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Equity: the next frontier in climate talks

Dec 31, 2011 | From the print edition

climateIn 1992, when the world met to discuss an agreement on climate change, equity was a simple concept: sharing the global commons—the atmosphere in this case—equally among all. It did not provoke much anxiety, for there were no real claimants. However, this does not mean the concept was readily accepted. A small group of industrialised countries had burnt fossil fuels for 100 years and built up enormous wealth. This club had to decide what to do to cut emissions, and it claimed all countries were equally responsible for the problem. In 1991, just as the climate convention was being finalised, a report, released by an influential Washington think tank, broke the news that its analysis showed India, China and other developing countries were equally responsible for greenhouse gases. Anil Agarwal and I rebutted this and brought in the issue of equitable access to the global commons. We also showed, beyond doubt, that the industrialised countries were singularly responsible for the increased greenhouse gases.

In 1992, it was accepted that the occupied atmospheric space would need to be vacated to make room for the emerging world to grow because emissions are an outcome of economic growth. This acceptance recognised the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in reducing emissions. A firewall was built to separate those countries that had to reduce emissions to make space for the rest of the world to grow. That year in Rio de Janeiro, the world was talking about drastic cuts of 20 per cent below the 1990 levels to provide for growth as well as climate security. Even in that age of innocence, the negotiations were difficult and nasty. The US argued its lifestyle was non-negotiable and refused to accept any agreement specifying deep reductions. In 1998, the Kyoto Protocol set the first legal target for these countries much below what the world knew it needed to do.

Two decades later, the idea of equity has become an even more inconvenient truth. By now there are more claimants for atmospheric space. Emerging countries have emerged. China, which in 1990, with over a quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for only 10 per cent of annual emissions, contributed 27 per cent by 2010. So, the fight over atmospheric space is now real. While the rich countries have not reduced emissions, the new growth countries have started emitting more. In 1990, the industrialised countries accounted for 70 per cent of the global annual emissions. In 2010, they accounted for 43 per cent but this is not because they have vacated space. The new growth countries—China in particular—have only occupied what was available. Emission reductions proposed 20 years ago have still not been committed or adhered to. In fact, in most already industrialised countries emissions have either stabilised or increased. In coal and extractive economies, like Canada and Australia, emissions have risen by 20 per cent and 46 per cent respectively.

The world has run out of atmospheric space and certainly of time. Will the rich, who contributed to emissions in the past and still take up an unfair share of this space based on their populations, reduce emissions? Or will the emerging countries be told to take over the burden? This is the big question, and an inconvenient one at that.

And mind you climate change is not the problem of the present but past contributions. The stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has a long life. This means that any discussion on how the carbon cake will be divided, must take into account those gases emitted in the past and still present. So while China accounts for 27 per cent of the annual emissions, in cumulative terms (since 1950) it still accounts for only 11 per cent. Similarly, India contributes 6 per cent to the annual global emissions, but is only responsible for 3 per cent of the stock. The rich countries, with less than a quarter of the world’s population, are responsible for some 70 per cent of this historical burden. This stock of gases is responsible for an average global temperature rise of 0.8°C and another 0.8°C in future, which is inevitable. To keep temperature rise below 2°C, the world needs to cut emissions by 50-80 per cent below the 2000 levels by 2050. Now equity is no longer a moral idea, but a tough challenge. It is for this reason that global climate negotiations reached their nadir in Durban. It is for this reason that the US and its coalition are hell bent on erasing any mention of historical emissions from all texts. It is for this reason that the rich world is pointing to the emission growth in China and India, and dismissing their need for development as their obdurate right to pollute.

It is also an idea that is difficult to sell in a world distrustful of idealism and any talk of distributive justice. Even climate change negotiators do not really believe this form of climate-socialism can happen. They will tell you that the world is never going to give up space, that the world is too mean to give money or technology to poor nations for transition to low-carbon growth.

But this is because they forget that climate change is the market’s biggest failure. We cannot use the market for its repair. To avoid catastrophic changes it is essential to reach a collaborative agreement, which will be effective. And cooperation is not possible without fairness and equity. This is the pre-requisite. Take it because we must.


If not anything else, what durban succeeded in doing was," bringing out a concrete "OUTCOME". It wasnt atleast like just another climate conferences, where people fly for a climate treaty and sit in airconditioned plush conference halls and do nothing. Equity was and will be always the baseline for any point of climate discourse. Eventually it got the required position in the Durban negotiations, thanks to Jayanti Natarajan.

But then the story doesnt end here, infact it will take off from here. As rightly mentioned in the editorial, the Global Climate change issue exists today ,courtsey, the historical emissions. The north have always been denyting their share of responsibilities and will certainly continue doing so. But then, now that equity has gained the desire attention, what superseeds this, is the fact, how tactfully it is internalised in the caps that will be binding in the next phase.

The climate watchdog now needs to be all the more alert, that whatever outcomes come into picture, they need to be environmentally just and keeping in mind the pace and position of the developments.

19 December 2011
Posted by
Aditi Phansalkar

The author has already conceded the game up by basing her arguments on National Emissions and not Per Capita Emissions. Each world citizen is entitled to a certain amount of CO2 emissions per year working backwards from 2 degrees rise consensus. That (based on the nation's population)should be the target for each nation. Using Fair and Just logic, we can generously set aside the Historical Emissions and still create space for our development and set tight logical limits on the West. Unless that is our leadership is toeing Western commands to stick to National Emissions. And we are coopted by the Indian administration and so have to sabotage our National interests for the sake of personal interests and develop all arguments based on the deeply unfair and illogical emissions. Norwegians can pollute thousands of times the Chinese or Indian average and still not be hauled up because there national figures would still be low

19 December 2011
Posted by

Per capita emission theory is alright but only for domestic consumption. In the global space per capita emissions are of little relevance. Why not per capita wealth or resources?. This is pleading not a matter of right. On the other hand equity and historical responsibility are stronger assertion of the rights and is, in fact, more demanding.

28 December 2011
Posted by
sudhinder thakur

The world's population is dying of lung cancer. The doctor has asked them to quit smoking, and also pressing the suppliers to stop producing cigarettes. And we are discussing how stopping production will make the people working in the tobacco manufacturing, farming and trading industry jobless; how the government is going to lose billions in revenue that they say goes for development programs, etc, etc.

This is how we're tackling environmental issues !!!

I, for one, am convinced that nothing will be done in a global scale to make a real difference.

Well, keep discussing, and good luck to all.

We, as small activists, will continue to work on establishing small oases, that will if nothing else, at least give some a chance to survive the onslaught, and give us some hope for the future.

19 December 2011
Posted by
Sanjeev Pradhan

Brilliant yet depressing analysis. It seems that climate negotiations are headed for a dead end as long as they remain centred on competing or safeguarding national interests. However, the rich (or anybody) for that matter, safeguard what they see in the interests of their children. It would, therefore, seem that the future of global fairness and intergeneration equity and consequently of climate negotiations needs to be in the hands of the youth whose future is actually at stake? A global coalition of the Youth – cutting across narrow national interests – could possibly persuade / compel entrenched parental positions to change? If the youth of India and Bharat can get worked up about corruption via an Anna Hazare, would it be too unrealistic to expect youth all over the world to forge a coalition that would make their governments sit and talk sense? The challenge is how to make the “youth” read DTE.

19 December 2011
Posted by
Vinay Tandon

Nice article. It is correct that climate crisis is market's biggest failure.

19 December 2011
Posted by
farooque chowdhury

Indeed, the industrialized countries cannot go round and assume that there are no historical emissions, for the last 100 years or so they have burnt coal and amassed huge wealth! they have a bigger responsibility to cut emissions.

20 December 2011
Posted by
Peter K.

Why is it that Indians like to talk about the past, rarely talk of the present, and generally avoid the future? Your editorial ‘The Next Frontier in Climate Talks’ is a good example of this mindset.

You exaggerate when you say that equity is the next frontier in climate change talks. It has been around for decades. When India insists on using per-capita emission figures in these talks, equity is implicit here.

I believe in equity and differentiated responsibilities, but I also believe that all countries should share the burden and all the commitments made to reduce emissions should be binding and independently verified.

Harping on the past and pointing fingers at rich countries (which you do often) is not the way to reach “collaborative agreement” in climate change that you advocate.

India, China and the US are playing an obstructionists role in the global talks by blaming others and refusing to take on their share of the burden. I think the rest of the world will get tired of their antics and move on to take action on their own (no matter how little or flawed).

Sunita Narain you are stuck in the past. Wake up and smell the coffee!

E. D’Silva

24 December 2011
Posted by
E. D'Silva

Dear Editor,
Have we really understood the science of climate change? Do we really know all the reasons behind increasing storms, floods, and typhoons? Have we finally scientifically proved that this changing weather patterns are only due to carbon emissions? Anyway, I know that it is difficult to answer these questions correctly and concretely. Therefore, we have to go by the most widely accepted and somewhat scientifically supported speculation that global warming, which is happening due to greenhouse gas emissions, is the cause of these natural disasters and also poses threat to the survival of human being itself in long-term. Once we have accepted this theory, we need to act upon it and there cannot be politics of rich and poor. All have to be involved and be responsible as much as possible in whatever capacity. Now, what is happening is the lack of strong action and never ending talks of who should share how much responsibility. Environment activists such as you should be working towards bringing solutions and not adding to confusion that already persists and delaying action, which is already overdue. Those who were left behind in the race of development are claiming that they should be allowed to develop in a manner which may not be quite consistent with today's scenario. Human survival is at stake and we are discussing about equity issue!!! What do we do in case of emergency? Do we discuss who is rich and who is poor? Well, to me this argument itself indicates that we are not serious yet!! We need more natural disasters to make us understand. We need more human lives to be sacrificed until activists like you stop negotiations and embark upon substantive actions in a collective manner!!! And do not please, even for a moment, forget that these lives are being lost in our very developing countries!!!! Make your case for getting financial and technological aid/support from the developed world to combat global warming but fight it on whatever basis. Let’s not bring politics of numbers here which delays actions!! Please note that the house is already on fire, if we do not act now, we all will be burnt, starting with the poor as always!!! That is the message you have to disseminate…………K D Bhardwaj

25 December 2011
Posted by
K D Bhardwaj

It is time we stopped harping on equity- do we have equity within our country? There are several different per capita emission figures for all Indians, which per capita emission figure are we talking about? We need to cut down the wasteful consumption of energy by the rich and not try to hide behind the country's low per capita consumtion/ emissions.We cannot waste more energy demanding equity but try to invest heavily looking for solutions for producing power cheaply from alternate sources and be more energy efficient. After all, who has to lose in this battle for equity ??

16 January 2012
Posted by
Seema D Venkatesh

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