The inconvenient truth

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageMany years ago, in a desperately poor village in Rajasthan, people decided to plant trees on the land adjoining their pond so that its catchment would be protected. But this land belonged to the revenue department and people were fined for trespass. The issue hit national headlines. The stink made the local administration uncomfortable. They then came up with a brilliant game plan—they allotted the land to a group of equally poor people. In this way the poor ended up fighting the poor. The local government got away with the deliberate murder of a water body.

I recall this episode as I watch recent developments on climate change. At the recent Durban climate change conference small island nations—from the Maldives to Granada —believed, rightly so, that the world has not delivered on its promise to cut emissions and is jeopardising their future. But they do not have the power to fight the powerful. So, this coalition of climate victims turned against its partner developing countries, targeting India, for instance, for inaction. These nations pushed for India to take legal commitments to reduce emissions, dismissing its concerns of equity as inconsequential.

The divide is complete. According to Bangladeshi climate change researcher and old friend Saleemul Huq, the issue of equity—the setting of emission targets based on the contribution of each country to the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—is an old fashioned idea. He says it will not work in the new world where the dichotomy of the rich and poor countries has vanished; instead, there are equal and big polluters like China, India, South Africa and Brazil (BASIC). These, he says, are equally responsible and must take steps to cut emissions. He wants the notion of historical emissions junked. For him, countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh are victims. India is a polluter, a rich country whose government is hiding behind the poor to avoid cutting emissions.

But the fact is Maldives’ per capita emission is higher than India’s. So, should the Maldives take mandatory emission reductions? Is it a victim or a polluter? India also has a longer coastline than vulnerable Bangladesh. Is it a polluter? Or an equal victim? Sivan Kartha, a climate change researcher with the Stockholm Environment Institute, tears into this argument that is dividing the poor world and taking the focus away from countries that need to be told to take action fast. He compares India and Africa, countering the charge that Africa is being destroyed because of rich India’s reluctance to take emission reductions. “Actually, 1.1 per cent of Africans have made it to the top global wealth decile against 0.9 per cent Indians. As against this, 21 per cent Americans are in the top global wealth decile. Then, India’s total emissions are only two-thirds of what Africa emits.” As against this, US emissions are four times India’s. In this way, while the poor fight over crumbs, the cake is eaten by the rich.

My colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment analysed income distribution and emissions data to see if rich Indians emitted more than their counterparts in rich countries. They found that the per capita emission of the richest 10 per cent of India’s population was the same or slightly less than the per capita emission of America’s poorest 10 per cent and it was less than one-tenth the per capita emission of America’s richest 10 per cent. In other words, the rich in India emitted less than even the poorest Americans. This is not to deny that Mukesh Ambani’s enormous house and electricity consumption—reportedly Rs 75 lakh a month—is distasteful. But energy and emission apartheid in the world remains unacceptable.

Simple plot. Sinister design. The poor have been divided to fight over who is more vulnerable. But one must realise that this divide is a deliberate creation. In 2009 at the Copenhagen Conference of Parties, two categories of countries were devised. One, vulnerable countries that would get fast track funds to adapt to climate change and two, emerging polluters grouped under the BASIC banner. The bribe and divide was blatant and successful. It was openly said in the conference plenary that polluting countries like India, who wanted an agreement based on equity, were blocking funds that would flow to Bangladesh and the Maldives. That penultimate night of the conference the poor fought the poor. Since then the divide has grown.

It’s time we stopped this kindergarten fight. Let us be clear the world has to cut emissions drastically and fast. There must be limits on each country based on its per capita emission and taking into account its historical contribution. China is the biggest current emitter. But in cumulative terms—taking into account the stock in the atmosphere accumulated over the years—it contributes 11 per cent against US share of 26 per cent. It must also be brought under limits, as must India. But these limits will have to be based on the principle of equity so that these countries will also have the right to development.

This is the most inconvenient of truths. But it is the truth.

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  • We always talk on rich and

    We always talk on rich and poor countries but we rarely talk or discuss the issue ÔÇ£how to reduce the greenhouse gases emissions without affecting developmentÔÇØ. Also, we rarely attempt to estimate the contribution of greenhouse gases to global warming. We always think locally act globally. Let me present two examples: (1) Last year UNDP/WMO released a concept document on urban pollution as one such issue to reduced greenhouse gases. They in fact highlighted the dual urban pollution play in terms of health hazards and ground level ozone formation ÔÇô which is health hazard gas as well high potential greenhouse gas. Though in 2003 Supreme Court of India in its order asked the state governments of 13 Urban Centers to give action plan to bring down health hazard air pollutants but it is like all other orders confined to paper only. For example in Hyderabad one of the 13, the air pollution reduced up to around 2003/04 with improved vehicle and fuel technology but there onwards the pollution levels are growing steeply, more particularly the NOx which is associated in the formation of ground level ozone. (2) Similarly, changing the mode of agriculture technology from green revolution chemical inputs based to organic inputs based. The green revolution chemical inputs technology affect health and release of greenhouse gases in the process of production and curing the health hazards. In fact under the chemical inputs technology we are producing in excess over the need to the tune of about 50% -- Supreme Court observed food grain are rotting in go-downs & Finance Minister in his budget presentation highlighted this; FAO observed in its report worldwide in excess of food to the tune of about 30% is going as waste. In Andhra Pradesh farmers declared crop holiday as they donÔÇÖt have the storage facility and FCI is not coming forward to buy at MSP (millers are ready to buy far below and MSP prize and they sell to FCI or export). Government is heavily subsidizing on this production and wasting the same. All this is carried out to meet the greed of few MNCs. By shifting to organic farming we can bring down greenhouse gases release as well government subsidy, which can be diverted to other useful purposes. Like these there are several such issues including deforestation that help in reducing greenhouse gases emissions without affecting development. Let us think globally and act locally.
    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • There is no straight jacket

    There is no straight jacket solution for the geo-politics and lobbying, In due course the developed nations would see good reasons to reduce need of emissions at home; the dialog has to remain open. I believe, at home, we need to adopt efficient flow sheets in value addition processes for natural resource management. It means we need to enhance our per capita power consumption from ~800kwh to ~1500kwh in next 5 years; develop efficient waste management mechanism, improve productivity and livelihood conditions, improve safety-health-environment awareness and statutory compliance etc. The question is How Fast We Can Do it?
    geo-Consultant & advisor

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I have to agree with Dr. S.

    I have to agree with Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy. I think CSE is unnecessarily playing into this argument and by doing so tacitly agreeing to the paradigm that more carbon emissions is somehow directly proportional to reduction in poverty. This correlation may well hold currently, but this is because of the flawed development models. Urban transport is one of the classic examples of this. Better town planning, a focus on public transport, cycleable and walkable cities in no way would impact the economic productivity of a city and will also make it more equitable (reduce gaps between the rich and poor), healthier and livable. It will also reduce the carbon footprint massively. An example of an inverse relation between carbon and development. Same could be said for water, waste and electricity, in the latter case for example many have shown that investment in energy efficiency and reduction of losses could hugely reduce power deficits. Yes of course some carbon will increase, but to make the argument that carbon MUST be increased to develop is not on sound footing. Once we realize this, this whole "inconvenient truth" becomes essentially irrelevant.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita, Thanks for a nice,


    Thanks for a nice, readable and incisive look into this. I was very disturbed by the targeting of the Indian delegation and negotiating opinion in Durban, when clearly it is the rich countries that need to bear the cost of adjustment given their historical role.

    I've been having this debate with campaigners and policy people in the UK repeatedly about how India is not to blame and targeting India (and others like it) undermines the fundamental principles behind an equity approach to the atmospheric commons. Alas, especially amongst supposed "progressives", we still have an uphill battle to fight!


    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Strange, how many

    Strange, how many calculations are going around to raise fingers on others! Not that one favours the Bangladesh-type calculation or the US-type calculation, but the fact remains that overall emission of gases by the inhabitants of this planet has nearly crossed the last barrier. In a fight on who-shall-pay-the-price-if-not-you, the degradation of environment continues. This is one war where every party is a looser.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I wish to compliment Ms

    I wish to compliment Ms Sunitha Narayanan on this article. Whether Ms Jayanthi Natarajan is commited to truth is a question. Even a learned minister like Jayaram Ramesh could not be firm on the earlier Indian approach.

    In Bangalore no government took firm steps on banning 2-stroke autos which even today use petrol mixed with kerosene and emit white smoke cloud trail. Almost every business uses gen-sets that run on kerosene. In rural areas all autos run on petrol-kerosene mixture only.

    Every action of political parties is weighed against gains or losses of electorate numbers. So the pollution control is limited to getting certificates from authorized agents.

    I would consider that first step to be taken is ban 2-stroke autos and kerosene run gen-sets any where in the country.Next step is to develop alternate energy sources like wind and solar power.Also there is no good in allowing auto makers to produce vehicles with unnecessarily powerful engines which most of the time work in their lower efficiency range.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This is what is decided in

    This is what is decided in the global summit every year...shame on the leaders...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain; I

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain;

    I think once again wrong analogy has been made herein your nicely written article. The land belonged to the revenue department but the Earth belongs to all. Not only the West. Also donÔÇÖt you seem like questioning the comprehension and wisdom of small island nations or Bangladesh for that matter in this article? The inconvenient truth is not poor fighting poor but that we are not able to move forward despite knowing the dangers of adverse climate change. The inconvenient truth is that we need billions of dollars of investment in R&D and innovation to find newer ways to achieve low carbon growth. The inconvenient truth is that we need to help modernize our industries to become energy and resource efficient and give them competitive edge. I see the threat of climate change as an opportunity to leapfrog and to advance in high-tech manner. Therefore, we need to use our position as a bargaining chip to ensure technological support from the advanced world. Time and again, you base your argument on the significance of historical contribution rather than grave dangers that are looming large in the future, if we do not act FAST and if we do not act NOW. Just imagine, if CSE had been based in Bangladesh, what you would have written!!!! I will give you another analogy. There is a family comprising of three brothers A, B, and C; A- high income, B-medium income, and C-low income. Due to the impending crisis, the family is required to drastically increase savings. If they do not save, the major impact will first be on C followed by B and then A, despite all of them being in the same family. Now what should be the basis of allocation of savings in this family; whether size of income or intensity of impact or their histories? For what-so-ever reasons, B & C should be more concerned about the impact, isnÔÇÖt it? Shall the family keep fighting on the basis delaying action or try to find a common ground so that savings can be achieved in time averting the major crisis?
    Once it is established that a certain way is not the right way to grow. We need to change. In short-term, it may look difficult but in long-term it is a boon for the mankind. LetÔÇÖs look forward. We need NGOs like yours to help governments develop long-term perspective to achieve sustainable development and not to push them towards politics of climate change with no end in sight, ultimately leading to a crisis.

    Sincerely yours,

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Yes 2 cyles engines are very

    Yes 2 cyles engines are very nasty..All engine emissions are bad, some just more so than others..You have the perfect point of wasteful powerful engines being provided..Smaller and more efficent and less polluting is what is needed..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply