Carbon alert

Print edition : December 18, 2009

Climate activists in Copenhagen on November 17.-JENS PANDURO/AP

SECURING substantial progress at the earliest in the global climate negotiations is essential, particularly for developing nations as the consequences of global warming will affect them the most. Developing nations account for the bulk of the worlds population, including the vast majority of those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. While developed countries are primarily responsibile for global warming, uncontrolled emissions from developing nations, especially from the larger ones, will surely lead to climate disaster even if the developed nations undertake significant mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

What makes the climate negotiations truly difficult for developing nations is the fact that carbon space in the atmosphere, a critical necessity for development, is now a scarce resource. Low-carbon pathways of development that deliver growth and development while avoiding the high-emissions trajectory that the world has known so far are a necessity rather than an option for developing countries.

However, even such alternative development pathways, while keeping global warming below 2{+0} Celsius, will crucially require a minimum amount of carbon space that will become available only if developed nations agree to sharp and rapid emission reductions. For developing countries, the negotiations are critical for keeping open their energy and developmental options while holding global temperatures within tolerable limits.

It is important to revisit some basic facts to appreciate the gravity of the situation that confronts developing countries, including India.

At the beginning of the industrial era, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was roughly 280 ppm (parts per million). If the rise in global temperatures since that base year is to be limited to 2{+0} C (the scientifically accepted target), with at least 50 per cent probability, a concentration of 450 ppm of GHGs is the maximum that can be allowed. (For convenience, we shall take all of this concentration to be due to CO{-2}. Including all GHGs will change the numbers somewhat but will not significantly alter our conclusions.) The rise in concentrations from 280 ppm to 450 ppm represents the total amount of emissions possible, without serious negative effects. Of this total emission space available, a significant portion is already occupied by past emissions that cannot be removed. The issue at Copenhagen is how the remaining carbon space is to be divided equitably among all nations.

On a per capita basis, the principle that India and all other developing countries have always upheld, a fair share of the carbon space for any country corresponds to its share of the world population. Of the carbon space that has been occupied until 2008, Annex-I countries (consisting mostly of the advanced industrial nations) have taken roughly 73 per cent even though they account for only 19 per cent of the worlds population. Of this, the United States takes up 29 per cent even though its population share amounts to 5 per cent. The remaining 81 per cent of the world has emitted the residual 27 per cent.

Even if the Annex-I countries were to cut their emissions in accordance with the recommendations of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which means reducing annual emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 90 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, they would still retain more than 55 per cent of the total carbon space by 2050. The U.S., for its part, would still retain close to 21 per cent of the total carbon space. This is the foundation of the argument that the advanced industrial nations owe the rest of the world a carbon debt for their occupation and exploitation of more than their fair share of the global commons. To date, no Annex-I country has offered to cut emissions according to the IPCC recommendations. In particular, the cuts the U.S. is currently considering the Kerry-Boxer proposals, now before the U.S. Senate fall far short of the IPCC recommendations.

The relative share of other sections of the world, outside Annex-I, is of course subject to some specification of detail within the scope of the constraint of a maximum concentration of 450 ppm. All developing countries need to reduce the growth rate of their emissions to keep concentrations below this target. Generally speaking, countries such as China or large developing countries as a group (excluding India and China) would by 2050 get about 20 per cent less than their fair share.

Today, India has a carbon space share of roughly 2.5 per cent, compared with a fair share of 17 per cent. By 2050, with a reduction of growth rates in emissions, India will still have only about 4 per cent. The rest of the Group of 77 developing countries will find themselves in a similar situation. Given the existing occupation of the global atmospheric commons, developing countries appear to have little scope to improve significantly on this share, while keeping global emissions below the maximum.

There is a fit case to regard India, in this context, as belonging to the rest of the G-77 rather than the large developing economies. If we do so, Indias share would improve only marginally, going up to 4.5 per cent. The low figures for India, in contrast to China, Brazil or South Africa, are a consequence of the relatively low share of industry in Indias economy. In this regard, Indias elite is clearly culpable for hyping up the service-sector-led growth, while ignoring, in the era of global warming, the critical issue of the gradual closing of Indias energy and manufacturing window, especially in the years of economic reform.

Actually, the inequity in the share of the global atmospheric commons is even worse than what these numbers suggest. In calculating these numbers we have assumed that the population figure for every nation stays fixed at 2008 levels. This is a good assumption for the advanced countries. In fact, their population is likely to drop further over the years.

However, for developing countries the population will rise further before stabilising (after all, population growth and its eventual stabilisation are closely related to economic growth). If we take this into account, the carbon space share of developing countries will fall further below their fair share. Correspondingly, developed countries will obtain an even greater share of the global atmospheric commons.

All considerations of Indias climate strategy must face up to this reality. Not only will India and the rest of the G-77 never get their fair share; the costs of whatever developmental trajectory they take will also be significantly higher. Low-carbon pathways, though much talked about, are, techno-economically speaking, unexplored terrain.

Any talk, therefore, of India taking the lead in mitigation actions is mere pretension to superpower status. The central issue for India remains that of ensuring deep and binding emission cuts by developed nations with suitable compensation for their occupation of the global commons through financial and intellectual property rights-free technology transfers. Any form of assurance to the global community by developing countries can only be contingent on suitable action by Annex-I countries.

Clearly, India needs to recognise the reality that by 2030 or so its emissions growth rate will have to deviate significantly from its current growth. However, it also has no carbon space to gift away. India, and in fact all other developing countries, cannot afford to be flexible regarding the emission reduction targets of developed countries. Such flexibility would amount to an unaffordable giveaway. A section of the environmental movement in the country is attracted by the possibility that unilateral mitigation actions by India could herald a major shift towards an equitable, sustainable, de-carbonised future.

But carbon space that is gifted away will be occupied by others, foreclosing our energy future. Even if India, hypothetically speaking, adopts a maximally environment-friendly, sustainable path of development, it will still be seriously affected by the GHG emissions of others. Every developing nation must democratically determine the manner of utilisation of its share of carbon space, but there is no case for unilateral renunciation.

Regrettably, Indias climate policy-makers have yet to get a clear grip on the long-term policy implications of the looming restrictions on its carbon space and the numbers involved. For many years, while correctly emphasising the historical responsibility of developed nations, climate policy remained limited, in essence, to denying Indias ability to undertake any emission reductions. In the absence of the recognition that the sheer physical constraint of keeping global warming in check would impose restrictions on emissions, the policy increasingly appeared to be a form of climate change scepticism, if not outright denial.

In recent times, the Government of India has swung around to the other extreme of producing quantitative estimates without extensive checks and broad consultations to validate them. The techno-economic basis for Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs announcement in 2007 that Indias per capita emissions would not cross that of developed countries has never been clarified. Most recently, at the pre-COP-15 meeting at Copenhagen on November 16, Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh announced that India was ready to commit that its per capita emissions would always remain below the per capita emissions of developed countries. It is unclear why India rushed to announce such an ambiguous modification (the term below is clearly open to (mis)interpretation) of the original proposal.

The carbon space perspective is most useful in cutting through the hype surrounding carbon trading and carbon offsets, which is most prominent in the business media. Carbon offsets, whereby developing countries undertake emission reductions that accrue to the mitigation actions of developed countries in return for carbon credits, amount to a double burden on developing countries. They undertake more than their fair share of mitigation action. It also amounts to selling their carbon space cheap; buying it back will be at a higher cost because later emissions reductions will be more difficult.

That our political and business leaders do not appreciate the gravity of the carbon space crunch that India faces is clear from their unseemly enthusiasm for carbon offsets. Despite Indias rhetoric at the global negotiating table, criticising the insistence by Annex-I countries that their mitigation actions would significantly depend on offsets, government and corporate India have been actively promoting carbon offsets as a new route to foreign direct investment.

It is in this context that sections of the media, the climate policy community, and civil society have reacted with alarm to indications that the Manmohan Singh government is contemplating major policy shifts, including not only unilateral mitigation actions and flexibility regarding developed country emission reduction targets, but also policy changes on related questions of financing adaptation and global technology transfer.

Parliament and civil society must ensure that the parameters of Indias negotiating positions at Copenhagen are firmly fixed so as to ensure that the nations vital energy and developmental options are kept open and not foreclosed by unwarranted giveaways.

Dr T. Jayaraman is chairperson of the Centre for Science, Technology and Society, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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