Resource centre on India's rural distress

Undiluted truths about rich polluters by Jayanthi Natarajan

It came as no big surprise to anyone at all that US President Barack Obama made a speech filled with noble intentions, but very little concrete action, on the issue of climate change at the Climate Change Summit, which just concluded in New York. Environment activist had great hopes that the US President would think "out of the box" and take the lead in ensuring that the US, one of the worst offenders on climate change, would offer something solid and substantial to the world by way of emission cuts, thereby setting a benchmark for other countries to follow. The annual emission of CO2 by the US has been 23 tonnes, as opposed to a world average of four tonnes, and a lowly one tonne per annum by India. However, Mr Obama did not make that all-important commitment and the future of the Climate Change Summit at Copenhagen on December 7, 2009 remains a triumph of hope over experience.

The Indian perspective on climate change is obviously shaped by the further truth that per capita energy consumption in India is one of the lowest in the world, with India consuming 530 kg of oil equivalent per person of primary energy in 2004 compared to a world average of 1,770. There can be no doubt that in dealing with the issue of climate change it is vital to emphasise that the only equitable way to deal with the issue would be to have common but differentiated goals and responsibilities for all nations.

In other words, those who were responsible for creating the problem in the first place — those rich and developed countries that ruined the environment for all these years — will in all equity have to contribute more significantly than less developed countries who never really polluted the atmosphere, and whose growth and development have lagged behind.

Historical emissions are something which have to be factored into any reasonable discussion on climate change. After all, carbon emissions released into the atmosphere centuries ago are just as lethal as emissions that continue to be released even today.

The Centre for Science and Environment has put out a very disturbing and important publication containing basic facts about climate change. It observes in this section: "Rich countries account for seven out of every 10 tonnes of CO2 emitted since the start of the industrial era. Historical emissions amount to about 1,100 tonnes per capita of CO2 for the US and the United Kingdom compared to 66 tonnes per capita for China and 23 tonnes per capita for India. This is the natural debt of the rich countries as against the financial debt of industrialised countries and it has to be paid." As far as current emissions go, "Rich countries are still the major emitters of total CO2. Between 1980 and 2005 the total emissions of the US were almost double that of China and more than seven times that of India. The current emissions of the developed countries are also very high. With just 15 per cent of the world’s population, they account for 45 per cent of its CO2 emissions".

It is, therefore, very clear that although developing countries have and even now contributed little to the problem, the impact of climate change will be the greatest upon developing countries like ours.

The frequency of extreme weather events leading to natural disasters may increase and we may face multiple risks arising from increase in sea levels, recession of Himalayan glaciers, problems with water availability, food security and public health. This disproportionate impact of climate change will be further magnified as a result of our vulnerabilities, inadequate means and limited capacities to adapt to its effects. In fact, adaptation, which is the key to the development process, is constantly being challenged by the variability of climate change and its impact on us.

Thus it is that following upon some years of excellent growth, we are now staring at the bleak fallout of drought this year and assessing the fate of our agriculture. In fact, the issue of adaptation is so crucial to a developing country like ours that we spend nearly two per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on adaptation measures like cyclone warning and protection, coastal protection and flood control, food security and flood relief. At this point in time, India accounts for 16 per cent of the world’s population and accounts for less than five per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, India accounts for about 1.1 to 1.2 tonnes per capita of CO2 equivalent.

We have estimated that even if our growth continues at 8.5 per cent in 2020, our emissions would not have crossed 2.5 tonnes and we will therefore, in keeping with the commitment made by our Prime Ministers, remain at all times below the per capita emissions of developed nations, whereas China has gone ahead to emit nearly 23 tonnes per capita at current emission rates.

It is for this reason that India talks about common but differentiated responsibilities. In order to prevent environmental catastrophe and maintain world temperatures at below two degrees Celsius, it would become incumbent upon known polluters, historical polluters and developed nations to agree to as much as 40 per cent cuts in their CO2 emissions. Even with those cuts, they would be emitting far more and using up far more energy per capita than a developing country like India.

It is also very important to remember that our emissions are development-related emissions, while those of developed countries are lifestyle-related emissions. Equity will be ensured only when developed countries own up to their profligate ways and cut back upon emissions instead of taking a back-door route, which is increasingly being resorted to, namely investing in cheap technology transfers on climate change technology to a developing country, thereby earning "offsets", or brownie points, which are meant to condone their lack of responsibility in not cutting back on emissions.

Technology transfer, an equitable intellectual property regime and resource mobilisation for climate change strategies are commitments which developed countries must make to developing countries, sans conditions or offsets. The world is too small now to allow for inequity and greed and it is this spirit which should inform the discussions at Copenhagen later this year.