climate change is the biggest story of the 21st century. But its sheer complexity is defeating us.
For the past 16 years--the first intergovernmental negotiation took place in Washington dc in early 1991--the world has been haggling about what it knows but does not want to accept. It has desperately sought every excuse not to act, even as science has reconfirmed that climate change is real and is related to co2 and other emissions, which are related to economic growth and wealth creation--it is humanmade and can devastate the world.
Now as the world prepares to burn more carbon miles to travel to the paradise of Bali in Indonesia for the 13th Conference of Parties to the climate convention, it will discuss, once again what it knows it needs to do. We hope (and demand) that this time the response will be different and desperate.
Science is certain but not simple
Science is not just certain, it is unequivocal that if climate change proceeds as it is doing devastation is inevitable. But along with understanding the still abstruse science we must begin to put a human face to the climate change that is happening around us. We must see climate change in the faces of the millions who lost homes to cyclone Sidr which ripped through Bangladesh. We need to know that thousands of people died because the rich failed to contain emissions necessary for their growth.
When we say this, we know climate-sceptics and purist-scientists will argue it is difficult to prove cause and effect. After all, we cannot say this cyclone is related to climate change. It is a natural disaster, not a humanmade crime. This is when science has clearly established that intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones will increase as the Earth warms.
We may never be able to make direct correlations between events that we see around us and global warming. But when the world is unequally divided between polluters and victims, clearly, prevarication and denial will be the name of the game.
This is the context of the Bali meeting: the science is certain but the politics stinks.
Talk not action
As the call for action becomes more strident and urgent (it must) the world looks for petty responses. There is an orchestrated media and civil society campaign to paint China and India as villains. If they want to develop, they are told they are most vulnerable. "We don't want blame games. Even if the West created the problem, you must in your interest take the lead in reparations," is the spiel.
The West's hysteria is growing, but so is its inaction. The irony is these countries had agreed in 1997 to make a small cut in their gargantuan emissions, in the interest of all. These cuts were nowhere close to what was needed to avert climate change. The fact (mostly unsaid) is these countries have done nothing, absolutely nothing, to contain their emissions. Between 1990 and 2005, rich country emissions have gone up by 11 per cent. They have reneged on their commitment. They have let us all down.
But how can they get away with this? Why is the focus on China and India; still much poorer and already more environmentally responsible?
The reason is two-fold. One, they can 'officially' fudge because they are allowed to use low emissions from the collapsed economies of the former Soviet Union countries to dilute the statistics. Two, they get away with it because world opinion backs them. After all, emissions are related to wealth and power. Who will rock this boat?
It is convenient to play the cop and villain game. The rich nations know the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, South Africans and the rest are all in the race to become rich and powerful. They want to be on the same boat. Sinking it then is just not possible. It is a mock fight. But we are all getting hurt.
Energy is the key
It is the world's need for energy--to run everything from factories to cars--that is the cause of climate change. After years of talk, no country has been able to delink growth from a rise in co2 emissions. No country has shown how to build a low carbon economy or re-invent the growth path--as yet.
This then is the challenge. After years of talk, new renewable energy--wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels--comprises just about 0.5 per cent of the world's primary energy supply. It is misleading to say that renewable sources add more electricity than nuclear power. It is old renewable--hydroelectric power--which makes the world light up.
It is tragic that the world is hiding behind the poverty of its people to fudge its maths. The renewable sector is made up of the biomass combustion--firewood, cowdung, leaves and twigs--used by the desperately poor to cook and light their homes. This is providing the world its breathing space.
As yet, the rich world finds small answers to big problems. It wants to keep its coal power plants (while it points fingers at China and India). It wants to build new coal power plants. It believes it can keep polluting and keep fixing. The answer it has hit upon is carbon capture and storage--to inject emissions underground and hope the problem will go away. In this way it can have its cake and eat it too.
It also wants to keep its cars and drive them more. It can do this by growing fuel. It does not matter if this biofuel is a small part of total fuel consumption--all the corn in the us can only meet 12 per cent of current us petrol use. It doesn't matter that there isn't enough land to grow both food and fuel. Unfortunately, biofuel, now being pushed by corporations with interests in both oil and agribusiness, is not the answer. The problem is that people who matter are not looking at the real solution.
Is it not ironical that though science tells us drastic reductions are needed, no country is talking about limiting consumption. This is when every analysis proves that efficiency is part of the answer but is meaningless without sufficiency. Cars have become more fuel-efficient but people just drive more and have more cars. Emissions keep rising.
We are the change
What then is the way ahead?
We must agree that the rich world must reduce emissions drastically.There is a stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, built up over centuries in the process of creating wealth. It is a natural debt. This has already made climate unstable. Poorer nations will now add to this stock through their drive for economic growth. But that is not an excuse for the rich world not to take on tough and binding emission reduction targets. The principle has to be that they must reduce so we can grow.
The second part of this agreement is poor and emerging rich countries need to grow. Their en-gagement will not be legally binding but based on national targets and programmes. The job is to find low-carbon growth strategies for emerging countries without compromising their right to develop.
This can be done. Countries like India and China give the world the opportunity to "avoid" additional emissions, because they are still building their energy, transport and industrial infrastructure. We can make investments in leapfrog technologies to avoid pollution. In other words, we can build our cities on public transport; our energy security on local and distributed systems--from biofuels to renewable; our industries using the most energy-efficient and pollution-efficient technologies.
We know it is in our interest not to first pollute, then clean; or be inefficient, then save energy. But we also know that existing technologies are costly.
It is not as if China and India are bent on investing in dirty, fuel-inefficient technologies. They do as the now rich world did: first adding to emissions and making money, then investing in efficiency.
If we know the emerging world can leapfrog to cleaner technology, why isn't this happening? Why does the world talk big but give small change?
When the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated, the world decided to invent the clean development mechanism (cdm) to pay for the transition in the poorer world. But the mechanism was designed to fail. The rich world was obsessed with getting the cheapest emission reduction options. As a result, the price of the certified emission reduction unit used in this transaction has not reflected the cost of renewable and other high-technology options. It is a cheap and increasingly corrupt development mechanism. It is also a convoluted development mechanism, in which rules bind governments not to think of big change.
In fact, cdm provides disincentives for governments in the South to drive policies for clean energy or production. Any policy which is already designed for good is bad in the cdm portfolio. It is not additional and it will not qualify for funding. Theatre of the absurd. But we are crying.
This is Bali's task: reform and reinvent cdm to make it effective. This can be done by making it subservient to public policy. To ensure cdm goes to high-end technologies which can give the world its transition, a floor price should prevail. It has to work for the public good, not private profit.
The world must realize the bitter truth. Equity is a prerequisite for an effective climate agreement. The fact is that without cooperation, this global agreement will not work. It is for this reason that the world must seriously consider the concept of equal per capita emission entitlements so that the rich reduce and the poor do not go beyond their climate quota. We need responsible and effective action on climate change.
India: be a player: Indians: get angry
The choice for our leaders is clear. They can be key players at this critical juncture. Or they can join the mock games. They can deny the urgency of climate change. Or they can fight for the victims of climate change and demand much more effective action from the rich world. They can pretend that the problem will go away once they get rich. Or they can provide leadership to the rich and the poor world by showing a different pathway to growth.
But we must not give our leaders this empty choice. We must insist there is only way--the right and climate-effective way. Climate change is an extraordinary crisis that demands an extraordinary response. We will accept nothing less. We cannot.
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