Photo: Muhammad Numan / Unsplash
Photo: Muhammad Numan / Unsplash

Equalising burden-sharing

While the impact of climate change is global, the response is piecemeal and there is an increasing burden on the developing countries, and the poor living there.

How to achieve global consensus on addressing the challenge of climate change is today an unresolved and intensely debated issue. The matter is a sensitive one, as the quest for a global response raises questions as to how to share the burden of reducing the threat among the countries of the world. After all, it is undeniable that the nations of the world have had varying roles in causing the problem, and also have differing vulnerabilities to the harm caused by climate change. The lack of progress in achieving a global consensus can be best explained by looking at the design and implementation of the international 'rules' that have been established thus far. These rules have focused solely on the volume of national emissions, rather than on the activities that lead to climate change in the first place. Consequently, efforts to reduce global emissions pit old emitters against new ones, and the key issue for the negotiation is when emissions of all countries will peak. The time has come to rethink this model for international analysis and cooperation.

To date, developed countries have not met a single one of their commitments, including on promised transfers of financial resources and technology to developing countries. Even their submissions during the ongoing negotiations remain non-committal on all of the issues. It is thus that the basic assumption of global environmental sustainability laid out 50 years ago – that developed countries will do whatever has to be done to support actions by developing countries – no longer holds. For instance, at the recent meeting of G8 countries in Italy, developed countries continued to insist on a global goal of halving emission levels by 2050. All the same, only a few of the developing countries had been able to bring their emissions down to 1990 levels by 2000, as required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Rightly viewing these reduction requirements as a threat to their own economic wellbeing, the developed countries are today attempting to alter the agreed-upon balance of obligations, working to shift the burden for change onto developing countries.

Even the European Union, a strong champion of action on climate change, has been notably lax in addressing global warming. According to data recently released by the UN for the European Commission, emissions from the EU energy sector, accounting for almost 80 percent of total greenhouse-gas emissions, increased by 2.2 percent from 1990 to 2006, despite the EU's widely discussed 'emissions trading' scheme. Transportation emissions, likewise, increased by more than 25 percent, and emissions from energy industries by 3.7 percent. Meanwhile, emissions in Japan and the United States over the same period showed double-digit growth. Clearly whatever system had been set up to deal with these complex issues is essentially broken.

Industry vs lifestyles
All this talk of about how humans are responsible for climate change, though wholly accurate, is not good for our sense of self. Intensive as the search for other culprits has been, we have not been successful in fully demonising a readymade set of polluters: livestock. Those sneaky cows and sheep are, by some estimates, responsible for some 20 percent of the ongoing warming. How can the carbon footprint of creatures whose major activities involve looking morose and grazing all day be so large, you may ask. Their entire contribution comes in the form of the methane they emit. All jokes aside, it is a serious (and stinky) issue. But a solution has been found. A company known – very cleverly – as Mootral, has come up with a natural garlic-based feed supplement that takes on the bacteria in the animals' stomachs, purportedly reducing the methane emission by about 15 percent.

The existing framework has three outstanding problems. First, global attention is directed towards the increasing emissions from the large developing countries, especially China and India. In these developing countries, three quarters of the electricity generated is used for industrial production, and thus any reduction in emissions will naturally have a direct impact on economic growth. In contrast, in the industrialised countries, consumption by households accounts for two-thirds of the electricity generated, and thus reductions would only impact on lifestyles. Moreover, while the major share of emissions in developing countries results from food production – deforestation to grow food crops, paddy cultivation and animal husbandry – transportation accounts for the largest share of emissions in developed countries. This emphasises the role of the individual as the driver of greenhouse-gas emissions, including the manner in which consumption patterns will change with rising incomes in all countries, developed or otherwise.

Second, the framework ignores that energy services are directly related to human well being. Development of infrastructure, urbanisation, manufacturing and food production are all essential for economic growth, and for the alleviation of poverty. For example, the per capita generation of electricity in India is currently one-fifteenth – 6.7 percent – that of the United States, and some 1.6 billion people worldwide are thought to lack access to electricity, with more than half of this number in India. That developing countries must still build their infrastructure is clear, and global leaders must therefore discuss how this economic growth can take place in an environmentally sustainable manner.

If approached in this light, the global community would in fact frame the issue entirely differently during the upcoming negotiations. Negotiators, for instance, would need to identify which longer-term trends should be modified, and the best way of doing so at the national level. At the international level, they would need to lay out a timetable for joint research and development of new technologies, as well as mechanisms for their transfer, rather than restrict discussions to needs assessment, as at present. In each of these areas, developing countries should also agree to take action as part of their "common but differentiated" responsibilities.

The third problem is the setting of emissions targets on a country-by-country basis at the point of production rather than consumption, particularly amidst increasing economic globalisation. In just one example, it is estimated that China's export-related emissions account for one-third of its total emissions. There is thus a situation where developed countries can slow the rise in their emissions and meet their targets at the expense of developing countries – in effect exporting their emissions.

These findings bring a new perspective to the international debate over emission targets and burden-sharing. As the United Nations struggles to strike a global accord, new perspectives that assess responsibility and capability at the level of individuals are emerging. The time has come to rethink the current standards for burden-sharing, removing the focus from national emissions as a whole, thinking rather about the activities that generate those emissions worldwide. The missing element can be provided by a shared vision in which patterns of resource use have to be common for all countries. To give just one example, per capita requirements of electricity and cars can be set across the world.

Another way to hold individuals rather than nations accountable is by incorporating into mitigation efforts statistics that take into account the unequal distribution of incomes within countries, rather than simply focusing on average energy use. Greenpeace, for instance, has proposed an approach of measuring emissions by differentiating the carbon footprint of the various income classes in India. According to its report, the average carbon-dioxide emissions for an individual from the highest income group – those who make more than INR 30,000 per month, and thus emit an average of 1494 kg of CO2 every year – is 4.5 times that of someone from the lowest income group, of below INR 3000 per month (335 kg).

In addition to increasingly consumption-oriented aspirations, the survey also found that the carbon-intense lifestyle of higher income groups is primarily due to inefficient infrastructure. This can range from coal-based electricity production to the large-scale use of energy inefficient household appliances and cars, all due to the lack of mandatory minimum efficiency standards. The lack of efficient public transportation systems within cities, or that of fast train connections between cities, adds to the carbon intensity of the lifestyles of income groups that can afford private transport. Since, as things stand, international emissions focus on the nation state, it would be appropriate to restrict commitments to consumption patterns of the population, and focus on demand-side management within sectors in order to achieve sustainable development.

Joint paradigm
In the near future, the world will have to place increased focus on the consumption patterns of each society, irrespective of the income levels of individuals, as the basis of a new approach to forging a global consensus on climate change. The global dialogue provides an opportunity to identify sectors and activities wherein energy efficiency can support both the environment and economic growth. For example, it has been estimated by the International Energy Agency that one-third of the projected increase in greenhouse-gas emissions in the building sector can be avoided at no cost by introducing energy efficient lighting, appliances and insulation.

There are three important reasons to justify a new approach. First, on the consumer side of the economy in developed countries, technological and lifestyle changes combined with higher incomes have significantly altered energy-use patterns in recent decades, including since the Climate Convention was negotiated in 1992. Today, over two-thirds of CO2 emissions come from the service, household and travel sectors, while industrial emissions have remained steady. For example, two-thirds of the increase in electricity demand in the EU between 1978 and 2003 was accounted for by appliances. More recently, small appliances such as computers and mobile phones are now becoming the largest source generating emissions sourced to households. Meanwhile, until very recently, improvements in vehicle and engine technologies have been largely offset by consumer preferences for larger and heavier vehicles. As a consequence, progressive reductions in the energy required to produce one unit of gross domestic product have not actually reduced emissions in most countries, simply because consumer products demand more energy during their use than during their production. With regards to a car, for instance, 80 percent of emissions are generated during the driving of the vehicle.

As such, while developing countries should insist that an equitable 'sharing of the atmosphere' – or right to emit – be the long-term global goal, in the interim they should also agree to take measures for demand-side management. For instance, the governments of developing countries should not shy away from establishing methodologies that measure energy consumption and deviation from business-as-usual emissions. This would, of course, be contingent on developed countries taking on commitments to modify their consumption patterns to a level where the formulae of resource use can become common for all countries.

Second, all scientific assessments conclude that developing countries, rather than developed countries, will bear the adverse impacts of climate change, including with huge economic costs. According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agricultural output in developing countries is expected to decline by between 10 and 20 percent by 2080, as a direct result of climate change. With a majority of the population in developing countries deriving their livelihoods from agriculture, this is clearly a critical issue. Indeed, agricultural growth has been found to be four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors, and such a significant decline would thus work in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, because the main determinant of a country's adaptive capacity is economic wealth, such unprecedented adverse impacts will severely constrain development, potentially locking the poor in long-term poverty traps.

Meeting this challenge will require major new investments, for example in agricultural research to develop new drought-resistant crop varieties and insurance schemes. While the UN Development Programme has estimated the annual global costs of adapting to climate change to be some USD 86 billion in 2015, the amount pledged globally to date (cumulatively, not per year) is USD 300 million. A large share of this burden will inevitably fall on the national budgets of developing countries, and they have no choice but to accept this responsibility. India already spends about three percent of its gross domestic product on climate change adaptation, in programmes that include forest conservation, agricultural research, water management, disaster prevention and crop insurance. However, such an international understanding should also depend on the developed countries providing funding for natural-disaster insurance, a provision that exists in the UNFCCC. Similarly, joint research for the development of drought-resistant seeds, along the lines of the Green Revolution, will also be necessary. This framework would allow countries to move to a new era of global cooperation on issues of common concern. Instead, the debate today remains bogged down in the details of what proportion of the increasing severity of current drought, floods and cyclones is actually being caused by climate change.

Third and finally, there is today consensus that a technological shift will be critical in determining environmentally sustainable patterns of resource use. And such a shift will have to be unprecedented in terms of scale and speed of deployment. Global policy needs to focus directly on developing new energy technologies and drought-resistant seed varieties, and their transfer to developing countries, rather than choosing simply to leave this issue to the market. Currently, a multilateral technology fund is under discussion in the climate negotiations, which should cover research, incremental capital and operational costs so long as the cost of electricity from clean coal and renewable energy technologies exceeds those determined by current energy strategies.

Only with a global approach that recognises the central importance of energy and ecological services in human well-being can broad public – and, hence, political – support be built up in developing countries for dealing with climate change. For progress to be made, we must rethink current standards for burden-sharing.

~ Mukul Sanwal is associated with the South Centre, Geneva. The views expressed in his piece are personal.

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