is provided free or at reduced rates initially but ultimately there will be a huge global market for them and they will prove the leaders in this field.

There is need for caution with regard to the choice of technologies. An Indian negotiator has likened the US position that it will only catalyse efforts in developing countries to move to a low-carbon economy as “someone offering to help with your broken-down car and then pushing it with two fingers”. Both European and American experts are placing a great deal of emphasis on the controversial ‘carbon capture and storage’ method that will enable all countries with large coal deposits (including India, the US and Australia) to use these reserves without emitting pollutants, by storing the emissions underground. The viability of this technology is still not proven, but there is hardly any doubt about its potential commercial value. A McKinsey study shows that India needs investments of 650-700 billion euro (Rs 43-46 trillion) till 2030 to bring its emissions under control, assuming the country grows at 7.5% per annum.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change, which the prime minister himself chairs, has set itself a target of 20,000 MW of solar energy by 2020. This may be partly prompted by the need to convince the North that India is being proactive in pursuing a low-carbon path. However, some caveats are in order. The prime need in this country is for energy, as distinct from electricity, and that specifically refers to fuel to cook with. By definition, electricity produced by solar panels or even from windmills won’t power cooking devices for a long time to come, being even more expensive than conventional electricity from thermal or hydroelectric sources. Neither is solar power going to light village homes entirely, although a lantern may well prove the single source for homes that presently have to make do without any light whatsoever.

The power to choose for rural homes undeniably is the much-neglected biogas. It is cheap, highly decentralised, doesn’t require expensive foreign technology, uses farm, kitchen, animal and even human waste, and also produces slurry which is excellent fertiliser. Admittedly, it requires three or four heads of cattle or buffaloes for a household unit to work best, but farm waste is a viable alternative. Jairam Ramesh is going to the US next month to explore how India and that country can conduct collaborative research on energy-efficient technologies. However, India is probably ahead in biogas technology, at least so far as cheap, home-based units are concerned.

Since the US is making heavy weather of the phenomenon known originally as the Asian Brown Cloud (now the first word has been sanitised to ‘Atmospheric’ in deference to criticism from India), whereby soot emitted when millions of poor South Asians cook on inefficient chulhas causes a pall of particles over the region, altering the regional climate, India would do well to explore ways to introduce new, ‘smokeless’ chulhas, the technology for which is domestically available. The US could meet part of its commitments to curbing emissions by providing the funds for households throughout South Asia to switch to better methods of cooking. Apart from the climate, this would also improve the health of millions of women whose lives are impacted by smoky stoves.

Infochange News & Features, August 2009