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Don’t blame us
– by Sunita Narain
The rising sea level equally affects India and Bangladesh: coastal fisher folk in the Indian part of the Ganges Delta
When the international community met to discuss an agreement on climate change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, equity was a simple concept. The idea was to share the global commons – in this case the atmosphere – equally among all.
At the time, there were not many claimants apart from the established economic powers. Nonetheless, the idea of equity was not readily accepted. A small group of countries had burned fossil fuels for 100 years and built up enormous wealth. This club knew it had to curb emissions, but it claimed all countries were equally responsible for the problem.
Anil Agarwal, who was the founder of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, myself and others rebutted this argument. We insisted on equitable access to the global commons, proving beyond doubt that the behaviour of the industrialised countries was at the root of climate change. In line with our argument, the international community adopted the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities for reducing emissions.
Accordingly, the Earth Summit accepted that rich nations would have to vacate some of the atmospheric commons in order to allow developing economies space to grow. The idea was that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut drastically – by 20 % below the 1990 levels. It was obvious that this would have to happen in rich nations.
In spite of such clarity, the negotiations were nasty. The US stated its lifestyle was non-negotiable and refused to accept any agreement specifying deep reductions. It took another five years to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, which set the first legal reduction targets for rich nations. For the countries concerned, these targets amounted to only 5.2 % of their 1990 emission levels. Even though Kyoto was half-hearted, the USA never ratified the protocol, undermining its effectiveness. Today, the picture is mixed. Some nations, including Germany, Britain and some smaller European ones, lived up to their pledges and were serious about cutting emissions. Others, however, were not. All in all, Kyoto did not bring about the change needed. Most established economic powers either stabilised emissions or even expanded them.
A different world
Two decades after the first Rio summit, the fight over atmospheric space has become real. New-growth countries have started emitting more even though the club of rich nations did nothing to grant them scope.
In 1990, China, with a quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for only 10 % of annual emissions. By 2010, it was home to 18 % of world population, and contributed 27 % to climate-relevant emissions. Climate change, however, is not the problem of present emissions, but of past emissions. And even today, China is only responsible for about 11 % of the stock. India, with 17 % of the world population, is currently contributing six percent to annual global emissions, and responsible for just three percent of the greenhouse gases accumulated over time.
In 1990, the rich world accounted for 70 % of ongoing emissions. By 2010, its share had fallen to 43 %, even though the reductions discussed in 1992 never happened. The countries concerned are still much richer than the world average, they are home to less than a quarter of humanity, and they still account for 70 % of the historic emissions burden. No doubt – they must act, and they are best-placed to do so. To keep the rise of average temperatures below two degrees Celsius, the world needs to cut emissions by 50 % to 80 % below the 2000 levels by 2050. Therefore, equity is no longer just a moral idea, it has become a real-world challenge.
This is why global climate negotiations reached their nadir in Durban in December last year. This is why the US want to erase any mention of historical emissions from all texts. This is why the rich world is pointing to emissions from China and India, dismissing these countries’ need for development and denying them their fair share of the atmospheric commons.
Today, the world does not trust idealism, and talk of distributive justice is systematically frowned upon. Such thinking misses an important point however: Climate change is the result of market failure, not state failure. Those who buy and sell fossil fuels are not forced to take into account the massive damage these fuels cause. Accordingly, governments must act: humanity needs an effective, collaborative agreement to avoid catastrophe. And cooperation is impossible without fairness and equity.
At the climate summit in Durban, small island nations – from the Maldives to Granada – pointed out that their very existence is at risk because of rising sea levels. They do not have the power to fight the powerful. So they began to turn against other developing countries, demanding that India, for instance, make legally binding reduction commitments.
According to some experts from least developed countries, the issue of equity – the setting of emission targets based on the contribution of each country to the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – is an old fashioned idea. In this view, the dichotomy of rich and poor countries has vanished, and instead, there is now the issue of big polluters, including China, India, South Africa and Brazil. Countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh are considered victims, whereas India is accused of being a polluter, a rich country with a government that is hiding behind its poor.
In truth, the Maldives’ per-capita emissions are higher than India’s. So will the Maldives take mandatory emission reductions? Who is the victim? Who the polluter? India has a longer coastline than Bangladesh. Is it a polluter? Or an equal victim?
Sivan Kartha, a researcher with the Stockholm Environment Institute, tears into the argument that is dividing the poor world. He compares data from India and Africa, and does away with the charge that Africa is being destroyed because of rich India’s reluctance to act: “Actually, 1.1 % of Africans have made it to the top global wealth decile against 0.9 % of Indians.” According to him, 21 % of the US population are in the top global wealth decile. Kartha also points out that India’s total emissions are only two-thirds of what Africa emits, whereas US emissions are four times India’s.
Simple plot, sinister design. The poor are fighting over crumbs, while the rich are eating the cake. The vulnerable are debating who is the most vulnerable, instead of putting pressure on those who are truly responsible and must act first – and fast.
It is important to understand that this divide is a deliberate creation. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, two categories of developing countries were devised:
– vulnerable countries would get fast track funds to adapt to climate change and
– emerging polluters were put under pressure to accept binding emission limits.
The bribe and divide was blatant and successful. Countries like India, who wanted an agreement based on equity, have since been accused of blocking the international community.
It’s time to stop this childish fight. Let us be clear: the world must cut emissions drastically and fast. Limits will have to apply to each country, taking into account its capita emissions, its historical pollution and its technological and financial prowess. In the end, emerging markets like China and India will have to accept limits – but such limits must be based on equity, history and the need to develop, which is particularly urgent in huge countries with masses of desperately poor people.