December 14, 2019
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Economic might is right in climate debate

Hot Currents
Illustration by Sorit
Hot Currents
India Beware

Industrial countries want:
  • Worldwide emission targets. They also want India to share the "burden" even though Carbon-di-oxide emissions are their legacy.
  • International norms for key industries which will curb growth
  • "Carbon miles" added to food imports
  • Sale, not sharing, of green technology
  • G-77's solidarity broken, so as to weaken India's bargaining power. Small island nations are being asked to push India.


The climate change debate has become a war of the worlds, with the West fighting to maintain dominance while developing countries assert their right to grow and provide for their people. But the earnest fury over the fate of Planet Earth emanating from rich capitals cannot hide the stark politics being played out in meeting rooms in Bonn and Bali. In one giant diversionary tactic, the world's worst polluters, who have failed to cut their own emissions, are trying to project the emerging economies of India and China as the new villains of global warming.

It is not only about the Earth dying and the glaciers melting, but also about geopolitics and who will write the new rules. "With India and China growing, becoming large consumers of energy and fossil fuels, the West is worried about its diminishing clout," a senior Indian official says. Climate change is becoming the weapon of choice to maintain status quo because, in the end, emergence of new players means the retirement of old ones. Analysts say the aim may be to restrain China, but India could easily become collateral damage. Environmental activist Sunita Narain predicts that climate-change negotiations are headed for a "bloodbath".

Industrialised countries are trying to change the very basis of the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes mandatory targets on them to cut emissions, by attempting to rope in "emerging countries". They are also demanding "worldwide emission targets" to dilute their own responsibility. Then they want to link climate change to trade, impose international norms on major industries and even slap "carbon miles" on imported fruit—adding carbon emissions of the airplane the mangoes flew on and the ships the shrimp sailed on, in order to calculate responsibility.

The debate is also being distorted daily by artful use of language. US negotiators have come up with the term "aspirational targets", meaning voluntary targets, meaning you can go home free. Also, the use of terms such as "post-Kyoto regime" or a "new international framework" is sowing deliberate confusion because there is very much an existing Kyoto protocol and a signed and sealed UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The western bloc has begun talking of a 50 per cent reduction in worldwide emissions by 2050, but it has refused to say 50 per cent of what, and from which base year. Developed countries have gone to the extent of using different base years, different metrics for measuring emissions and different targets to muddy the waters.

And what they can't get through climate-change negotiations, they are trying to obtain via the World Bank, where they control majority stake. Various proposed funds to promote green technology, including a $10-billion fund, are being given as loans, not grants, saddling poor countries with an extra burden. Activists also question the expertise of the World Bank in promoting clean technology, given its 60-year record of financing projects that cause pollution.

While India, China and Brazil are opposing the Bank's policy, Africa is split on the issue. "They are trying to buy them over by dividing them into least-developed and less-developed," says one Washington-based official.

Upping the ante ahead of the G-8+ G-5 summit in Japan, US President George W. Bush repeated that no accord on climate change was possible without India and China, and that no one was going to get a "free" pass. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have to counter this patronising and aggravating attitude with hard facts—both at the summit and a separate meeting of 17 "major economies", called by the US solely to discuss climate change. As he said last week: "Every citizen of this planet must have an equal share of the planetary atmospheric space." Cumulative emissions between 1850 and 2000 show the US occupying 30 per cent of the available carbon space, EU about 27 per cent, China 7.3 per cent and India only 2 per cent. Where is the comparison, ask officials.

At the last G-8 summit, the prime minister had declared that India's greenhouse gas emissions would not exceed the per capita emissions of the developed countries, meaning that India was voluntarily setting a cap. This was a commitment by India, as well as a challenge to others to bring down their emissions. The release of India's National Action Plan on Climate Change days before his departure was timed to show the national commitment for green development and to counter criticism and calumny.

Climate change is being raised everywhere—from the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation to the International Maritime Organisation. The onslaught of meetings called on short notice in far-flung cities places a special burden on negotiators from developing countries. Besides, the G-77 group of developing and emerging countries is constantly being subjected to the one old rule of British colonialism—divide and rule. Small island nations, especially vulnerable to the dangers of rising oceans, are being lobbied by the West to push India and China to "do something".

Meanwhile, officials say that developed countries are doing "zilch" to share clean technology to help green development in poorer nations, which is their obligation under the UNFCCC. Intellectual property rights make it formidable for developing countries to access them. Indian companies were hindered from introducing a new chemical friendly to the ozone layer as a substitute for ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons owing to patent laws.

As for the rain of "innovative" ideas from the western bloc, it is an attempt to spread the blame for global warming and deflect attention from the real issue—the failure of developed countries to cut emissions. Despite the misinformation in the western press, Indian officials are at pains to point out that international negotiations currently on under the existing Kyoto Protocol are on fresh emission targets the developed countries must adopt after 2012—known as the second commitment period. Also under discussion is a plan for more effective implementation of UNFCCC through "measurable, reportable and verifiable" action. None of the major polluters is expected to meet the (2008-2012) target of reducing emissions by 5.2 per cent below their 1990 level.

"They know they are on shaky ground and therefore the game of deflecting attention," a senior official says. And of increasing pressure on India from all sides with the Americans "pushing very, very hard" for New Delhi to accept voluntary commitments. India is not required to undertake commitments under the UNFCCC and its emissions remain at four per cent of the global total, compared to 20 per cent for the US and 16 per cent for China. "We are delivering eight per cent growth with only four per cent increase in energy consumption," he adds.

As Shyam Saran, India's lead negotiator, says, "To accept the US argument is to accept what I call the npt approach to climate change—that is, I get to keep what I have because I got here first. You have to stay where you are because you are a latecomer. " He was referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which divided the world into nuclear haves and have-nots.

Indian officials are fighting hard in various forums, but as Narain, director of the Centre for Science & Environment and member of the prime minister's council on climate change, says, India also needs to have a "proactive" strategy. It needs to put new ideas on the table, suggest reform and list emission targets for the industrial world, instead of only reacting to the onslaught of papers from Japan, the European Union and Canada. And not melt under pressure.
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