Elite extravagance

The international climate discussion will go nowhere until class and capitalism are understood as central.

Much is made of the fact – most of all by the Indian government – that the country's average per capita emissions, roughly 1.2 to 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, are lower than the global average, and considerably lower than that of the US or Europe. But the fact is, there is no 'India'; the government is merely hiding behind the poor. A report by the government sanctioned Committee on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector revealed in 2008 that a jaw-dropping 836 million people in India consume less than INR 20 a day, of which 444 million 'marginally poor' people consume less than INR 15. Needless to say, at INR 15-20 a day one cannot contribute much to global warming, however hard one might try. In a tragic irony, such people are contributing nothing to the problem but are already its victims: poor women suffering the consequences of drought that has plagued parts of Bundelkhand since the mid-1990s, Kui Adivasis in Orissa who have lost their cattle and kharif crop, small-scale and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers who are increasingly being affected by erratic rainfall over the last 15 years, and others.

It is the country's abysmal poverty that drags down 'India's' average emissions, and hides the fact that the elites – whose wealth or access to it will cushion global warming's impacts on them – contribute significantly. Workshops on calculating one's carbon footprint being conducted by Soumya Dutta, a scientist and activist, show that even an average middle-class person in Delhi emits over four tonnes of CO2 every year – two times what is acceptable given Earth's absorption capacity. He calculates that those taking a car emit over 11 times as much as those who travel by bus over the same distance. A train traveller from Delhi to Bombay emits 30 kg of CO2; someone flying between the two cities emits 180 kg.

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Himal Southasian