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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Holier than Thou

Unsurprisingly, the 15th Conference of the Parties at Copenhagen had failed in coming up with a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that could legally bind every nation—both the developed and developing countries—to an enforceable and verifiable greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Yet the leaders claim that they have achieved “a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough” in bringing out an accord that tentatively commits to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and a proposal to finance poor countries to enable themselves fall in line with emission reductions by nations including the world’s biggest economies, Brazil, South Africa, India, China, and the US. Commenting on the accord, Barack Obama, considered to be instrumental in getting the accord together, said: “For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility [on] climate change.”

But for some, it was “a document with no more meaning or authority than a bus ticket,” and they sound right when Su Wei, China’s Chief Negotiator distanced his country from the ride, saying: “This is not an agreed accord, it is not an agreed document, it is not formally endorsed or adopted.” He also said, “It is prepared or discussed by a group of people who have been specially invited,” from which incidentally, Europe was kept away.

The only commitment that could be said to have been made was: promise by the developed world to give $30 bn of ‘climate aid’ over the next three years and to raise the same to $100 bn per year from 2020. Here again, it is, of course, not legally binding, and there is no indication as to which countries will get it, how much, and against what compliance.

Of course, the reasons behind the failure of the talks at, as some have dubbed, the ‘medieval fair’ are quite palpable: the economic cost of decarbonizing the world’s economies is pretty massive, for carbon-based energy is the cheapest source of energy, and switching over from it to alternatives is being resisted even by the developed world, as the resistance witnessed at the US senate meetings indicates. And when it comes to the developing countries, what matters most is the ‘fastest growth of economy’, which again means extensive use of the cheapest source of energy—‘carbon energy’. Surprisingly, amidst the aforesaid reality, our Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in his maiden speech at Copenhagen, spoke about our voluntary commitment to bring down emission intensity by 20%. And he also unilaterally proclaimed: “We will deliver on this goal regardless of the outcome of this conference.”

This is puzzling on many counts. One, India has to grow fast, that too, on sustainable lines if it has to elevate its 28% of population from abject poverty. Similarly, there are 400 million Indians without electricity even today, and if they are to be provided with electricity, we need economic growth, which means, increased consumption of carbon energy. Two, at today’s level of technological availability, reduction in emissions at the proclaimed level means substantial reduction in energy consumption. Which means, a deliberate compromise with the much-needed ‘economic growth’, besides leaving millions with no electricity.

After all, when it comes to poverty and emissions, we are more like Africa than China: our current level of emission stood at 4% of global emissions. It is one-fifth of China’s emission. Our per-capita emission ranks 137th. Except for the high rate of GDP growth, we are no way different from Africa. Yet, we allowed ourselves to be aligned with China by offering matching emission reductions. This could have been all right had our unilateral commitment for high reductions leveraged rise in reductions by the US and Europe or increased aid for developing countries to cope with the transition.

Ironically, none of this happened. Interestingly, China stood its ground: refused outside inspection on emissions. Against this backdrop, are we to be holier than thou?


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