Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the generally accepted index used in discussions on climate change was the per capita emission of greenhouse gases. With emissions per head that were 10 times India’s, the United States was, therefore, obligated to do more than India when it came to corrective action. That was the basis of the Kyoto Protocol of late 1997, under which the biggest polluters (the rich countries) took on commitments to reduce their emission levels. The US, of course, never ratified the agreement. In the current effort by the rich countries to force India and China to accept caps on their emissions, some western analysts have argued that the per capita yardstick is flawed because the rest of the world cannot be held responsible for the population growth that has taken place in India and China over the past 60 years.
This reflects desperation in western countries to find some fig leaf for dumping their Kyoto commitments, and working out a new basis for emission control and rollbacks. It isn’t much of a fig leaf, because, as one study has demonstrated, the rich countries with 7 per cent of the world’s population have accounted for 29 per cent of the increase in emissions since 1950. In comparison, poor countries with 52 per cent of the population have accounted for only 13 per cent of the increase in emissions. The problem, therefore, is not population growth but growth in consumption — which has seen the biggest increase in the rich countries.
The argument is flawed for another reason, which is that population growth is linked to the stage of development, and every country goes through a demographic transition — linked to improvements in income and health levels that bring down the death rate first and only then the fertility rate. The latest issue of The Economist points out that late-comers like South Korea and Iran have achieved dramatic declines in fertility rates; in fact, South Korea has achieved in 20 years the same demographic transition that took place in Britain over 130 years. As for India, its fertility rate has dropped by about 60 per cent since Independence, and is now only fractionally above the world average — although India’s per capita income is way below the global average (one-eighth, if you take a straight dollar comparison). In other words, blaming India and China for their population growth does not wash.
The argument gets nailed completely if you take not 1950 but a neutral starting date as a reference point, when no country had achieved the demographic transition. That happens to be around 1798, when Robert Thomas Malthus wrote his book warning against population growth. The world’s total population then was just under a billion, and India’s 255 million — or close to 26 per cent of the total. By 1950, this share had dropped to 13.5 per cent (in part, because Pakistan had broken off). Now it is about 17 per cent. At peak (projected to be 1.8 trillion, in a world total of 9 trillion), it may be 20 per cent. Even adding Pakistan and Bangladesh, the sub-continental total is unlikely to exceed by much (if anything) the 1798 level of 26 per cent.
In other words, there is no getting away from the simple equivalence achieved by using the per capita yardstick. And however much the rich countries pretend to be deaf to logic and blind to the facts, the truth is that, at the Copenhagen climate talks in December, New Delhi does not need to go beyond Manmohan Singh’s promise that India will not cross the per capita emission level of the world as a whole.
Jairam Ramesh, are you listening?