Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Climate Change: Preserve or Perish

By 2009, 180 countries will meet in Copenhagen, under the aegis of UN, to strike a global deal that would help settle the matter of climate change. Hopefully, it would provide the breakthrough for all countries to solve the problem collectively.

Climate change has the potential of shaking the ground beneath our feet and has already shocked the powers that govern us into serious concern. It has got more than 180 countries grappling for a solution and the solution has to be found by 2009 when all these countries meet in Copenhagen under the aegis of UN.

Literally thousands of scientists have collaborated for years. All of them have worked in an unprecedented fashion to comprehend and inform the world how real and calamitous are the risks from increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gasses. They are unequivocal. The threat is as real.

Accumulating greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere can wreak unprecedented havoc with nature. India, with its 8000 kilometres of coastline and 60 per cent of population still dependent on rain-fed agriculture, becomes especially vulnerable to such changes. The world is required to act now. This much we have more or less learnt since the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change - the body with these thousands of acclaimed scientists on board - over the past year submitted its four reports. But what is to be done to solve this overwhelming crisis? With the world going through the decade's worst food crisis and oil prices spiraling towards the $150 a barrel mark fast, the signs are clear. T h e w o r l d has to act decisively. But an i n c o r r e c t and badly judged answer can only deepen the hole humanity has continued to dig for itself since the industrialization era.

The problem began when countries in the west rapidly developed their economies using fossil fuels and spewing out thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year and other harmful gases into the atmosphere. These gases accumulated, trapping heat, changing the world's climate. As economic activity and consumption patterns in these countries heated up so did the atmosphere.

Other countries were slow to follow on the same path. But by the time they had reached an economic level to make the people better off, reduce poverty through economic growth, the carbon pie, if one may call it that, had been eaten up. If the atmosphere is a cake that is to be cut equally between each individual on the planet, the rich countries have eaten more than their fair share. At least, this is what the developing countries, like India, China and Brazil contend. A US citizen, they often cite as example, has twenty times the footprint of an average Indian.

But the developed countries contend that the time to hark on history is past. They also argue that countries like China are fast reaching the same levels of emissions and when looked at as a sum would outpace even some rich countries. They demand that regardless of the historic burden, all large economies must act together and cut their emissions even if they are disproportionate to their per-capita emissions.

If it is a crisis as all scientists tell us it is, then the first instinct is to listen to the latter group. After all, it is not worth harking back to the past when the future is imperiled.

But, there is a hitch. Reducing future emissions and cutting down on existing ones can take a toll on the economy, believe the developing countries. Industrial processes would slow down. Some sectors like steel and power that are yet to reach the best standards would suffer a hit. Worse still, the smaller players in these sectors, unable to afford the new technologies that emit lesser carbon, would suffer the most. With the small sector being the employment generator for developing countries, country's entire economy could take a hit.

While there might be a handful in countries like India that come close to the lifestyle of the rich and famous of the west, a large part of the country still lives if not in abject poverty, then on edge. An edge where only greater economic development can provide social security.

The battle lines are today drawn at this point. The West wants India and China to commit to time bound, supervised emission reductions. India, for its part, is ready to take action at home under purely domestic regulations - it is after all going to help reduce dependence on fuel and save India on the oil import bill. But it wants the west to provide the technologies they already have. In most cases, the West would rather sell these technologies.

Countries like India also demand that the guilty nations provide funds to poorer nations to adapt to what are now the inevitable impacts of climate change. By 2009 all the countries will meet in Copenhagen to hammer out a global deal that should help settle these matters for some decades and provide the breakthrough for all countries to solve this problem collectively. And, equitably. If the world fails its poor and is unable to string together an equitable deal that allows poor countries sustainable economic development, the world might be saved from the perils of climate change but it could get caught in a poverty trap that may leave many of its poor and vulnerable worse off than before.

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