Bali demonstrated that when profit scores over the planet, the political will to address climate change is in short supply.Iceberg melting off
The year 2007 will go down in history as the year when a phase shift occurred in global public awareness of the climate change crisis. It will also go down as the year when the people of the world and their future generations were shortchanged by a clique of business interests that manipulate the policies of a few powerful rich countries.
The recently concluded U.N. conference at Bali was held in the backdrop of a three-part consensus report produced by more than 2,500 scientists under the auspices of the U.N.-sponsored body, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that catalogued the current and likely impact of the unmitigated release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, mainly due to the burning of coal and oil. It further re-asserted the widely held view that exceeding a heating up of the planet by more than 2C from pre-industrial levels (even if James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, U.S., puts it at 1.7C) of which we have already committed to more than 1.2C through past emissions would be too disastrous to contemplate for life on earth.
The Bali conference was held in the backdrop of latest scientific assessments which showed the IPCC estimates to be very conservative, that the current rate of world emissions was three times that of the 1990s, exceeding the IPCCs worst-case scenario, and that the Arctic ice was screaming, disappearing a lot faster than predicted.
It was held in the backdrop of the understanding that this galloping pace of anticipated warming implied that species losses would accelerate, the Amazon rainforest could disappear sooner, natural disasters would intensify faster, vector diseases would spread even more, the water crisis would worsen, food production would decline more rapidly, the sea level would rise much higher and there would be millions of deaths and cases of displacement of people as a result of all these catastrophes.
There was the further backdrop that the real scientific consensus on what was required to keep the warming to about 2C was becoming more and more visible through the fog of deliberate propaganda, hoping against hope, disbelief, avoidance of scaremongering tag and frank fudging to accommodate political reality. It was becoming clearer and clearer that it was not 550 parts per million (ppm), nor even 450 ppm, but 400 ppm of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere (that would amount to nearly 450 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent of all greenhouse gases that cause global warming) that should be the cap to keep the risk of exceeding 2C warming within reasonable limits. Against this target, the current concentration is 383 ppm, growing at 19 ppm a decade at present, a 25 per cent climb from the rate of increase of the last decade.
There was also the assessment that we were very close to a tipping point, beyond which we would lose control over a self-generating, feedback-induced warming as with polar ice melt shrinking the reflective white surface, which induces even further heating up, or the warming oceans progressively losing their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. There were also some views that we might have already triggered certain positive feedback cycles.
What all this meant for Bali was that there was absolutely no time to lose. We were standing at the brink of disaster and needed to take action on a war footing to curb the use of coal, petroleum and gas if humanity itself was to survive for some centuries, forget other species. The message was getting dinned into the policymakers of the world, and the Nobel Committee played a small role in flagging the issue through its Peace Prize award this year to the IPCC and Al Gore, the latter taking to climate campaigning after a narrow loss of the U.S. presidency to George W. Bush.
For the delegates of all world governments at Bali, there was no lack of information from scientists on what was happening to the world at large as a result of man-made greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, on where we were heading if we went on business as usual, on what its impacts were, and on what needed to be done to avoid crossing the threshold. They also had no lack of information on the various technologies available to produce electricity and to move from place to place without burning carbon. There were also many reports available on what tools of economics would work in what manner to turn people away from a carbon-rich lifestyle. In fact, a number of civil society organisations had established paradigms and models of energy-saving lifestyle changes that individuals could be influenced to adopt with adequate awareness generation.Environmental activists wearing
For more than 10 days the delegates grappled with the issue and right from the beginning it was clear that this was going to be another Kyoto-type wrangle, with a little more pressure to come to terms, maybe, but basically establishing the ground reality that the political will to tackle the problem was weak and urgency for action was not yet felt by the policymakers. It was a Kyoto replica in another sense the U.S. government played spoilsport, blocking specific action as much as possible and dampening any sense of urgency, the same role it played 10 years back at Kyoto in Japan to destroy the consensus built among all other countries and to reduce forcibly the emission reduction target and inject the carbon trading mechanism into the deal, converting it to Kyotolite, as some environmentalists called it. This shameful role became even more dishonourable as the U.S. government subsequently refused to ratify the Protocol that it deliberately and systematically weakened, its delegation head Al Gore, then Vice-President of his country, having come armed with a unanimous resolution of the U.S. Senate to disregard any international agreement that does not set emission targets for developing countries.
There was a further replica of Kyoto at Bali. The European Union, long regarded as the most environment-friendly group at these conferences, applauded and hailed the U.S. for coming on board at the last minute at Kyoto and did the same at Bali. No matter that the U.S. succeeded in decimating the consensus reached in both places. In the intervening period it did hardly anything to pressure the U.S. to come on board Kyoto. One can anticipate that the U.S. will play its expected role and so will the E.U. in the coming two years, the time specified at Bali for the post-Kyoto agreement.
There could have been an alternative scenario at Bali. The U.S. could have changed track on its Kyoto policy (as it has done on its Iraq policy), said it was listening to its people, 68 per cent of whom said in a recent Yale University and Gallup sample survey that they were for their government signing an international agreement to cut emissions by 90 per cent by 2050.
If it refused to listen to its people (who, in an earlier survey, considered global warming to be as much a threat as terrorism), the E.U. and other rich countries could have said that this was the time for emergency action to save the planet, there was no time for niceties.
They could have sidelined the U.S. at Bali, could have concluded a much stronger and more just agreement with the developing nations and could have threatened the U.S. with sanctions unless it, too, fell in line with the rest of the world. (The Social Democrats in Germany have just now suggested this as a future course of action.)
But none of this happened at Bali. It was really business as usual a term abhorred by climate activists campaigning to cut down drastically global emissions of greenhouse gases. The IPCCs business as usual scenario is a straight path to doom. But then business-as-usual is what business wants, the powerful business class behind the oil, coal, electricity and automobile industries the world over. The business class that pulls the strings in the Bush administration and exercises influence all over Europe and over all countries of the world. The business class that contributed lavishly to get the Bush team elected to the White House, that openly claimed credit for the publicity blitz that shaped U.S. policy at Kyoto What we are doing, and we think successfully, is buying time for our industries by holding up these talks.
The business class mostly exercises invisible structural power, described by Prof. Susan Strange as the power to control the context within which others make their decisions. Its strategy is the same as the tobacco industry followed in earlier years when studies proved the connection between tobacco and health. It would buy pliable scientists to deny the science and to fudge it in the public mind as long as possible. It would then pretend that the impact was not really that bad. Then, even if some action was called for, there was no need to hurry, there was plenty of time.
Al Gore points out how, after the IPCC released the first part of its report in February 2007, the corporate denial industry offered a bounty of $10,000 for each article disputing the consensus that people could crank out and get published somewhere. And the Royal Society in the U.K. had to go to the extent of asking the oil company Exxon Mobil, considered to be the worst offender in manipulating public opinion, to desist from funding organisations that deny climate change science. The mainstream media in those countries owned and controlled by business interests have been playing ball as well. After giving prominence to only the denier propaganda for a long time, it is now on to the trick of ensuring a facile balance for every article on the truth about climate change, established beyond doubt by almost all serious climate scientists in the world, there will be one from the minute band of climate sceptics.
This is now the time for corporations to indulge in greenwash pose as great protagonists, talk a lot, but do little. All big corporations are onto this bandwagon now. Whatever the strategy adopted, it is clear that, driven by a focus on short-term profits, the business blockade to climate action will continue in any of many myriad forms. (Taking their cue from some scientists who fear that we have already crossed or are very close to the tipping point, some have even jumped directly from the denial position to a too late position and advocate no action on that ground.)
It is also clear that business power over politics is enormous and when profit scores over the planet, the political will to address climate change will be in short supply. Bali demonstrated this.
So what happens after Bali? Is there hope at all that in the face of such a powerful business blockade, the future of life on earth can be saved? To answer this question we should turn our attention to the three immediate issues that the world community has to sort out and the options before it on these. The issues are: How much more emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere can we safely permit for the coming decades? How do we share this budget among the countries of the world? How would we take care of the adaptation needs of the poor of this world who are already hit by climate change impacts and will face far greater damage in the future?
Given the 2C warming threshold and the corresponding 450 ppm carbon dioxide stabilisation in the atmosphere, the consensus is that the world as a whole should start immediate action so that growth in emissions will slow down, peak by about 2015 and then go down at a rapid rate to reach an annual emission level some 80-85 per cent lower than that of 1990, by year 2050. Fig .1 shows one such projection for different risk levels of exceeding the 2C Lakshman Rekha. Does it look easy? Is it easy to curb our electricity use as well as switch its generation from massive coal power plants to wind or biomass or solar? How does one handle transport needs without using petrol, diesel or gas?
A chilling thought is that world economy as a whole is growing at 3 per cent per annum while Indian and Chinese economies grow at nearly three times that rate and this implies an energy consumption growth of a similar order. As Surya P. Sethi, Principal Adviser (Energy) to the Planning Commission, points out, even if all energy efficiency measures are taken up, India will still emit four times as much carbon dioxide as it does now if it grows at 8 per cent per annum for 25 years. This cannot be avoided as half of Indias people do not have electricity and 70 per cent of its cooking is done with traditional biomass and dung collected by its women. Giving them modern energy is not only the duty of the government but is the best way of enabling them to adapt to climate change impacts, as Sethi pointed out in a recent address to Members of Parliament. This is the case with other populous and rapidly developing countries such as Brazil, Mexico and South Africa today and will be with all other less developed countries tomorrow. For most developed countries, energy consumption has flattened as their 2 per cent economic growth is balanced by increased efficiency.
The result is what is seen in Fig.2. The expected normal emission growth of developing countries alone will breach the safe trajectory of avoiding climate catastrophe in less than 20 years from now. China is about to become the worlds largest emitter, overtaking the U.S., even as its population is four times that of the U.S. All of this has made it imperative that developing countries, too, have to come on board and reverse their emissions growth trajectory if the planet has to be saved.
However, what is missed out and underplayed in the Western media is the stark reality that the rich countries of the North, with less than 20 per cent of the worlds population, bear a 75 per cent responsibility for having already filled up the atmospheric dumping space for carbon dioxide so much that far too little is left for the poorer countries of the South as they step up to climb the conventional development path charted for them by the rich. India and China put together are responsible for less than 10 per cent of historic emissions, while the U.S. and the E.U. together account for 42 per cent. On a per person basis (is not the atmosphere a common good that belongs to all equally?), the disparity is even more stark. An average American emitted 40 times as much as an average Indian in fossil fuel emissions of the last century.
What is worse is the total callousness of the North in not taking timely and responsible action to avert the crisis though the facts have been staring those countries in the face for at least the past couple of decades. The 1980s and 1990s showed a declining trend in the U.S. government spending on renewable energy research and development, largely as a result of pressure from fossil industries. The E.U. may pose as being in the vanguard of the efforts to save the planet, but what it has done so far to fashion a workable climate change accord is a pittance compared with what was needed and could have been done.
The lead now needs to be taken by developing countries, which face a double whammy. They are the worst affected by climate change disasters and food and water loss, and their growth is stymied by the climate mitigation imperative. They have to face up to the reality that they, too, have to curb their emissions and have little resources to divert to taking the low-carbon development path. Sethi pointed out in a panel discussion at the Centre for European Policy Studies that India could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 550 million tonnes in the five years after 2012 if it could find $25 billion to adopt energy-efficient technologies the same amount it spent in the last five years to address social and poverty reduction goals; it did not have the money for both.
So, what developing countries need to do is to demand that the North reduce its emissions more drastically to give the South a little more time to come on board, but more importantly that the North provide all resources needed by the South to delink its emissions from development; development cannot be sacrificed. This they should demand as a matter of right, as the payback of the ecological debt owed to them for the North having used up the Souths share of the carbon dioxide space in the atmosphere. Any other framework that does not factor in equity and justice, even if imposed by the force of circumstances, will not last long the poor of the world will rise and overturn it. Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid, said a Pentagon-commissioned report on climate change, laconically, to the U.S. government. There are many ways a formula can be worked out for countries to share the heavy mitigation burden of the coming decades.
One such was worked out by EcoEquity of the U.S. with support from the Christian Aid and Heinrich Boll Foundation on the basis of what they term as Greenhouse Development Rights. These rights rest on the twin pillars of responsibility (for damaging the environment) and capacity (for shouldering mitigation burden). This, they say, is not based on morality, but on down-to-earth realism. The North cant stabilise the climate without the full commitment of the South, and the South cant make that commitment if doing so would threaten to undermine its development. In practice, this means that a global alliance to stabilise the climate can only arise, and survive, on terms that honour the poor worlds right to development.
Their framework allocates responsibility based on cumulative emissions since 1990 and capacity to all earning above $9,000 in purchasing power parity terms in all countries. A combined indicator that gives 40 per cent weight to responsibility and 60 per cent weight to capacity allocates a 35 per cent share of obligation to pay for all the worlds mitigation and adaptation costs to the U.S. , a 6.9 per cent share to China and a 0.5 per cent share to India. Figures 3 and 4 show how this will work out for the U.S. and China until the year 2025. For the U.S., the green and yellow parts are emission reductions from the business-as-usual scenario that it needs to make internally, while the red part is the emission reduction it should make possible in other countries by paying for them. For China, the green and yellow parts are what it should do at its own cost internally and the red part is the internal emission reduction it should achieve by sourcing funds from the U.S. and other rich countries. The authors of this framework controversially suggest a market mechanism for this exchange of resources.
This is just one example of the principles on which a sharing formula can be based that at least factors in the development rights of the South. On the other side are attempts even to demolish the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing nations enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and accepted by all nations of the world, including the U.S. The ultra conservative The Australian has launched a frontal attack on this Berlin Wall, the North-South divide written into the U.N. convention, as a moral issue, and quotes approvingly the newly elected and much-celebrated for his dramatic ratification of the Kyoto Protocol Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudds call to transcend the old ideological, political and development divide.Farmers in a
The business blockade can be expected to become stronger in the days to come. It is here that civil society in both rich and poor countries has an important role to play. Time is running out on us. The forces ranged against humanity are blinded by their next days Nasdaq. Is change, within the narrow time window, really possible? George Monbiot thinks so and points out that when war came on, people changed very quickly.
But climate change response is much more complex to deal with. The rate of switch to a non-carbon path required is so challenging that existing economic tools will not be able to handle it. The consuming class has to change necessarily its lifestyle to consume less. This knocks at the very root of the existing economic order, spread the world over through globalisation. Real change that can effectively prevent major collision with the environment can come about only when this societal order is changed and the business class is toppled from its pinnacle of power.
Civil society needs to create awareness among people and prepare them for change. If people are prepared and aware, change will come dramatically as events unfold and the neoliberal system stands exposed in all its inadequacies to grapple with climate change.
C.E. Karunakaran is Programme Coordinator at the Centre for Ecology and Rural Development in Puducherry.