For climate justice

Print edition : July 20, 2002

If the world is to be saved from an environmental catastrophe, it is essential for the civil society in Third World countries to take an active role in pressuring their governments and in moulding opinion to move in the direction of a solution based on the principle of equal atmospheric rights for all.

THE atmosphere, like the air we breathe, belongs to everyone. It has now become obvious that the extent to which it can be polluted by carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) in the course of our normal living has a ceiling; that is, the pollution space that we collectively possess is finite and limited. The only enduring basis by which this space can be shared is to divide it equally among all human beings. Any method that is established on the strength of the present power relations, and is thus iniquitous, cannot be sustained for long.

It is this realisation that has made far-sighted persons such as French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet support the strategy of contraction and convergence. According to this strategy, all countries will be allotted entitlements to pollute on the basis of a single per capita allowance. While the rich countries will have to contract their emission levels to reach this target, the poor countries will be allowed to develop their economies by increasing their emission to that level. This convergence target will have to be reached in a given time-period and, thereafter, will decline uniformly for all countries.

The per capita emission and the time for convergence will have to be negotiated internationally, taking into account the safe levels of CO2 concentration that can be allowed in the atmosphere. If these entitlements are permitted to be traded, developing countries can get substantial resources as a matter of right and not as handouts. These resources would help them leapfrog into clean technologies for power and transport and for overall development as well, without having to worry about losing their bargaining positions.

A sub-text to this argument is that within countries, depressed sections of people have an ecological debt that the affluent sections owe them and they have a right to claim it. A study by the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research found that in 1989-90 the per capita carbon emission of the top 10 per cent of the urban population in India was 13 times that of the bottom half of the rural population. It is the poverty-stricken Dalit woman who fetches headloads of shrub from long distances for the day's kitchen fire and her children who pore over their books in the glow of the kerosene lamp who have saved this planet from a worse disaster than it faces now. If the excluded and oppressed sections in the Third World countries demand their rightful share of equitably distributed CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) funds for their own development, it could lead to social dynamics that are different from what these societies are used to at present.

But, for now, the dominant discourse in the dominant country is focussed on the 'non-responsible' emissions by the populous developing nations. Green movements in that country are quick to point out to their government that it is the countries that are non-accountable to Kyoto that are behaving more responsibly than those that are accountable to it. For instance, according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, China has reduced its emission by 17 per cent since the mid-1990s, a period when its gross domestic product increased by 36 per cent. Said Zhou Dadi, Director of the Energy Research Institute, China: "Strategically, we have adopted climate change as an important concern in our energy planning. Before 1980, China's energy use increased 1.6 times as fast as the economy. But in the last 20 years, energy use has grown at less than half the rate of the economy... Our per capita energy use is just one-tenth of that in the United States and one-seventh of that in Europe. Americans drive cars while we ride bicycles; you live in houses while we live in dormitories."

India has also done much to conserve, though its record is not as spectacular as that of China. India is now the world's fifth largest fossil-fuel CO2-emitting country; the emissions having grown at 6 per cent a year since 1950. It is the world's third largest coal-producing country and coal accounts for 70 per cent of fossil emissions. However, at less than 0.3 metric tonnes of carbon emission per head, it is the lowest for any large country, far lower than the global average of 1.13 tonnes and one-twentieth of the U.S. per capita emission.

There have been several studies of the impact of global warming on India, especially on food production and on coastal areas. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) lists India among the 27 countries that are most vulnerable to a rise in sea level. A study by the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1993 found that a one-metre rise in sea level would inundate approximately 5,800 square kilometres of coastal area and directly affect 70 lakh people; the economic loss would range from Rs.2,30,300 crores for Mumbai to Rs.400 crores for Balasore, at current prices. India is already reeling under weather disasters of unprecedentedly large scales. Most environmentalists link this to global warming. A heat wave in Orissa in 1998, the hottest year of the millennium, claimed 650 lives; the next year, 10,000 people perished in Orissa's worst-ever floods.

This year's heat wave was worse than that of 1998 and claimed more than 600 lives in Andhra Pradesh alone, despite prior warning to the people and some preparations. A UNEP team that went to the Himalayas recently found that a glacier near the first camp that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set up during their conquest of the Everest in 1953 had receded by 5 km and that a series of small ponds had now formed a big lake.

The lack of sufficient data and research on the impacts of climate change has prevented India, and other developing countries, from playing an assertive role in global negotiations. India cannot hope to make the kind of investment that the U.S. has made. (Two national laboratories in the U.S. have launched a $20 million project, with 1.5 teraflops of computing power, to evaluate scientifically the policy options on climate change.) Also, the 'expert' advice India gets on policy matters is less than neutral. In a briefing paper sent by the Centre for Science and Environment to the Members of Parliament in India before The Hague conference, the late Anil Agarwal pointed out that Bill Clinton's principal environmental adviser Kathleen McGinty stationed herself at the Tata Energy Research Institute in Delhi for a year and went round the country to paint an alluring picture of the CDM, without pointing out its inequity in the absence of established entitlements. According to him, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was among those who fell for her argument. It is only to be expected that private industry everywhere will be short-term-oriented.

The government and the politicians too have little incentive to take a long-term view. In fact, the subject gets very low priority and the public awareness of the issues involved is also abysmally low as compared to the awareness levels in the industrialised countries. Besides, when push comes to shove, the only superpower of the world will not hesitate to apply open pressure on national governments, using its leverage. In fact, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the North, such as the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C., want international financial institutions to use aid, loan and trade to pressure developing countries to adopt climate-friendly, and obviously costly, technologies. Thus one cannot assume that the Indian government will automatically act in such a way as to protect the long-term interests of the people.

So, if the world is to be saved from a looming catastrophe and international and inter-generational justice is to be maintained, it is essential for civil society in Third World countries to take an active role in pressuring their own governments and in moulding world opinion to move in the direction of a swift 'equal rights for all' solution. In this effort, they need to contend with, and engage in dialogue, even well-meaning NGOs in the North, which, in their anxiety to get some action off the ground, are prone to seek accommodation from the nations in the South. Attending a conference of northern NGOs on climate change, an activist from the South found to her dismay that the question equity ranked lowest in the delegates' priorities.

The forces ranged against a credible and just solution are many and mighty. One silver lining is that the extremism of the Bush variety is creating a backlash of public opinion and pulling together environmentalists for vigorous joint actions. An example is the largest ever paid media campaign by any environmental group during August and September 2001 in the United States. Americans in 23 States were educated by a clutch of environment groups on how their Congressmen listened when (oil) money talked, how they voted for $30 billion in taxpayer handouts to oil, coal and nuclear power companies, how they "voted time and time again for more pollution, and more global warming" instead of for lower energy bills and a healthier environment, how they should not now allow their Senator to do the same when the bills come up for approval.

There is a need for similar concerted action by the NGOs of the South. This need not be, and probably ought not to be, limited to advocacy of the equal-rights-to-the-air-above principle; it can extend to the issue of reparations for the damage caused to the environment in the past. Even as voices are raised now for reparations for slavery and colonialism, just recompense for environmental imperialism is bound to become a major issue several years hence. But raising it now has the advantage of driving home the equal rights message with greater force. In fact, the current environmental intransigence of the U.S. President can be countered by taking him to court for the economic costs of the disasters faced by the poorer countries because of climate change - up to $9.5 trillion over the next two decades, according to one estimate by development groups. The Red Cross suggests in a report that poor countries could seek legal compensation to pay for reconstruction through an "international tort climate court". It says: "Increasingly sophisticated analysis of climate change means that ignorance of the consequences of industrial consumption and pollution can be no defence for inaction."

In a recent article in The Guardian, Stephen Timms of the Global Economy Programme at the New Economics Foundation points to the establishment of a principle in a U.S. court that no State had the right to cause injury to another by emitting "fumes". This was in a case relating to a Canadian smelter plant damaging crops and livestock in Washington State in the U.S. Timms says: "The next message G-7 heads of state receive from their poorer cousins may not be an invitation to a reception, or a plea for more aid. It may be much more abrupt: 'We'll see you in court for global warming.' A concrete step towards this was taken recently when two dozen lawyers representing environmental groups met in Washington to explore the possibility of class-action lawsuits against the U.S. government and corporations on behalf of Tuvalu - whose 10,000 residents are emigrating to New Zealand as the island nation faces total submergence by 2050 - or the Maldives or Jamaica, like those filed by the Holocaust victims or those filed against the tobacco companies. Tuvalu's new Prime Minister has signalled his intention to sue.

The principle of contraction and convergence is gaining ground, albeit very slowly. The Environment Ministers of Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have voiced their personal support to it; Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in a report on climate change published recently, has endorsed it. However, it is nowhere near claiming serious attention at Kyoto discussions. A large part of the responsibility to see that this happens rests on the NGOs in India and in the other countries of the South.

C.E. Karunakaran is an engineer who has studied and worked on issues relating to carbon credit trading.

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