“The North’s destructive model”

After the failure of the UN’s climate summit, the international community has to pick up the pieces and find a new approach to tackling global warming. Hans Dembowski discussed the matter with Tony Tujan of the Manila-based IBON Foundation.

[ Interview with Tony Tujan, IBON Foundation ]

In European media, China and the USA are considered to have caused the failure of the Copenhagen Climate talks. Do you agree?
I think it is too simple to blame these two countries in isolation. Several factors contributed to the failure. First of all, the notion that all countries should accept binding emissions targets is misleading. It does not make sense to try to resolve the major environmental crisis humanity is facing with such quotas. We need a new development paradigm, a model of development that would lead to a healthier world.

But greenhouse emissions are driving climate change, and climate change will have a severe impact on humanity. It is already felt – in the form of floods, landslides, draughts, storms et cetera – and particularly so in the poor world. So emissions must be reduced, and fast. I think large developing countries with fast growing economies like China or India must cut emissions too.
It is true, China and India are following the North’s destructive model of industrialisation. Their strategy of GNP growth at all costs is not sustainable, but nor is the life style of rich nations. On the other hand, it is much easier for rich nations to cut emissions than for poor ones that do not have the same technological options and do not have access to the same range of commodities.

China has promised to cut emissions per economic output. That is not a binding target in absolute terms, but it is a target. Western governments seemed to be ready to accept such an approach in principle, but there were still arguments about who would check these data. And it obviously makes sense not to put too much faith in the statistics of an authoritarian government like China’s.
Yes, China is run by a brutal regime, the data it publishes are probably distorted and the course it is steering is hurting its people. Eventually, the governments of other developing countries will understand these facts. Indeed, environmental concerns are growing in China too, and not in a romantic sense of people loving nature. They are feeling the pain, their health suffers from environmental damages. Obviously, the economic strategy that is basically focussed on speeding up industrial growth and making China the factory of the world is not what the people need. However, your argument is still fixed only on emissions statistics, and that approach won’t help. We need a better paradigm.

What would that mean?
I’m thinking of an economic model that does not emphasise individual incomes and their personal consumptions. We must look at people’s quality of life in more comprehensive terms, taking account of health, creativity, skills and values as well as the welfare of communities. Such a model would obviously take into account a sound environment. A consumer society of the type you have in Western Europe or North America is neither desirable nor environmentally possible all over the world. Consumerism is not sustainable, it is as simple as that. Therefore, change will be more difficult in rich nations than in the developing world, because in the North, you are already used to consumer lifestyles.

But why do the governments of the least developing countries, who will suffer most from climate change, allow China to pretend to be their leader at UN events rather than to demand change from China too?
The governments feel pressed to the wall. As long as talks focus only on emission targets and do not take a more holistic view of things, including, for instance, climate debt, they will not budge. The rich nations have been polluting the atmosphere for decades, they are responsible for the climate change we are witnessing today. They will have to come up with reparation payments, but cannot tie all other countries into a single system of binding emissions targets. That is something all developing countries agree on, including India and China. And look, the emissions from those countries that investment bankers call “emerging markets” have hardly had an impact on the global climate, they are only a tiny fraction of total emissions historically.

But their share is growing fast, and it will have an impact.
Yes, and as I have said, we need a new development paradigm for all of humanity, including the rich nations. The Kyoto Protocol, as it has been applied, is really about keeping matters as they are and trying to boost some kind of cleaner technology. It is not about change in rich nations, it is not about climate justice. If we were dealing with a more convincing proposal, one that was geared to a more holistic development model, you would see movement in the G77, the big block of developing countries in UN negotiations. The smaller countries would opt for that kind of change – and eventually China would follow suit. The regime in Beijing certainly does not want to be isolated. In a way, the dynamics of merely target-focussed talks have allowed China to hide behind the bulk of developing countries.

Who can promote such a new model, apart from civil society organisations? Is there any government in the developing world that could press the matter?
I’m not sure; Bolivia might be in such a position but Brazil might have more clout. But I am an optimist, I believe in the power of good ideas. In a way, the failure of Copenhagen may yet prove useful, if it allows us to unravel some of the underlying misconceptions. Humanity really needs a new paradigm.

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