Climate Change / GLOBAL EQUITY
For once the Americans seemed to be on the side of the poor. As he took the podium at the UN climate-change conference in Delhi on 31 October 2002, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee might have been surprised – and perhaps even a little unnerved – to see the watching US delegates beaming supportively as he began to speak.
‘Developing countries do not have adequate resources to meet their human needs,’ the Prime Minister told assembled delegates. ‘Climate-change mitigation will bring additional strain to the already-fragile economies of the developing countries and will affect our efforts to achieve higher growth rates to eradicate poverty speedily.’1
After Vajpayee’s speech, the Americans rushed to support the Indian Prime Minister’s view that the South was still too poor to start cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. ‘We do not see targets and time-tables as realistic for developing countries,’ Paula Dobriansky, the head of the American delegation, assured reporters.2
Environmental groups and other observers were left scratching their heads in bemusement. Dobriansky’s statement was the exact opposite of previous US policy on the subject, which had demanded immediate Southern participation in any treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, as far back as 1997 the US Senate had passed a unanimous resolution forbidding the country’s Government from signing up to any agreement that didn’t include developing countries.
So why the abrupt change of heart?
Unfortunately the US position had nothing to do with concerns about poverty and everything to do with backroom politics. The Indian Government’s position – which was supported by other members of the developing-country negotiating bloc known as the ‘G77 and China’ – was a slap in the face for the European Union, which had wanted to start discussions about how the inadequate Kyoto targets could be tightened up in the long-term future. The US was simply trying to widen the split between the EU and the South, and had switched sides to help cement the deadlock.
The North-South row almost sank the Delhi conference altogether and reflected a growing divide in climate negotiations. The big worry for many in the North is that whilst Kyoto mandates a small five-per-cent cut for the industrialized world by 2012, it allows unlimited emissions growth from the South. China and India both have huge coal reserves, and Southern emissions are rising rapidly. Indeed, it has recently been calculated that even if the North stopped all greenhouse-gas emissions tomorrow, Southern emissions alone would be enough to tip the planet into climatic disaster by 2020.3
On the other hand, Southern leaders have long pointed out the glaring inequalities of current emissions – not to mention the ‘environmental debt’ accumulated by the industrialized world, which has got rich on the back of two centuries of fossil-fuel-driven development. What right, they argue, do Europeans (with a per-person average of eight tonnes of CO2 per year) have to lecture Indians (with just one tonne per person) about pollution?
The disparity is greater still between some poorer countries and the rich North: the average Bangladeshi is responsible for 100 times fewer fossil-fuel emissions than the average European. Somali emissions per person are an incredible 4,000 times less than that of Europeans.4 So wouldn’t forcing India, Bangladesh and Somalia to sign up to a global treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions simply set existing inequalities in concrete and prevent the South ever climbing out of poverty?
According to the Indian Prime Minister, it would. But in his speech to the Delhi conference, Vajpayee had already hinted at the solution. ‘We do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per-capita rights to global environmental resources,’ he asserted.5 And it is this proposal – for per-capita rights to the atmosphere – which could contain the seeds of a truly equitable and sustainable global climate treaty.
This last point – the ‘convergence’ – could obviously not be expected to happen immediately given current disparities of wealth and emissions patterns between North and South. Instead, it would take place via a period of adjustment, with the aim of equal per-capita emissions at a fixed date in the future. Throughout the whole process, countries which consumed more than their allocated share would be able to buy unused shares from under-consuming countries: the market flexibility of trading would be essential to ease this transition.
This trading would not only lead to a massive transfer of wealth from North to South as rich countries bought emissions permits from poorer ones, but would also encourage the South to develop along a more sustainable path rather than following the energy-hungry development model of the North. Basic economics, however, demands that trading can only be carried out after property rights to the atmosphere have been established. Current emissions-trading schemes dodge this point by unfairly allowing corporations and rich countries to sell emissions credits to which they have no right. For example, it has been suggested that Britain – which could be on course to overshoot its Kyoto targets – should sell its ‘credits’ to a worse-performing country and pocket the cash: an absurd proposition given that the average British person still consumes 10 times more than the average Indian – and yet Indians would get nothing. For years C&C’s emphasis on equity was seen as hopelessly unrealistic. Aubrey Meyer, the South African-raised musician who originated the C&C concept, was once told by American delegates ‘We won the Cold War. Contraction and Convergence is Communism.’6 Meyer’s response has always been to assert that the equity aspect of C&C ‘is not there for idealistic reasons’. Instead, ‘it is pure pragmatism’ because a per-capita-based system would be the only model to which all the world’s nations would sign up.7 It recognizes the equal right of the South to development whilst at the same time accommodating the demand of the North – and especially the US – that any climate treaty be truly global.
As the mess at the Delhi conference proved, and as many have begun to realize, the only alternative to C&C is likely to be a ‘guesswork’ approach which involves endless horse-trading and short-term treaties which quickly fall apart. Adopting C&C need not mean ditching Kyoto either. Instead, when the Kyoto mandate runs out after 2012, an equity-based regime can be installed as the long-term successor.
Perhaps, in the absence of a firm greenhouse-gas target and a universally-accepted treaty to achieve it, we would all be able to ‘muddle through’ somehow. But then perhaps we wouldn’t, and a divided world would descend into a nightmare of climate-driven chaos and conflict. Contraction and convergence presents the best guarantee that this nightmare scenario never comes about.
See: www.gci.org.uk for more on Contraction and Convergence.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7