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The Fridge, The Greenhouse And The Carbon Sink


new internationalist
issue 230 - April 1992

Illustration by HECTOR CATTOLICA

The fridge, the greenhouse
and the carbon sink
Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain take a swipe at environmental
imperialism and make some radical proposals for change.

The dream of every Chinese to own a refrigerator has become the nightmare of every Northern environmentalist. The fear is that the potential for increased consumption - and therefore pollution - in the South is now the biggest threat facing the world's environment. And so hysteria has built up in the North about even the minuscule resources the South is currently using.

Much less effort has been made in the North to look at things as they actually are in the South. To do that you have to separate out, for example, 'survival emissions' of pollutants by the poor from 'luxury emissions by the rich.

Can we really equate the gas-guzzling, air-polluting automobiles in Europe and North America - or, for that matter, anywhere in the Third World - with the harmful methane emissions of flatulent cattle and the fermenting rice fields of subsistence farmers in West Bengal or Thailand? Do these people not have a right to live? Just what kind of politics or morality is it, masquerading in the name of 'one worldism' and 'high-minded internationalism', that fails to make such crucial distinctions?

Nature serves two major economic functions - as a source of raw materials and as a sink for absorbing wastes. Sustainable development demands that we do not produce more carbon dioxide and methane than the earth's environment can absorb.

The question is, how should this global common - the global carbon dioxide and methane 'sinks' - be shared out? In a world that aspires to such lofty ideals as global justice, equity and sustainability, this vital global common must surely be shared equally, on a per capita basis.

Our calculations clearly show that there is one set of nations in the South that is emitting greenhouse gases well within its share, and another set in the North which is exceeding its limits by leaps and bounds (see below).

Pollution control economists are now talking about the concept of 'tradable emission quotas'. Total quotas should equal the world's natural sinks. Unused permissible emissions could then be sold to high-level greenhouse gas producers at a fixed rate. All over the world there is growing consciousness of 'Green Economics' and the need to incorporate the ecological costs of production into national income and wealth accounts.

But what is the point of doing this in a developing country if the rich and powerful consumers of the world are not prepared to pay the true costs of their consumption? That is not simply an economic issue but an intensely political one.

The same Western politicians who talk so glibly about an interdependent world show no interest at all in the travails of the Third World. For many of them international environmental issues are an easy way to divert attention away from domestic environmental issues.

Given the East-West detente and the growing power of the global market system, Third World politicians cannot afford to negotiate badly, cheaply or in ignorance, forsaking the interests of future generations for some Meryl Streep-like mushy environmentalism beamed by satellite into Indian homes in the name of education.

The Third World has to propose an agenda of its own - to present its own concept of a sustainable future, to win the support, the hearts and minds of green youth across the world, in the Third World as well as the West.

The Western media will fête any Third World politician who speaks on environmental issues as Westerners do and accepts their brand of high-sounding but as yet hypocritical 'one worldism'. There will be TV appearances, newspaper interviews, invitations to conferences, Western-style money, fame and fortune across the globe. It is easy enough to sell out the interests of future generations in the glib name of global environmentalism and global charity. For the poor it will remain a harsh and vicious world which is not prepared to give them a fair place.

Anil Agarwal is director of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, where Sunita Narain also works. They are co-authors of Global Warming in an Unequal World: a Case of Environmental Colonialism, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India.


Saints & sinners

How to work it out
Every year the world pumps about 31,100 million tonnes of carbon and 255 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. The earth's ecological system - its vegetation and its oceans - absorbs just over half the carbon and four fifths of the methane produced. Global warming is caused by over-loading the cleaning ability of this system. Some countries are doing a lot more damage than others - and it is the whole world that will suffer. But environmentalists from the South have come up with a scheme - called 'tradable emissions' - which could inject some justice into this scenario. This is how it would work:

. Each country prepares a budget of greenhouse gas emissions to set against the size of its population and its carbon 'sinks', like vegetation and soil, and the earth's total cleaning capacity.

. Each country's fair share of the oceanic and atmospheric sinks - a common heritage of human-kind - is calculated.

. Each country's permissible emissions are worked out.

. Compensation is paid by those who are over the permitted level to those who are under it.

In 1990 India, for example, had 16.2 per cent of the world's population but contributed just 6.0 per cent of the carbon dioxide and 14.4 per cent of the methane absorbed by the earth's ecological system. By contrast, the US with only 4.73 per cent of the world's population emitted as much as 26 per cent of the carbon dioxide and 20 per cent of the methane.

If the 'tradable emissions' scheme were in place with over-producers paying $15 per 1,000 tonnes of excess, the US would have had to pay $6.3 billion and India would have received $8.3 billion. India could have funded almost its entire education programme for one year with this money. Twenty developing countries would receive about $30 billion.

Industrialized countries together exceed their limit by 2,839 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. These countries also emit large quantities of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which do not get absorbed at all because there is no natural sink for them - the US alone produces 25.8 per cent of the world's CFCs. All such chemicals should be added to the net emissions of individual countries. Developing countries provide space for about 1,459 million tonnes of carbon to be released by developed countries: India, China and Pakistan alone provide two thirds of this space.

The carbon league
[image, unknown]

This chart shows you which countries are producing more than their fair share of carbon emissions ('sinners'), which less ('saints') - and by how much. Brazil comes out worst because of its unique combination of deforestation (reducing the size of its carbon sink), forest burning (increasing its carbon emissions) and heavy industrial pollution. Otherwise, all the worst sinners are Northern industrial countries.

Source: Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain Global Warming in an Unequal World, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1991

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New Internationalist issue 230 magazine cover This article is from the April 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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