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Clouds Over Global Warming

by by C.E. KarunakaranTamilnadu Science Forum
October 24th, 2002

"I'm not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world's air," declared the US presidential candidate George W. Bush, in October 2000. "Only for poisoning it the most," he might have added, had he wanted to be completely truthful; as truthful as, say, Andrew Kerr of the World Wildlife Fund: "The United States is responsible for almost half of the increase in world carbon dioxide in the past decade. That increase is greater than the increase in China, India, Africa and the whole of Latin America."

This minor fact would not, of course, deter President Bush from complaining that the Kyoto Protocol, the global compact on dealing with global warming "... exempts 80% of the world, including major population centres such as China and India," as he pulled his country out of the Kyoto process, within a few months of taking office. Such repudiation of an international co-operative framework, painstakingly crafted over many years, so angered the world that the French Environment Minister called it a "scandal" and "entirely provocative and irresponsible" and demonstrators everywhere started calling G.W. Bush, "Global Warming Bush" and "Toxic Texan."

The world has reason to be worried. Climate Change is the most serious and most difficult environmental challenge that faces humanity today, and the USA, with just 4% of the world's population, is responsible for 25% of the current global release and close to 35% of the historic release over the last 150 years, of the major pollutant, carbon dioxide (CO2) -- the principal among the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) that cause global warming -- into the atmosphere. An average American emits nearly twice as much of this gas as a European, 18 times as much as an Indian and 100 times as much as a Bangladeshi as he goes about his 'American way of life' -- something that no global treaty will be allowed to interfere with, the senior George Bush, President at the time of Rio, had roundly declared.

The historic Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that grappled with this environmental threat came face to face with the big climate change divide that continues to bedevil discussions to this day - the fact that the developed industrialized countries accounted for 80% of all man-made GHG emissions till that time, to reach their 'luxury' state of development, while the developing world needed to increase their 'survival' emissions in future to achieve economic growth and to reduce poverty. There was no easy way they could close the gap between themselves and the industrial countries without riding on the back of the carbon economy in the medium term.

The focus now is on trading emissions and claiming credits, not on curbing the emissions, which is the real need for environmental safety.


The Conference finally decided - through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)- that the developed countries "should take the lead" by "aiming" to return to the 1990 levels of GHG emissions by year 2000.

The world community met repeatedly thereafter in what were known as Conferences of Parties (CoPs) under the UNFCCC. It was the landmark CoP3 conference that took place in 1997 at Kyoto in Japan that finally decided on binding commitments for the industrial countries to reduce their GHGs; the non-industrial countries were exempt at this first stage. Even this was wobbly because of a major loophole called 'flexibility mechanisms' -- by which industrial countries could trade in emissions with each other and implement emission reduction projects in developing countries, to claim against their own emission targets.

CoP6 at The Hague in November 2000 ended in failure, as the Americans were adamant on whittling down the Kyoto provisions. It re-convened in Bonn in July 2001, but before that, in March, the new American President, George W. Bush, took the US out of the Kyoto process claiming it was 'fatally flawed', as it exempted major third world countries like China and India from emission targets. He said Kyoto would harm the American economy and cast doubt on the science behind the global warming projections, much as the oil lobby was doing.

Fortunately, other countries stayed the course. They were clear on this: time is running out for the earth, only a co-operative international action can avert disaster and complex international agreements like Kyoto take years to conclude; it makes little sense to throw it all away. But with the business lobby chipping away at the European resolve too, the stage was set for further compromises in the meetings at Bonn and later at Marrakesh -- whereby even forestry 'sinks' (which absorb CO2) are allowed to be counted, much against expert advice, and the developing countries roped in through the Clean Development Mechanism projects on their soil to exempt mitigation action by industrial countries.

When the time came for Rio+10 at Johannesburg last August, the US saw to it that Climate Change wasn't even an agenda item and scuttled targets that the European Union and other countries were pushing for the growth of renewable energy. The focus is now on the ratification of the Kyoto protocol by enough countries for it to 'come into force'. This looks likely to happen early next year, despite the US holding 80% vote needed to veto this. Only Australia is on its side, for now.

The per capita carbon emission of the top 10% of the urban population in India was 13 times that of the bottom half of the rural population.


However, the battle has only just been joined. The oil and coal industry, the auto companies and the electric utilities of the world form such a powerful force that the struggle to defeat them on this crucial environmental issue is not going to be easy. (A recent report details how the fossil fuel and other such industries had invested in the Bush-Cheney campaign and their party to the extent of $44m. Vice-President Cheney hails from the oil industry himself and made a fortune when he took over as chief executive of Halliburton, the world's largest oil services company, in 1995. In 1998 he took home $4.4 million in salary and benefits and in 1999 he was paid $1.92 million, according to the company's own financial reports.) But time is running out. A senior scientist of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned: the world has at most 5 to 10 years to start serious action on containing the GHG emissions.

Serious action was not what Kyoto was about. It was to have been just a beginning. Bonn and Marrakesh have made it an even weaker beginning; the real setback is that the industrial countries have shown that they are not yet ready to address the basic issue of changing their pattern of growth. And this is not because of lack of technological choices. Technologies such as renewable energy and hydrogen as auto fuel need only a little more research push to become economical.

The developing countries have been shortchanged in all this jockeying for positions. The IPCC has established that the developing countries are twice as vulnerable as the developed world from an atmospheric warming caused by the latter. (In 1999, the G-7 nations USA, Canada, Germany, UK, Japan, Italy and France with only 12% of the world population, accounted for 42% of the total world carbon emissions, at a per capita level more than five times that of the remaining 88% population.)

The focus now is on trading emissions and claiming credits, not on curbing the emissions, which is the real need for environmental safety. In participating in such an arrangement, the South risks selling away the credit for all its low cost efficiency actions to the North, to be faced with high cost actions in the future period when it has to accept binding targets. According to Down to Earth magazine, credits for coal washing are now being priced at a very low $3 per tonne.

A more insidious development is that the Kyoto targets for the global North, which are based on its current consumption levels, are being turned into 'entitlements' with the obvious implication that the South's 'entitlements', when they are established, will be on the same principle of their current, depressed levels, may be with some small adjustments. It is obvious that the earth can take only so much more CO2 into the atmosphere for safety and this limit would largely be used up by the industrial country 'entitlements' leaving very little to the developing countries when it becomes their turn to take on binding commitments.

The atmosphere, like the air we breathe, belongs to everyone. When it becomes a limited quantity, such as the extent to which it can be polluted, the only enduring basis on which the limitation can be shared is on the principle of an equal share per person on this earth. Any other method that is iniquitous, established on the strength of present power relations, may work for a while, but cannot be sustained for long. It is this realisation that makes several far-sighted statesmen -- including the environment ministers of Denmark, Holland and the UK, Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Chartered Insurance Institute of the UK -- support the strategy of Contraction and Convergence, by which all countries will be allotted entitlements to pollute based on a single per capita allowance. (It was the late Anil Agarwal, who founded the Centre for Science & Environment in Delhi, who first pointed to the need to take into consideration per capita emissions, when he critiqued the Washington-based World Resources Institute's listing of the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluters, a year before the Earth Summit.) If these entitlements are permitted to be traded, the developing countries can get substantial resources -- as a matter of right and not as hand-outs -- to leapfrog into clean technologies for power and transport and for overall development as well, without having to worry about losing their bargaining positions. There would still be the question of the ecological debt by way of the past emissions of the rich countries that would need to be accommodated to maintain equity.

"Our per capita energy use is just one-tenth of that in the United States and one-seventh of that in Europe. Americans drive cars while we ride bicycles; you live in houses while we live in dormitories."

-- Mr. Zhou, China's Energy Research Institute

A sub-text to this argument is that within countries, depressed sections of people have an ecological debt owing to them from the affluent sections and they have a right to claim it. A study by the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research found that, in 1989-90, the per capita carbon emission of the top 10% of the urban population in India was 13 times that of the bottom half of the rural population. It is the poverty-stricken Dalit woman who fetches head loads of shrub from long distances for the day's kitchen fire and her children who pore over their books in kerosene lamp glow, that have saved and continue to save this planet from a worse disaster than it faces now. If the excluded and oppressed sections of third world countries demand their rightful share of equitably distributed CDM funds for their own development, that could lead to a different social dynamic than what these societies are used to at present.

But, for now, the dominant discourse in the dominant country is focused on the 'non-responsible' emissions by the populous developing nations. Green movements in that country are quick to point out to their government that it is these non-Kyoto-accountable countries that are behaving more responsibly than the accountable ones. China, for instance, has reduced its emission by 17% since the mid-1990s, a period when its GDP increased by 36%. Said Mr. Zhou of Chinas Energy Research Institute: "Our per capita energy use is just one-tenth of that in the United States and one-seventh of that in Europe. Americans drive cars while we ride bicycles; you live in houses while we live in dormitories."

So, it is essential that the civil society in developing countries take an active role in pressuring their own governments and in moulding world opinion to move in the direction of a swift 'equal rights for all' solution. This need not be and probably ought not to be limited to advocacy of the equal-rights-to-the-air-above principle; it can extend to the issue of reparations for the past damage caused to the environment. Even as voices are raised now for reparations for slavery and colonialism, just recompense for environmental imperialism is bound to become a major issue several years hence. But raising it now has the advantage of driving home the equal rights message with greater force. In fact, the current environmental intransigence of the US president can be countered by taking him to court for the economic costs of the disasters faced by the poorer countries because of climate change up to US$ 9.5 trillion over the next 2 decades, according to one estimate by development groups. Tiny Pacific island Tuvalu of 11,000 inmates, which expects to be totally lost to the sea within a few decades, plans to sue the US and Australia with help from environmental organizations - for not ratifying Kyoto.

Civil society in the South needs to work closely with the civil society in the North to ensure that the truth about global warming and issues of equity reach the people of both the South and the North, amid the din of vested interest propaganda; for, ultimately, it is the people who will have to prevail over their governments.

Mr. Karunakaran is Climate Change Initiative Coordinator for Tamilnadu Science Forum, Chennai, India.