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Sunita Narain: The poor against the poor on climate

Poor nations have been sparring over emission cuts without realising that the fight is a deliberate creation of rich countries

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

Many years ago, in a desperately poor village in Rajasthan, people decided to plant trees on the land adjoining their pond so that its catchment would be protected. But this land belonged to the revenue department and people were fined for trespass. The issue hit national headlines. The stink made the local administration uncomfortable. They then came up with a brilliant game plan: they allotted the land to a group of equally poor people. In this way, the poor ended up fighting the poor. The local government got away with the deliberate murder of a water body.

I recall this tragic episode as I watch recent developments on climate change. At the recent Durban climate change conference, small island nations – from the Maldives to Grenada – believed, and rightly so, that the world has not delivered on its promise to cut emissions and is jeopardising their future. But they do not have the power to fight the powerful. So, this coalition of climate victims turned against its partner developing countries, targeting India, for instance, for inaction. These nations pushed for India to take legal commitments to reduce emissions, dismissing its concerns of equity as inconsequential.

The divide is complete. Bangladeshi climate change researcher and old friend Saleemul Huq has written arguing the same position. According to him, the issue of equity – the setting of emission targets based on the contribution of each country to the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – is an old-fashioned idea. He says it will not work in the new world where the dichotomy of the rich and poor countries has been replaced by equal and big polluters like China, India, South Africa and Brazil (BASIC). These countries, he says, are equally responsible and must take steps to cut emissions. He wants the notion of historical emissions junked. For him, countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh are victims. India is a polluter, a rich country whose government is hiding behind the poor to avoid cutting emissions.

But the fact is that the Maldives’ per capita emission is higher than India’s. So, should Maldives take mandatory emission reductions? Is it a victim or a polluter? India also has a longer coastline than vulnerable Bangladesh. Is it a polluter? Or an equal victim?

My colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment analysed income distribution and emissions data to see if rich Indians emitted more than their counterparts in rich countries. The study found that the per capita emission of the richest 10 per cent of India’s population was the same as, or slightly less than, the per capita emission of America’s poorest 10 per cent — and it was less than one-tenth the per capita emission of America’s richest 10 per cent. In other words, the rich in India emitted less than even the poorest Americans. This is not to deny that Mukesh Ambani’s enormous house and electricity consumption – reportedly some Rs 75 lakh a month – are distasteful. But it does not take away from the fact that we cannot accept energy and emission apartheid in the world.

Simple plot. Sinister design. The poor have been divided to fight over who is more vulnerable. But one must realise that this divide is a deliberate creation. In 2009 at the Copenhagen conference of parties, two new categories of countries were devised. One, vulnerable countries — these would get fast-track funds to adapt to climate change. Two, emerging polluters — these were grouped under the BASIC banner. The bribe and divide was blatant and successful. It was openly said in the conference plenary that polluting countries like India, which wanted an agreement based on equity, were blocking funds that would flow to Bangladesh and Maldives. That penultimate night of the conference the poor fought the poor. The rich looked on. The divide has grown since then. Emissions of the already rich countries have increased in the past few years. But nobody talks about this.

It’s time we stopped this kindergarten fight. Let us be clear the world has to cut emissions drastically and fast. There must be limits on each country based on its per capita emission and its historical contribution. China is the biggest current emitter. But in cumulative terms – taking into account the stock in the atmosphere accumulated over the years – it contributes 11 per cent against US share of 26 per cent. It must also be brought under limits, as must India. But these limits will have to be based on the principle of equity so that these countries will also have the right to development, but not at the cost of our common future.

This is the most inconvenient of truths. But it is the truth.  

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First Published: Mon, February 13 2012. 00:40 IST