Climate Politics : Stress is now on use and distribution, not just scarcity, of natural resources for a transformation

Mukul Sanwal[1]


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has now unequivocally stated that “the evidence suggests that outcomes seen as equitable can lead to more effective [international] cooperation”.


India is an example of the unenviable position developing countries find themselves in. Though it is the world’s fourth largest emitter, its per capita emissions are less than one - fourth of the next two largest emitters and one- sixteenth of the largest emitter, its total emissions are 40 per cent of the world average and it has one-third of the world’s poor, yet it is being pressured to take on commitments to reduce emissions similar to those of the largest emitters. The problem is that while the IPCC has specified the global emissions reductions required, its draft provisions on how the new climate regime will ensure “fairness” in determining and reviewing national actions were vehemently opposed by the developed countries and dropped from the Report.


In this Synthesis Report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that there will be “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and the natural world, to which developing countries will have to adapt; it has recommended “phasing out fossil fuels by the end of the century”, which primarily concerns developed countries whose industrialization, urbanization and lifestyles have been largely responsible for most of the emissions permissible if dangerous climate change is to be avoided; it has suggested that “global emissions need to fall by 40 – 70 per cent by 2050 with multiple pathways to achieve this objective”; and, for the first time, it has given prominence to “ethics and justice” in how countries can cut emissions.


The policy relevance of the scientific advice that there is now a “95 per cent” certainty on the anthropogenic causes of climate change, “cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond”, requiring “substantial and sustained reductions” in emissions of greenhouse gases is primarily for the public and policymakers in industrialized countries. This is because they have not accepted the need to modify longer term trends in the use of energy and shifts in energy systems, have questioned their historical responsibility in causing the problem and are not even discussing economy wide measures in their national legislatures.


For developing countries what is new is that they have to take meaningful action for both reducing the growth of emissions and adapting to the adverse impacts, largely from their own resources. There is also a new a chapter on ‘Social, Economic and Ethical Concepts’, modifying the earlier reliance exclusively on economic analysis of policy alternatives in the guidance to policy-makers.


For all countries, the Report points to the needed transformation. It stresses the importance of “a wide range of analytical approaches for evaluating expected risks and benefits, recognizing the importance of governance, ethical dimensions, equity, value judgments, economic assessments and diverse perceptions and responses to risk and uncertainty….. Behavior, lifestyle and culture have a considerable influence on energy use and associated emissions…. in particular when complementing technological and structural change. Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns, adoption of energy savings measures, dietary change and reduction in food wastes.” Clearly, there will be many pathways and timeframes for the transformation.


The main Reports provide the evidence. Half of the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide from human activity in the period 1750 – 2010 have occurred in the period after 1970; urban areas are responsible for three quarter of these emissions and energy use. In an interdependent world urban dietary patterns have changed with meat production accounting for a quarter of world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and one third of world food production is wasted. The value of world trade in natural resources is a quarter of world merchandise trade and world transport energy use doubled in the last 40 years, and is expected to double again by 2050. Buildings and the transport sector are responsible for about one-third of final energy consumption. In a more equal world the shift from a focus on the symptoms to the causes of the problem also focuses on urban consumers as the drivers of change in all countries.


The question of how societies manage, or do not manage, the imbalance between human wellbeing (private goods) and planetary limits (public goods) forms the central problem for global environmental, climate and sustainability governance. While the need to generate profound changes to production and consumption patterns is broadly acknowledged there is no one best way to realise a climate-friendly, sustainable and just society because the world community has to develop rules to simultaneously modify consumption patterns of some groups, get other groups to pursue more sustainable paths and also ensure the equitable distribution of risks and benefits from the change, while keeping within planetary limits.


The scale and speed of the transformation will depend on China, India and other developing countries taking the intellectual and conceptual lead for a more democratic United Nations, where distribution has so far been kept out of the agenda. Modification of longer term trends at the national level will be enabled, rather than directed, by new global rules to support the transformation, moving away from short-term emission reductions.


The way the problem is now being framed challenges the ‘universalism’ that has dominated the global agenda for a stronger recognition of diversity as a part of the architecture, because there will be different sets of solutions for countries at different levels of industrialization and urbanization, or different levels of economic and social development. Learning from the experience in the WTO, instead of reacting to a universal framework that excludes ‘fairness’, India must take the lead with criteria for the review of national actions in terms of adaptation and a mix of per capita cumulative emissions since 1950 and per capita GDP. This will ensure the interplay of environmental and sustainable development considerations recognized by the IPCC, and the use and distribution, not just scarcity, of natural resources for moving away from short-term thinking to a transformation.


[1] Ex Director UNFCCC


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