Thorny road to Copenhagen


Call it a quirk of fate, but when the world meets at Copenhagen, 35 days from now, to decide on the Earth’s climatic future, India will rely on its former arch rival in the east – Red China – to stay on course the path of economic development without jeopardising the planet’s future.

The battlelines have been drawn. While the developed world wants emission cuts from the emerging economies, India and China are all set for a bitter fight against the rich nations to rightfully claim their carbon space under the Sun.

But why are countries on the warpath, in the first place?
There is an established scientific view that increase in global temperature above pre-industrial levels (19th century) should not exceed two degrees Celsius.
Crossing the threshold will turn the consequences of climate change from “dangerous” to “catastrophic’, says Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi.

Once the world accepts a cap on temperature rise, it automatically implies limiting the carbon dioxide emission. After decades of debate, 20 major economies – including India – finally accepted the 2 degrees Celius cap on the eve of G8 summit at L’Aquila in July. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fourth assessment report spelt out the emission reduction targets for rich nations.

Depending on the rates of reduction, the estimated cap ranges from 450 parts per million to 650 parts per million (ppm) equivalent of carbon dioxide.
With the developing world pressing for an ambitious cut of 25-40 per cent below the 1990 level, a large number of nations are of the opinion that an all out effort has to be made not to allow the atmospheric carbon load cross the 450 ppm ceiling.
Incidentally, USA’s own targets are not that ambitious. Even assuming a 25-40 per cent cut, there is a problem. Because of the industrial revolution that took place between mid-18th to mid-19th century, a lot of carbon dioxide has been pumped into the atmosphere, which will stay there for hundreds of years.

According to the IPCC fourth assessment report, pre-industrial concentration is 275-285 ppm. Continuous industrial progress in the last 150 years led to addition of another 100 ppm carbon dioxide.

No space to grow?
According to one estimate, the carbon load stood at 383 ppm in 2007, which does not leave much carbon space for the developing world to grow.
“Rich nations have already eaten up the emission space. There is huge frustration among the developing nations. What is left has to be distributed equitably,” said Yvo De Boer, the UNFCCC executive secretary who was in Delhi last month.

Emission budget  
This is where bitterness and acrimony creeps in as no country is committing for lower emission in the short term – lets say within the next 10 years – whereas they are promising much more ambitious targets by 2050.
But since long-term promises from politicians – when they will not be in power – are commonplace, climate negotiators at Copenhagen will strive for extracting definitive short term commitments.

Several proposals have been mooted for an equitable sharing of the carbon space. All have a common conclusion: industrialised nations – the rich of the world – have used up the common atmospheric resources disproportionately.
The developed world tries its best to muddy the water and bulldoze their way. India’s per capita argument has been trashed with a twisted logic, “You cannot ask for the right to pollute.”

History has been forgotten conveniently. In absolute terms, India and China are two of the world’s biggest polluters. But in per capita terms, they are way behind. At the moment, India’s per capita emission is almost 20 times less than that of the USA and 10 times less than the EU.
A recent analysis on India’s green house gas emission trend – conducted by the union environment ministry – shows even two decades from now, India’s per capita emissions would be well below the global average 25 years earlier.

Last leg
“The developed nations should promise cuts equal to, or deeper than, 40 per cent for 2020. If they are unwilling or unable to do this, the rest of the world would be discouraged from taking serious action,” said Jiahua Pan, Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“The road to and beyond Copenhagen will be tough, but there is no alternative,” Pan wrote in an article in October 22 issue of the journal Nature.
The last bout of negotiations will begin in Barcelona next week centring on how to mobilise the resources required for the flow of Green technologies for poor countries to adapt and mitigate the perils of climate change.
The immediate need is about $ 10 billion to set the ball rolling but in the long run (by 2030), hundreds of billions would be needed for adaptation and mitigation.
A debate is on to decide who are the really vulnerable and need the help most, while the developed nations make covert efforts to shed their responsibility. Consensus has eluded so far.
Will Copenhagen deliver? Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed.

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