The problem

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FEW subjects have engaged the attention of the global community with the same intensity as has the current debate on climate change. In spite of the highly specialized and sometimes overtly technical jargon the debate on global warming tends to get mired in, the outcome at Copenhagen has been actively watched and followed not just by leaders, policy-makers, experts and business people but the widest possible cross-section of civil society. True, there is a small band of climate sceptics, both those who argue that all talk of global warming is hype and others who doubt the veracity of climate models linking changes in weather and temperatures to impacts of human activity. Nevertheless, the broad opinion, captured by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, acknowledges both the anthropogenic nature of the problem and that ameliorative action needs to be taken urgently. As things stand, however, progress in formulating solutions acceptable to the comity of nations has been extremely difficult to come by. The general dismay and disappointment following the Copenhagen Accord thus comes as no surprise.

Under the Copenhagen Accord (which Indian negotiators are quick to point out has not become an agreement so far), signatory nations are expected to submit their domestic action plans on mitigation efforts to the Conference of Parties (CoP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by 31 January 2010. Prior to Copenhagen, as part of its strategy for reducing its carbon foot- print, India had announced a target of 20 to 25% reduction in its emissions intensity. This voluntary reduction target, seen as a response to China’s announcement of a 40% cut, has led to a storm of protests in several quarters within the country. Critics point out that the current accord reached between 29 nations at Copenhagen paves the way for a renegotiation of the basic principle of common but differentiated responsibility so far accepted as the core principle in the UNFCCC.

In truth, however, the Copenhagen Accord does not really so much dilute the principle as much as alter the composition of the categories to be used to differentiate the responsibilities for taking on mitigation action in reducing emissions. India’s declarations on emissions control are in that sense a clear acceptance of its responsibility in taking mitigation action, even as it clings on to its right to be enumerated within the community of developing countries referred to as the non-Annex I countries in the UNFCCC. In spite of protestations regarding the semantics of how binding or non-binding the declarations are, these self imposed targets do fall in the category of commitments.

The question often asked is that if climate change is indeed a matter of such grave concern why should all countries, including India, not do more to prevent it? Why should they shy away from taking on greater responsibility for reducing their carbon footprint? In real terms what does it mean for a country like India to actually reduce the intensity of its emissions by 25% when countries like China have already announced cuts as high as 40% in the same intensity? Have we perchance been too conservative when we should rather have led from the front?

In order to make sense of the debate, we need to get clarity on what these numbers really mean. According to Energy Information Administration (EIA) figures, India in 1990 emitted 0.65 tonne of CO2 for every $ 1000 of GDP (on a PPP basis), a figure which had come down to 0.55 tonne in 2005. Significantly, the maximum rate of decrease occurred during the years the Indian economy grew at its fastest, i.e. from 2001 to 2005 when it dropped from 0.61 to 0.55. In short, while it took eleven years for the intensity of emissions to decline by 6%, the next 10% decline came in less than half the time. The intensity of India’s emissions in 2005, the benchmark year as per the Copenhagen Accord, was just a tad above the emissions intensity of the USA.1 What, however, is less appreciated is that the major reason for the dramatic drop in India’s emissions intensity in this period was our pattern of economic growth which was led by the services sector.

Nothing illustrates this better than the contrast with China which saw its intensity actually rise (rather than fall) from 0.94 in 2001 to 1.13 in 2005. These years of even more dramatic growth in China saw that country transform itself into the manufacturing hub of the world and become the world’s export powerhouse. China simultaneously invested in highly energy intensive big ticket infrastructure projects which resulted in it producing half of the world’s entire output of cement by 2007.

In part thus, China’s declaration of cuts in its emissions intensity have a lot to do with its own realization of the unsustainability of indefinitely persisting with a heavy manufacturing led growth trajectory. It is also worth underscoring that a 40% cut in emissions intensity allows China sufficient room to manoeuvre, as by 2020 it still has license to emit 0.85 tonne of CO2 for every $ 1000 of its GDP. Needless to say that by 2020 its intensity of emissions would remain almost twice as high as India’s by 2020.

With a 17% share of world population, India’s share of global emissions is just 4%. The per capita consumption of energy in India is less than 5% of the US and under a third of China. 550 million Indians, 7% of the global population, live without access to electricity or in fact to any form of commercial energy. It is no secret that the biggest single roadblock to India’s future growth is the state of its infrastructure, which includes its energy infrastructure. The country thus needs to revive investments in infrastructure spending in a massive way if it hopes to stand up and be counted among the nations of the world.

In such a situation the next spurt of growth should be expected from manufacturing and infrastructure, which along with the growth in services would be accompanied by a demographic shift to more and more urban centres making India hard put to maintain, let alone reduce, the current intensity of its emissions. Knowing the tendency of our policy-makers to go into interminably indecisive huddles over even basic reforms on pricing and energy subsidies, scepticism about the game plan (if any) behind India’s pious declarations in Copenhagen is inevitable.

Going into the future, it seems inescapable that the most prized real estate under contestation in the coming years will be the global carbon space and how it is to be shared between nations. China between 2001 and 2006 has spread its wings sufficiently for it to capture enough space to ensure at least 4.6 tonne per person to its people. India on the other hand, is hard put to struggle with a mere 1.2. tonne at present. In the coming years the most pertinent question will be: who should cede how much space to the new nations and the emerging economies on the thresholds of development? Until Copenhagen, this burden was squarely placed on the developed nations. That distinction may now have got just a little blurred.

Finally, to reduce the climate change debates to legal wrangles about the status of the Copenhagen Accord, whether the historically polluting nations have managed to escape the Kyoto Protocol commitments, who will transfer the needed resources to enable the developing world to introduce carbon clean technologies and on what terms, or even whether the debate is in its essence about recognizing the shifts in global power, may be to miss the points raised by the many civil society groups protesting at Copenhagen. There are deeper, philosophical questions about the hegemonic model of development, about the alarming decline in biodiversity and consequent specie loss, and about the moral imperatives of justice which animate those claiming to represent the marginals.

Many of these voices, ignored in the deliberations, are unlikely to go away as real-life struggles and conflicts over water, farmland and forests assume serious proportions. Consequently, poorer nations and communities dependant upon nature for their livelihood, will continue to be conflict ridden even as negotiators attempt to hammer out a new social contract. What is scary is that time may well be running out for them.

This issue of Seminar seeks to debate some of these conundrums. As always the hope is that this might enrich and widen the ongoing debate.


* The help of the Observer Research Foundation in putting together this issue is gratefully acknowledged.


1. In 2005 the intensity of emissions of US per $100 of GDP was 0.5454 against India’s 0.5540.