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What's The Fuss About?

Omkar Goswami


According to recent reports, India’s climate change negotiators are fulminating at their minister, Jairam Ramesh. How could he, long haired, talkative neophyte, go over their experienced multilateral bargaining heads and convince the Prime Minister that it is in India’s interest to unilaterally reduce carbon intensity in 2020 by 20 to 25 per cent compared to 2005? How could he question India’s hallowed position of per capita emissions and the historical wrongs of the rich? As Sir Humphrey Appleby would have said, “Civil servants determine and execute policy positions. Ministers, who come and go, only need to occasionally own them.” How dare Ramesh upset this scheme of things?

What is India’s long held position? At the risk of a minor caricature, it is thus:

“The US and Europe have been the culprits of CO2 emissions and global warming. In 2003, for instance, the US emitted 19.5 metric tons (mt) of CO2 per capita; the high income countries discharged 12.8 mt; and the developed countries 11.1 mt per person. In contrast, we in India released just 1 mt per person; the developing countries emitted 2.1 mt; and the low income nations even less — a mere 0.8 mt per person. In per capita terms, the US was 19 times worse than us; and most of Europe at least 10 time worse. Today, as we move on to a higher growth path that generates livelihood for our poor, the rich polluters want to limit our growth by imposing harsh CO2 emission caps. Sorry. If you want us to reduce our carbon intensity (the ratio of green house gas emissions to GDP), pay up. Transfer resources and finances, and then we will talk. You have caused the problem; you fix it.”

Great drum beating stuff. You who polluted and warmed the earth must pay for your past sins before lecturing us, the downtrodden. Unfortunately, this non-aligned-G77 posture doesn’t work today. Here’s why.

First, CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions are not per capita problems. These are public good issues. Think of a black smoke belching power plant in a densely populated area. Its per capita emission may not be high; but you can be sure that hundred of kids and the elderly in the vicinity will be suffering from severe bronchial problems. Public good problems cannot be solved by using per capita yardsticks. We — China and India — pollute a great deal and emit huge amounts of greenhouse gas. In 2006, China emitted 6.1 billion mt of CO2, and accounted for 21.5 per cent of total emissions. It was the highest, beating the USA by a fair margin. India, though modest by Chinese standards, was bad enough: 1.5 billion mt, or 5.3 per cent total global emissions.

The fact that we have over a billion people, and that our population grows by 12 million per year, may make our per capita emission look tiny. But it doesn’t make the air over India any better for us, our children and grandchildren. After suffering from years of sore throats, itchy eyes and respiratory ailments, people have are realising that greenhouse gas emissions are public ‘bads’. And that we cannot afford to have our oceans rise; glaciers recede; and suffer from bad air. People want a cleaner environment in reality. Not in obfuscating per capita terms.

Second, our international allies have chosen to reduce their carbon intensities. China has announced a 40-45 per cent cut in emission intensity. Brazil, a 38 per cent cut; Indonesia
a 26 per cent cut. Every sensible country is realising that it can, and must reduce carbon intensity in a unilateral but non-binding manner. To have gone with an old negotiating mindset when our pals had changed the game would have alienated India and given us little room for manoeuvre. This has happened before in other fora. Why yet again?

Third, offering a 20-25 per cent cut by 2020 will put the US — the most recalcitrant developed country — on the back-foot. The EU, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa unilaterally offering generous yet doable non-binding cuts forces the US to get serious about its own CO2 emissions. With the moral authority of the many.

Fourth, there are clear ‘won’t do’s’. Ramesh has categorically said that India will not accept a legally binding emission reduction cut. Moreover, we will not accept any agreement that stipulates an emission peaking year. And if the west insists on international review of our non-binding offer, the process has to be accompanied by financial assistance and technology transfers from the developed world.

India may not have caused the problem of global warming. But shouldn’t it be a part of the solution? Why then are some of us so angry? Because anger is their birthright, and they shall have it. Let them. That too shall pass, like the CO2 belching Ambassador car.


Published: Business World, December 2009


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