The futility of CoP23

Although in its 25th year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is still struggling to find a way out of this century's biggest developmental challenge: climate change

Illustration: Tarique Aziz
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Inconvenient truth, retold

Exclusive excerpts from Sunita Narain's new book, Conflicts of Interest remind us of the politics behind climate change that threatens our common future.

It was the late 1980s. My colleague Anil Agarwal and I were searching for ways to regenerate wasted common lands. We learnt that unless people benefited from these common lands, they would not keep their goats out. The forests would not regenerate. So, cooperation was essential. Cooperation required equitable distribution of the rights and benefits of these lands. We understood goats.

Around the same time, in 1990, a prestigious US research institution, World Resources Institute (WRI), published its annual report. This said, for the first time, that not only did climate change impact everyone, but also that everybody was responsible for emissions that caused climate change. Their data showed that methane, which comes from growing rice or livestock (enteric fermentation or farting) was responsible for the bulk of emissions. They also showed data that developing countries contribute nearly half the emissions that cause climate change.

Anil and I were blissfully unaware of these findings or the implications for the ongoing negotiations on a global agreement to combat climate change. But we were pulled into this debate.

We got a call from the rather flummoxed chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Shanta Kumar, who wanted to know how he should tell his people to stop keeping animals or eating rice. We asked why he wanted to know. He showed us a letter, written by then environment minister Maneka Gandhi. She had just visited Washington DC and, based on her interactions with the WRI, had written to him, asking for restraints on ‘unsustainable’ things like growing rice or keeping animals. ‘How do I do this?’ he asked us. ‘Do the animals of the poor really disrupt the world’s climate system?’

We were equally flummoxed. It seemed absurd. Our work told us that the poor were victims of environmental degradation. Here they were now, complete villains. How?

With this question we embarked on our climate research journey. We were novices, the issues seemed so convoluted and faraway. The discussions on emissions and sinks floored us. But we persisted and quickly learned that there was not much difference between managing a local forest and the global climate. Both were common property resources. What was needed most of all was a property rights framework, which encouraged cooperation.

One day, I remember so vividly, Anil called me from his house where he was working. ‘What is the difference between gross and net?’ he asked. Now I was lost. What was he talking about? I pulled out the WRI voluminous report. Below the ‘net’ contributions of each country, a footnote pointed to an explanation in the last pages of the book. There in small font it explained the calculations that led from the gross (total emissions of a country) to the net (emissions attributed to each country). This was politics, not science. Why?

Because the methodology used by the WRI to compute the responsibility of each nation favoured the polluter. Under the WRI methodology, each nation was assigned a share of the earth’s ecological sink, but the assignment was proportional to the nation’s contribution to the earth’s emissions.

The sinks are natural systems—the oceans and the forests—which absorb emissions. Global warming is caused because emissions exceed this natural capacity of the earth to absorb pollutants. the WRI had estimated that the world produced 31,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 255 million tonnes of methane every year. It then estimated that the sinks of the earth, naturally assimilated 17,500 million tonnes of CO2 and 212 million tonnes of methane annually. On this basis, it then computed a net emission of each nation, by allocating a share of the sinks to each nation, based on its gross emissions contribution.

In this way, if a country had a higher gross pollution, it also got a higher share of the sinks. Its net contribution got reduced. One computation changed the politics.

In 1991, we published our critique of this approach, Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism.

We argued that there were two main types of ‘sinks’ where CO2 is reabsorbed by the biosphere: the oceans and terrestrial sinks. While terrestrial sinks, such as forests and grasslands, may be considered national property, oceanic sinks belong to humankind. They must be regarded as common global property.

We apportioned the sinks on the basis of a country’s share in the world’s population, arguing that each individual in the world had equal entitlement to the global commons. This allocation, based on individual rights to the earth’s natural cleansing capacity, changed the computation of the nation’s responsibility drastically. For instance, under the WRI methodology, the US contributed 17 per cent of the net emissions of the world, while our methodology computed that it actually contributed roughly 27.4 per cent of the net annual emissions. Similarly, the contribution of China decreased from the WRI’s estimated 6.4 per cent of the net annual emissions to 0.57 per cent and India from 3.9 per cent to just 0.013 per cent of the net annual emissions.

This allocation of the earth’s global sinks to each nation, based on its population, created a system of per capita emission entitlements, which taken together were the ‘permissible’ level of emissions of each country. This, we said, would create the framework for trading between nations, as a country which exceeded its annual quota of CO2 could trade with those countries that had not used up their ‘permissible’ emissions. This would create financial incentives for countries to keep their emissions as low as possible and to invest in zero-carbon trajectories.

We argued that:

One, the world needed to differentiate between the emissions of the poor—from subsistence paddy or animals—and that of the rich—from, say, cars. Survival emissions weren’t and couldn’t be equivalent to luxury emissions. Two, it was clear that managing a global common meant cooperation between countries. As stray cattle or goats are likely to chew on saplings in a forest, any country could blow up the agreement if it emitted beyond what the atmosphere could absorb.

Illustration: Sorit

Cooperation was only possible—and this is where our forests experience came in handy—if benefits were distributed equally. We then developed the concept of per capita entitlements— each nation’s share of the atmosphere—and used the property rights of entitlement to set up rules of engagement that were fair and equitable. We said that countries using less than their share of the atmosphere could trade their unused quota and this would give them the incentive to invest in technologies that would not increase their emissions. But in all this, as we told climate negotiators, think of the local forest and learn that the issue of equity is not a luxury. It is a prerequisite.

This was the inconvenient truth.

The pushback from the WRI was instant and enormous. Our study was rubbished. Our politics were ridiculed. The then head of the WRI wrote to us, saying that what we were suggesting was about politics, not science.

But it did not end there. In the post (remember, this was snail-mail age) we received a mail from Kirk Smith, a professor at the East West Centre in Hawaii (now in Berkeley and leading authority on indoor air pollution in the world). Kirk explained that he had seen our report and wanted us to see his communication with the WRI on their report. His critique was based on the cumulative emissions of each country, which he said had been conveniently ignored by the WRI. He explained that if taken from 1900, then each Indian living today (1990 data) would be responsible for 6 tonnes of CO2, as compared to an American who would be responsible for 260 tonnes of CO2 . Kirk called this the natural debt of the developed world.

The WRI’s response to him, published in British scientific journal Nature, said that Kirk’s suggestion was highly scientific and ‘fraught with difficulties when considered from a point of view of international diplomacy’. Their way would be more ‘appropriate for inter -national agreements’.

The WRI had dismissed the CSE’s approach on the grounds that it was political rather than scientific. But in Smith’s case, its complaint was—contradictorily—exactly the opposite.

This debate raged in international circles. Our publication was read and cited to explain how global climate change negotiations must be shaped through the prism of equity. We were berated by the Washington club—the powerful NGOs who determine the discourse on global issues. We continue to be on their hit list. But our politics have remained unyielding on this issue—climate change is about sharing global atmospheric space and a universal right to development.


Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio visited us for a sitdown interview on climate change for his film, Before the Flood. We took him to Nuh in the Mewat district of Haryana. We wanted Leonardo to see the impact of unseasonal weather on farmers in our country. In this village, he saw acres of productive farmland that were still under water because of extreme rainfall that had hit the district in mid-September. He sat with farmers, who explained to him that they were seeing changes in weather, which was destroying their livelihoods. In the past, they said, they had seen hailstorms and unseasonal rain once in ten years. Now it was every year. They explained how their standing rabi (winter) crop was first destroyed because of hailstorm and now their kharif (summer) crop has been devastated because of extreme rain. It rained over 250 mm in just five hours, which for a district where normal rain is only some 600 mm in a year means complete loss. They did not know if this was climate change, but they told Leonardo, in no uncertain words, that their experience of over fifty years in farming was telling them that there was something new and catastrophic afoot. There was deep despair in the eyes of every farmer we met. This is the human face of climate change.

Many other changes are happening in our world. In Jammu, litchis have been flowering much earlier and out of season. This is because winter is delayed and it is warmer than usual. But as the chill sets in, the flowers fall and fruit production suffers. Then there are frequent instances of unseasonal hail and bitter heat and cold that come after days of colder- or warmer-than-usual temperatures.

Why this weird weather? Indian scientists are extremely cautious about using the term climate change. But the fact is that it is now recognized that warming is making the world’s weather more unstable and extreme. The question is, how much?

What scientists would agree to say is that even though no single extreme weather event could be attributed to climate change, the increased frequency and intensity of such weather events are definitely because of human-made climate change. Now, this science is becoming more exact. A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change finds that in the present day, warming of 0.85°C is responsible for 75 per cent of the daily heat extremes and 18 per cent of the precipitation extremes. More worrying is the conclusion that as the temperature increases to 2°C above pre-industrial levels—which is likely today, given the lack of global action to cut greenhouse gas emissions—40 per cent of rainfall extremes will be linked to human-made climate change.

This is when we know that the subcontinent’s weather pattern in general and the monsoon in particular is not only this country’s real finance minister, but it is also truly the most globalized Indian, with connections across the globe. It is deeply connected to ocean current and winds from the Pacific, the Arctic and the neighbouring Tibetan Plateau. The problem is that the monsoon is also the most under-studied and least understood of all weather phenomena. So, it is globally interconnected, complex and it is confounding in ‘normal’ times. Now climate change is increasing the level of complexity. It is making it even more difficult to read.

But many theories point to changes that are beginning to show up. R. Krishnan of the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology says that pronounced warming over the Tibetan Plateau has increased the instability of westerly winds. This would explain the increased variability of western disturbances. Another theory links these disturbances to the growing instability of the jet stream—strong winds that blow from west to east and separate the cold Arctic mass from warm subtropical air. This is linked to the warming of the Artic.

What is most worrisome—indeed, frightening—is the prospect that climate change could have a long-term impact on the monsoon. We know that the monsoon—this huge movement of water from over the oceans to the Indian landmass—happens because of the temperature difference between the oceans and the land. The land is warmer and the ocean cooler. But now, there is some research to show that this contrast could be weakening. The Indian landmass is showing signs of suppressed warming—it is not clear why. And the Indian Ocean is showing signs of large warming. If this continues to happen, then land would not pull water-laden winds from the oceans as strongly as before. The Indian monsoon would be weaker. But this is also combined with the fact that warming climate means that the atmosphere can hold more moisture and this could mean more extreme rain—more rain, but fewer rainy days. So, it is not clear if it will rain less or more.

Illustration: Sorit

All this points to catastrophic changes in the future. And one thing is clear—we cannot continue to deny these long-term changes, which will have potentially huge and catastrophic impacts on our economy and our agricultural system. It is because we refuse to accept (at least publicly) that there is anything strange afoot that we are also not putting into place systems that would improve the resilience of farmers and our ability to cope with variable and extreme weather.

All this is also linked to the inconvenient fact that scientists who study the weather or understand the monsoon are treated with contempt or at least neglect by the scientific establishment. Just think, can you even name a monsoon scientist? Just think, has the government ever recognized a monsoon scientist? The answer is no. Instead, what will spring to your mind when you think of Indian science are the macho scientists who have taken us to space or worked on nuclear science. All this may be important, but it is time we recognized that the icons of today’s science have to be different—those who make us see the future are those who will make us understand the monsoon. This is what will determine our survival.

So, what does mitigation mean? To combat climate change, the world has to get rid of its fossil fuel addiction. Nothing short of this will help.

But as yet, the world has found small answers to existential problems. The industrialized world is still locked into coal or gas. The share of renewable energy has grown, but not in ways that make the energy transformation. No country is talking about limiting consumption. This is when every analysis proves that efficiency is part of the answer but it is meaningless without sufficiency. Cars have become more fuel-efficient but people just drive longer and have more cars. Emissions continue to grow.

What then is the way ahead? First, we must accept that the rich world must reduce emissions drastically. Let there be no disagreements or excuses on this matter. There is a stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, built up over centuries in the process of creating nation’s wealth. It is a natural debt. This has already made our climate unstable. Poorer nations will now add to this stock through their urge for economic growth. But that is not an excuse for the rich world not to take on tough and deep binding emission reduction targets. The principle has to be that they must reduce so we can grow.

The second part of this agreement is that poor and emerging rich countries need to grow. Their engagement will not be legally binding but based on national targets and programmes. The question is to find low-carbon growth strategies for emerging countries, without compromising their right to develop.

This can be done. It is clear that countries like India provide the world with the opportunity to ‘avoid’ additional emissions. The reason is that we are still in the process of building our energy, transport and industrial infrastructure. We can make investments in leapfrog technologies so that we can avoid pollution. In other words, we can build our cities on public transport; our energy security on local and distributed systems—from biofuels to renewables; and our industries using the most energy-efficient technologies.

We know it is in our interest not to first pollute and then clean up; or first to be inefficient and then to save energy. But we also know that the technologies that exist are costly. It is not as if China and India are bent on first investing in dirty and fuel-inefficient technologies. We invest in these, as the now rich world has done—first add to emissions, then make money and then invest in efficiency.


‘The big bad wolf will come.’ This is what has dictated the global climate change narrative for so long. The world has tiptoed around actions that need to be taken at a certain speed and scale to curtail emissions; global agreements have been bent out of shape to appease climate change deniers. And in Paris, the world literally scraped the bottom of the barrel to tie up a weak and unambitious agreement to control climate change. All this, because it believed that doing anything more would get the opposition, particularly in the US, riled up.

As a result, the US has made the multilateral world change rules and reconfigure agreements, mostly to reduce it to the lowest common denominator. Then, when the world stitched together a weak and worthless deal, the US walked out of it. All this while, its powerful civil society and media has hammered home the point that the world needs to be accommodating and pragmatic. ‘Our Congress will not accept’ or, worse, ‘Republicans will come’ has been the common refrain.

This happened in 1992, when in Rio, after much ‘accommodation’, the agreement to combat climate change was whittled down, targets were removed and there was no agreed action. All this was done to bring the US on board. But it walked out. Then came the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only framework for action to reduce emissions. Here again, in December 1997, when climate change proponents Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in office, the agreement was reduced to nothingness—the compliance clause was removed, cheap emission reduction added and loopholes included. All to bring the US on board. Once again, they rejected it.

Then came Barack Obama and his welcome commitment to climate change actions. But what did the US do? It made the world completely rewrite the climate agreement, so that the targets are based on voluntary action, not science and the contribution of each country. Each country is allowed to set targets based on what they decide they can do and by when. It has led to weak action, which will not keep the planet temperature rise below 2°C, forget the guardrail of 1.5°C. This was done to please the Americans, who said they would never sign a global agreement which binds them to actions or targets. Paris, fatally and fundamentally, erased the historical responsibility of countries and reduced equity to insignificance.

Illustration: Sorit

At all times, we have censored the truth of the urgency of climate change, the need for effective and drastic action by the more powerful and rich countries and the need to curtail emissions by curtailing or changing lifestyles so that efficiency gains are not lost because of more consumption. The world has restrained its language so that it could get the participation of the most unwilling—the proverbial big bad wolf.

Now that the big bad wolf has come to power, what will the world do?

There is no doubt that Donald Trump is just another shade of this grey. He denies that climate change is happening. He is also certain that the US needs to dig more coal, build more power plants and do everything to ramp up production, which will increase greenhouse gas emissions. He has declared that his country rejects the very idea of controlling emissions.

What do we do now? This is the zillion-dollar question. Climate change is happening as seen in extreme weather events. It is impacting the poorest in the world, the ones who have least contributed to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere. Will the world now call a spade a spade? Or will it engage in more meaningless censorship so that it woos the undesirable and, in my belief, unchangeable?

I cannot speak for the US civil society, which seems to relish its beltway games. But I do know that we have no option but to push for greater attention and action on climate change. Our priority in India is to reinvent growth without pollution: to find ways to urbanize without first investing in private transport systems and then investing in cleaning up the air and to find ways to provide the energy-poor with clean power without first investing in electricity grids that do not reach them. These are our imperatives. Countries like India have the opportunity to do growth differently and we must.

But it is also a fact that the coming of Trump will make it harder for all environmentalists, particularly those working in the emerging countries, to argue that we must do something different. The protectionist agenda will push against globalization and encourage all to dig deeper and harder to get to the last lump of coal to burn. Forget the climate change crisis. It is tomorrow’s problem.

It is also clear that the coming of Trump will also stop us from scaring ourselves into restraint and self-censorship. The big bad wolf is not coming; it is here. The only way ahead is to confront the reality that the world is getting warmer and the future more insecure and catastrophic. Only then can we hope to change our future.

Let us be clear. The challenge of climate change is a make-or-break situation for the world. It forces us, perhaps for the very first time in our history, to realize that we live together on one earth. It tells us that there are limits to growth, and more importantly, that growth will have to be shared among all. Ultimately, we cannot share a vision for how the world will combat climate change unless we are prepared to share the common atmospheric resources of the world. The big question is whether we will prove to be up to the challenge. The answer is that we have no choice.

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