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Sunita Narain: One world of climate and trade

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

Sunita Narain

India has emerged as a "voice" in climate change and trade negotiations. The already industrialised countries say that India is obstinate, strident and unnecessarily obstructionist in crucial global debates. The problem is not that India is loud - this it needs to be. The fact is that, while ecological and economic globalisation are interlinked and irrevocable, there is a fundamental weakness in the overall rules that govern these processes. In other words, political globalisation is weak and compromised because of the self-interest of powerful countries. The problem, in my view, is that India is loud but not clear. It makes noise but does not achieve its stated goal, that is to protect the interest of the poorest in the world.

Let's understand the two processes: it was in the early 1990s that the world first finalised the climate agreement. The Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992 at the Rio Conference. The agreement was needed because economic growth had outstripped the ecological boundaries of the planet. The stock of greenhouse gas emissions was already more that what the earth's natural cleaning system - sinks in the form of oceans, atmosphere, forests and soil - could absorb. The world needed an agreement to reduce emissions that were the result of economic growth. But most importantly, these emissions were no longer the problem of any one country. In fact, what was clear was that the level of production and consumption had reached such a point that what one country did within its boundaries would have a major and devastating impact on other nations.

Now just think: the world had learnt by then that a simple home refrigerator, which used a chemical chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), could literally blow a hole in the global ozone layer and lead to skin cancer. The traces of persistent organic compounds like DDT, a pesticide used for virtually everything at that time, were found in the breast milk of women living in the Arctic region. Ocean currents and air streams knew no national barriers and carried these compounds across the globe. The world was interconnected - it was brought together by the excesses of economic growth.

So it was not good enough for individual countries to set rules to mitigate environmental damage. Countries could not act alone to deal with these challenges. It was time to create new rules and regulations for a global system of environmental governance. Since then the world has stitched up many agreements - the protection of the ozone layer; climate change; management of hazardous waste; elimination of persistent organic pollutants like DDT and in 2013 on mercury use. These agreements together form the architecture for ecological globalisation.

It was also in the 1990s that another global process began: the setting up of the multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organisation. This economic globalisation would take production and consumption to new places and new levels. It would no longer be possible to live within planetary boundaries. Instead, the trading system enjoined all countries to the same pattern of growth and its toxic fallout.

This is where the world is today, some 20 years later. It has changed and yet not changed at all. On the one hand, manufacturing has moved to new countries - and so have greenhouse gas emissions. In 1990, all industrialised countries put together accounted for 70 per cent of the global annual emissions. In 2010, they accounted for 43 per cent. China in 1990, with over a quarter of the world's population, only accounted for 10 per cent of annual emissions; by 2012 it contributed 27 per cent.

On the other hand, there has been no change in the way the world has done business. In the case of agriculture in global trade negotiations, the West has not reduced its obscene subsidies to its farmers. It has simply played games to move them from one box to another - it has renamed them and reworked them. The farmers of the developing world continue to be at a huge disadvantage. Similarly, in climate negotiations, the West has not reduced its emissions, so countries like China occupied the little ecological space that was available. Now the world has run out of atmospheric space and certainly of time.

So the fight is now even more contested and nasty. In climate change negotiations, the West wants to dump the 1992 agreement, which required its nations to reduce emissions and share the atmospheric space with new growth countries. They say the world has changed, and that emerging countries are now their competitors in trade and pollution and so they cannot make any concessions. In agriculture, they want restrictions in the subsidy bill of developing countries. At the Bali WTO meet, the support price paid to poor farmers was considered to distort global trade. The Indian government was evidently vociferous in its opposition. But the final Bali deal on agriculture is ambiguous and could hit poor farmers in the future.

So the question is: is India successful in fighting for the rights of the poor in the world? Or does it make loud noises and end with no real gain? And why?

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First Published: Sun, December 08 2013. 22:49 IST