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.
The Earth’s oceans, forests, soils, rocks, etc currently absorb roughly 15 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, but the ability is depleting annually. Meanwhile, humanity is pumping about 35 billion tonnes into the atmosphere each year, 29 from burning fossil fuels and the remaining six from deforestation and land-use changes. As such, if we wish not to worsen future warming, the world needs to urgently halt the excess 20 billion tonnes of CO2 it is emitting each year, to say nothing of other greenhouse gases. Although this figure of 15 billion tonnes includes oceanic absorption that is several times the natural long-term rate of the carbon cycle – worsening ocean acidification and consequent harm to marine species, and humans in the medium term – let us accept it, for our current purposes, at face value. If one were to then divide this figure by the world’s population, it would imply that each person on this planet is entitled to emit some two tonnes of CO2 a year.
Consumption derives not merely from what one earns, but also from that to which one has access. Practically every upper-middle-class family in India now has one member living abroad, and regularly burns up what George Monbiot in Heat refers to as “love miles”. Every parent from Delhi who visits an offspring in the US emits 2,740 kg of CO2 flying back and forth – more than a year’s acceptable emissions. And the very rich in India, whose lifestyles the visual media and Page 3 writers regularly laud, have emission rates that easily approach European or US levels.
Many of the high-income, high-emission lifestyles exploded in India during the 1990s, catalysed by policy directives in the interests of large capital. For instance, cheap flights, easily financed cars, air-conditioned malls, high-income jobs in private banks and other multinational companies – these were hardly accidental developments. Simultaneously, the near-zero employment growth that took place through the 1990s, the longer working hours and faster work required of factory workers even when employment grew this decade, the increasing contractualisation of work, stagnating real wages, the fall in agricultural incomes and the agrarian crises – all of these only accentuated the enormous disparities in incomes and consumption. Though the Indian government’s submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in August stated that “each human being has an equal right to the common atmospheric resource,” New Delhi as well as state governments undermine this principle internally in practice. After all, the actual consequences of their policies are disparate incomes and consumption, differential energy access and use, and vastly unequal carbon emissions.
There is no doubt that industrialised countries bear an overwhelming responsibility for historical emissions, which is germane because about a quarter of carbon-dioxide emissions stays in the air for hundreds of years. But nationalist responses (based on the ‘low averages’ argument) to what India’s stance should be at the upcoming summit in Copenhagen miss the essential fact that class and industrial capitalism are central to understanding – and tackling – global warming. This is a systemic problem: it is revealing that CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which had inched up by merely 20 parts per million (ppm) over the 8,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, have shot up by 110 ppm since, much of this in the past 50 years. People are correct to point fingers at China, now the world’s largest emitter. But we also studiously ignore the obvious fact that this took place because so much of world manufacturing shifted to China, driven by capital’s inherent drive for cheap input costs of energy and labour power, and for profits, by externalising environmental costs.
Those many who view global warming purely in terms of nation states have not defined the problem correctly. It is therefore hardly surprising that little progress has been made in climate negotiations over the past 15 years. Little of significance – given the scale and urgency of the problem – will also emerge from Copenhagen in December, since each major nation state is merely jockeying for atmospheric space, sections of industry are hoping to make money from carbon offsets, and small island nations are watching desperately but helplessly.
However, certain things follow if we are to focus on the huge disparities in carbon emissions and the systemic nature of the problem. The only way we can bring world emissions to levels the Earth can absorb is by urgently enforcing reduced emissions by the elite, whether in India, all of Southasia or overseas. Reduced elite consumption enlarges the space for higher emissions by the poor and future generations. But given the job losses due to falling consumption in the developed world during the ongoing economic crisis, experienced by migrant workers in towns such as Surat and Moradabad, we need to think through the question of consumption and employment. A starting point in our context would be making agriculture viable, since 650 million people are dependent on it. Linked to this would be an industrialisation strategy that highlights people’s basic needs and eschews production for wasteful consumption by elites.
Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to force the issue fast enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming. Whether we are able to or not, due to the lag in the oceans warming up, a further warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius is automatically built in, beyond the 0.8 degree average warming we are currently experiencing. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, has pointed to even further warming in the pipeline due to additional slow ‘feedbacks’. Basically, an accumulated warming of the globe seem unavoidable. In addition to the struggle for a more just and sustainable development trajectory, we need to identify current impacts better, anticipate future trends, and prepare for them in advance. This calls for, more than anything else, a class-based worldwide analysis of climate change. Not doing so will have huge implications for the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor, in Southasia and beyond.
~ Nagraj Adve is an activist with the Delhi Platform, a non-funded organisation working on global warming.