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Acting globally and locally

If internationally climate change is tackled with the fig-leaf of annual global conventions, India is doing its bit by setting up endless committees and sub-committees, writes Darryl D'Monte

If one needs any reminder of the devastating impact of climate change in this country, it is the searing drought in Maharashtra, the worst since 1972. This columnist recalls publishing an article in the Sunday magazine of The Times of India at the time, where the author reported that the state was spending in two years on drought relief the equivalent of what it had spent in 20 years on irrigation. To add insult to injury,  nature’s wrath has been compounded by the greed of politicians. The Deputy Chief Minister of the Nationalist Congress Party, Ajit Pawar, who temporarily vacated his position following an outcry over massive irrigation scams, has returned to it. This is a shocking case of duplicity on the part of the dominant partner in the coalition, the Congress Party. Indeed, as scandal after scandal on a virtually daily basis shows us, the post-liberalisation phase of the economy indicates  that there has been massive appropriation of natural resources. In the current drought, as P Sainath has demonstrated in two telling articles in The Hindu recently, water in the Deccan peninsula has also become a coveted natural asset to be acquired and sold at huge profit.

Despite the wildly fluctuating changes of weather in North America, the US remains still largely ignorant at best and sceptical at worst about the devastating impact of global climate change. Perhaps it is the knowledge, supported by science, in the industrialised North that these countries actually stand to gain – certainly their agriculture – from a rise of 2 degrees C and more in the next few decades.  Eventually, however, other climate-related catastrophes will take their toll. In the US, so many cities, particularly New York, lie on or close to the coast and the rising tide will inundate some of the most expensive real estate in the world.  These nations will also face a rising tide of climate refugees from Latin America and beyond, which will play havoc will the world social order.

Recently, Prof T Jayaraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) took the initiative in holding a meeting of Indian analysts and academics on climate change policy, including representatives of the Geneva-based South Commission, once headed by none other than Dr Manmohan Singh.  The sub-theme was ‘equity, adaptation and sustainable development’. If one needs to identify the milestones in global policy since the abortive Copenhagen ‘accord’ in 2009, it is marked by a new fig-leaf of agreements annually. Thus, there was  Cancun in 2010, followed by Durban in 2011 and Doha in 2012. Durban produced a ‘platform for enhanced action’.  Many analysts are grasping at this straw, indicating that it was a better outcome than many had expected.  Certainly, from the viewpoint of a negotiator, any such advance, however minuscule, has to be seized in an attempt to take the talks forward.

However, anyone who takes a worm’s eye view of the negotiations  cannot but be hugely sceptical  of the ongoing summiteering. The emphasis  at TISS was on the Indian stance. Among the most realistic summing  up of the global position today has been done by Martin Khor, who is now the Executive Director of the South Centre in Geneva. This columnist first met him in his home city of Penang at a huge global conference of environmental activists and the media which he held in 1987. I have been following his pronouncements ever since. In an article in the Economic & Political Weekly in January, Khor dubbed Doha as a Conference of Parties (CoP) with “low ambition”.  The one positive development was that the Kyoto Protocol or an agreement to that effect, which sets limits on emissions for industrial countries,  was not summarily dismissed.

Earlier, he had drawn up a detailed approach to the equitable sharing of atmospheric and development space in a paper in Climate Policy Brief  in 2010. If one traces the historical situation, we have to assess that between 1850 and 2009, about 1,280 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide were emitted. To achieve a two-thirds probability of keeping the temperature rise to within 2 degrees C, as science compels us to do, carbon emissions between 2010 and 2050 must be kept below 750 Gt. A three-quarters probability requires a 600 Gt budget.  One has to take a bird’s eye view of  the ‘fair shares’ of developed and developing countries, based on proportion of population from 1850 to 2008. The cumulative emissions in these 158 years amounted to 1,214 Gt.

Of this total, industrial countries accounted for 878 Gt or 72% of the total. Since their share of  population was only one-quarter of the globe’s, their fair share should have been 310 Gt and their excess use amounted to 568 Gt.  Developing countries accounted for 336 Gt  or 28% of the total. Their fair share was 904 Gt and under-use 568 Gt. This brief but succinct summation gives us a clear view of the justice required for climate change policy. It amounts to a carbon ‘debt’ of 568 Gt and, like all debts, this too needs to be repaid. As Khor observes, “They [industrial countries] are still accumulating debt because their actual emissions as a group in 2009 exceeds their fare share.”

He believes in two concepts for sharing the remaining carbon space. The first is the allocation of this space according to rights and responsibilities. Secondly, there is the actual carbon budget (and related physical emission reduction schedule) that countries eventually put forward as what they physically undertake. As is now abundantly clear, the US is dead-set on not acknowledging any ‘historical emissions’, as environmentalist Anil Agarwal first termed them. It is predicating any reduction in emission on emerging economies in general, and China and India in particular, following suit.  China is now the world’s biggest emitter in absolute terms, and India figures third.  As is well understood, the moment one examines per capita emissions, it is quite a different story.  In the past, US negotiators have tried to put a spin on this, saying that a policy which incorporates populations puts a premium on those  countries which have not kept their demographic growth in check. But this is a bogey, considering that we are going back to a century after the Industrial Revolution, when India’s population was by no means a threat to global climate change.

While India does need to put its position across strongly on all world fora, and policy conclaves such as that run by TISS recently are a welcome incorporation of citizens’ views, the central government can in no way seek refuge behind global inequities to carry on with business as usual. Irrespective of what transpires in global negotiations, the government owes it to the people to keep emissions in check. Just a look at the runaway growth in car emissions will show that no transport policy worth the name is in place.  For that matter, the other half of the population which still burns twigs and agricultural waste to cook with is virtually a human rights violation. It denies women in particular their fundamental right to life and a clean environment  by forcing them to use smoky chulhas, which leads to severe and even fatal respiratory problems. What is as bad, these emissions  ontribute to the ‘Asian Brown Cloud’ and precipitate the snow melt in the Himalaya. This will eventually trigger off drought in the entire sub-Himalayan belt, comprising some 600 million people in the three countries of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh,  when rivers run dry in summer.

Thus India clearly needs a twin-track policy: to both think and act globally as well as locally. After setting up the National Action Plan on Climate Change, with some eight sub-committees, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to feel that the country is doing what is needed on all fronts related to climate. But, even a cursory glance at India’s environment shows that this is far from the truth. We can ignore this threat only at our own peril.

Infochange News & Features, March 2013