The Durban spin

Politics over climate change

The United States, with 4 per cent of the earth’s population, emits 25 per cent of the total global greenhouse gases.

In the recently-concluded 14-day intense climate negotiations in the South African port city of Durban, one can discover a sense of win-win smugness. Apart from the minor irritants like Canada walking out of the Kyoto Protocol, the major emitters were spared the expediency of urgent action and managed to reach to a state of consensual status-quo. An Australian senator has derided the UN summit in Durban as a victory for political spin trying to “disguise what is a case of climate failure.” Another predicted that it will be a “do-nothing decade for global action.”

A new climate change regime must be invoked, agreed the developing and developed countries, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that must be ready ‘as early as possible but no later than 2015,’ and ‘be implemented from 2020.’ The EU called for a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol in return for a roadmap to ‘a legally-binding agreement’ for all countries. The nebulous new regime might also come to mean a protocol that is an international legally-binding agreement like the 1997 Kyoto protocol, ‘another legal instrument’ like the Copenhagen Accord, or ‘an agreed outcome with legal force.’  The second commitment period must now be seen as a ruse for deferment of urgent environmental action as countries agreed to a period between five and eight years – a final decision for the duration deferred till next December’s UN climate talks in Doha. Is it an attempt to give the Kyoto Protocol a go-by?

Before Durban, the western nations, so keen on imposing legally binding commitments to control carbon emissions on India, have not even met the commitments they had agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol. They seemed to be airily reluctant to admit that they were the main culprits behind the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Several countries of the EU, the US, Australia, Japan  and Canada were known renegades demanding scrapping of Kyoto. The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol because it left out China. Japan, Canada and Russia will not sign up for more carbon emission cuts after the expiry of the first term of the treaty. Without the presence of US and China, they argued, the Protocol only covers 26 per cent of global carbon emissions.

According to the International Energy Agency, if per capita carbon emissions in China and India were to rise to ‘car-happy’ US levels, global emissions would increase by 127 per cent. The US, the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, comprises about 4 per cent of the earth’s population, but emits about 25 per cent of the total global greenhouse gases.

Fuel economy standards

When compared to 1.3 billion people of China, the 290 million people in the US emit over seven times as much, per person. Viewed in aggregate, the 290 million Americans emit 65 per cent more carbon dioxide annually than the 1.3 billion Chinese do in total. To be fair to China, it now leads the world in the deployment of renewable energy, and there’s barely a car made in the US that can meet China’s much tougher fuel-economy standards.

And when compared to the 1.2 billion people of India, the 290 million Americans emit over 20 times as much, per person. Again, looked at in aggregate, the 290 million Americans emit 5.5 times the amount of carbon dioxide that the entire Indian nation of 1.2 billion people does in total.

According to preamble of the UN climate convention, social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing world. One-third of India’s 1.2 billion people live on a pittance a day and 400 million people don’t have access to electricity. "We need to put electricity into people's homes and do it cleanly," said former environment minister Jairam Ramesh – stressing that rich and poor nations inevitably have different approaches to tackling climate change. The real politics still lies in the misgivings harboured by the rich nations about the developing world’s aspiration to first-world prosperity and their unwillingness to accept their ‘historic responsibility’ to reduce emissions and to provide finance and technology to the developing world to keep their emissions under check.

Amid all these vapour bath, the rate of retreat of the Gangotri glacier has almost doubled from around 62 ft per year between 1935 and 1971. Scientists have warned that unless drastic measures are adopted, low lying states like Bangladesh as well as Kolkata, Mumbai, London, San Francisco, Manhattan and other metropolitan areas could go under water by 2050. In India Himalayan glaciers are also melting at a threatening rate. In May 2009 cyclone Aila that devastated homes and farmland, claimed many lives and rendered over 2 lakh people homeless served as a grim reminder that the Ganga Delta is one of Asia’s climate hotspots, vulnerable to some of the worst manifestations of climate change  Climate change indeed knows no boundaries.

Now when massive Asian energy use raises fears of climate change, the coal and oil-fired industrialised west should not remain unnecessarily wary about the fact that China, India and other Asian nations are finding a path from poverty to prosperity. The real challenge for India is to show to the world that it can buoy up its success story of economic growth on renewable sources of energy. What was expected of the Durban meet was for India to address the ‘developed-developing’ rigmarole conclusively and to call the bluff of the rich nations – “I have my cake, but won’t let you have yours” attitude of the west – particularly the US, that have not acted to fight climate change for 20 years.

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