Finding an American scientist who disagrees with the postulate of what is called DAI – dangerous anthropogenic interference – is difficult. Of course, climate is variable, and there have been long periods of warming and cooling that mark the planet’s history. But scientists can today show that over the past two centuries, human action has contributed immeasurably to the disruption of the planet’s climate. The culprit here is our carbon-based society. At the 1992 UN conference on climate in Rio, all countries accepted the dangers of DAI, and pledged, in general terms, to do something about it. After discussions in Berlin and Geneva, the countries came to Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 to give some teeth to their pledge: the Annex I parties (industrialised countries plus countries with economies in transition) would reduce carbon emissions by various percentages. Developing countries would be exempt from these compulsory reductions, the principle being that the countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities”. The United States, which spews the lion’s share of carbon, balked. It was one thing to accept the principle, and another to take responsibility for it.
In the lead-up to Kyoto, the US Senate passed a unanimous resolution that asked the government to reject any agreement that committed the country to reduce carbon emissions unless the same strictures applied to the developing world. American policy under George W Bush’s administration, 2001 to 2008, took this refusal as grounds on which to go still further: the Bush team rejected the science of climate change, and refused to commit to any reduction in carbon emissions. Even today, the basic assumption of US policy remains that nothing can come of any climate discussion unless the developing world (mainly Brazil, China and India) accepts cuts in carbon emissions that are as stringent as those to be imposed on the Group of Seven (and Russia). Such a posture makes it unlikely that anything positive will emerge when the countries meet in Copenhagen this December to thrash out another climate treaty.
In August, the administration of Barack Obama sent its main diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to India to push for some agreement on the principles of climate change. Such a move might have served as a launch pad for the US to attain subsequent concessions from China and Brazil. After a meeting in Gurgaon with the American team, however, India’s minister for the environment, Jairam Ramesh, came out with all barrels blasting: “There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions. And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.” Ramesh is no radical, he does recognise the realities of geopolitical power and the unfortunate way in which the US has wielded that power in the climate-change debate. His position is one that is shared quite widely in India, not only within the Congress party but also by the communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Ramesh’s remarks follow the positions staked out by his prime minister in the National Action Plan on Climate Change on 30 June 2008. There, Prime Minister Manhoman Singh laid out the eight “national missions” for India, including the solar mission, the mission for sustainable agriculture and the mission for enhanced energy efficiency. What drives Prime Minister Singh, Ramesh and the Congress position is not so much the dangers of climate change, but how best to protect the imperatives of economic growth when faced with US pressure to cut back on the engine of growth, which is carbon. “Our people have a right to economic growth and social development to discard the ignominy of widespread poverty,” the prime minister said. “For this, we need rapid economic growth.” The Chinese and Brazilians are making the same case. The fact is that per capita carbon emissions from these three countries are still dwarfed by those for the G7; and that measure puts the onus back on the Annex I countries rather than on those who have development on their minds.
This writer recently reached out to several American environmental think tanks, and asked their leading intellectuals what they thought of the debate. What was striking was their lack of sensitivity to the position of the developing world. There is a certain arrogance that seeks to ignore the “ignominy of poverty”, and instead to make the problem of climate change a human one – which buries the issue of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, the agreed-upon UN standard. William Chandler and Therese Miranda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, “Climate change represents a global threat and will not pick its victims based on historic emissions patterns or the level of per capita emissions.” They point out that the US and China combined account for 40 percent of emissions (these are the numbers from 2006), so both should equally take charge of the solution.
These numbers do not, however, touch on the historic excess of emissions from the US, the eradication of forests in North America, which act as a carbon sink, and the massive per capita carbon emissions gap (US is 19 metric tonnes per capita, China is 4.6 metric tonnes and India is 1.3 metric tonnes). Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute offered a parable:
As an aside, consider for a moment the planet as a great ship. Imagine a large hole has appeared in the hull with a label called climate change on it. The hole was caused by a combination of ignorance and negligence by the first class passengers. Does it make sense for the steerage passengers to refuse to help bail and plug the hole? After all we share a common ship or planet. It is imperative that we come together and do the most we can to address this problem for the sake of our children and those that follow.
In this instance, steerage passengers must work hard to plug the hole, but must at the same time remain content with their below decks status. Browbeaten, the masses of the un-electrified world will not refuse their light bulbs while the SUVs remain a standard on the American freeways.
At a speech at the Carnegie Endowment in March, Prime Minister Singh’s special envoy on climate change, Shyam Saran, put the case for ‘leap-frogging’ rather than carbon caps. Developing countries, he pointed out, will allow the world to model a non-carbon modernity, to go beyond the carbon-based technologies to more green technologies, such as those based on solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, clean carbon and nuclear energy. All the same, leap-frogging relies upon investments from the Annex I countries as well as the free transfer of technology from the Global North. It should be pointed out that the Chinese are world leaders in solar technology (Suntech, the Chinese firm, is one of the largest), and so Chinese collaboration with the South, at concessionary rates, is in order.
Some have suggested that the Annex I countries pay a tax for their carbon past and present by financing a global investment fund in green technology. The “great leapfrog”, as environmentalist Sunita Narain of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and the Environment put it, would allow India to go beyond the “fossil fuel trajectory by cutting before we add to the emissions pool … we are not waiting to first get rich and then move towards a low-carbon trajectory, as the Western world has done.” In the US, this belief is shared by the right as well, with the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Ben Lieberman telling this writer that since “the developing world has every right to be angry about eco-imperialism,” the answer lies in “technological development”, or leap-frogging.
The idea of leap-frogging is well established, but it is also without context. Simultaneous with the wide discussion on leap-frogging, the Annex I countries are actively pushing an ensemble of restrictions on ‘transfer of technology’ and on intellectual property. The new regime on the latter sought by these countries would not allow for a leap over the full-blown carbon society. A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development study points out that the process of opening up economies in the Global South constitutes “economic liberalization without learning”. Countries have reduced barriers to trade, but have not been able to freely import technologies. This is the new barrier to so-called free trade, and it is used by the North for its own benefit. Ultimately, then, the current talk of leap-frogging without an accurate assessment of the limits of technology transfer is bunkum. One indication that this is already well known to the Indian government is to be found in its attempt to draw in US companies to retrofit the Indian economy, without sharing the technology. American firms would come in, do the work, collect a large cheque, but not share their patented processes. This is hardly an equitable way forward for a green planet.
Little wonder, then, that the Indians and Chinese have agreed to a “complete convergence” of views on climate change, and to hold fast to this unity at Copenhagen. At a meeting in Beijing in late August, Ramesh and China’s senior climate change official, Xie Zhenhua, agreed to set up a joint expert working group on the environment. Among other things, this group will share expertise on forest regeneration, fight to maintain the “common but differentiated responsibilities” tenet, and push hard against trade protectionism. The details of the unity are less important than that, finally, the debate over climate change has been joined forcefully by the locomotives of the South. The most important task for this new unity is to displace the humanistic approach, which places the specific responsibility for the climate disaster where it belongs. Let the onus lie where it ought.