I have been following the run-up to the Climate change meet at Copenhagen, with great interest.  The recent meeting of world leaders at the U.N. has thrown up some interesting points. Most notable has been the inability of the developed world to acknowledge their primary responsibility to resolving the crisis and the reluctance of emerging economies like India and China to commit to any binding commitments without firm and significant commitments first from the developed world. It’s a classic case of who blinks first, and as the days progress this dichotomy of views is going to become more acute. I certainly don’t see any way to bridge this gulf between the two halves of the world, or rather the thirds of the world viz. the haves, the aspirers and the have-nots. The reason for my pessimism is due to the fact that the kind of compromise required to reach some sort of real solution for the climate crisis is not going to be marketable (politically speaking) for any of the leaders involved.

Let’s take the case of the US for instance. The chart below shows the positions for the top 8 carbon emitting countries of the world (taken by total emissions)

Position of top 8 carbon emitting countries

Position of top 8 carbon emitting countries

As can be seen, the US is the world’s second largest polluter closely following China. Makes a case for China also committing to carbon reductions, right? I wouldn’t agree. If you look at the same set of data, but on per capita terms, the results paint a different picture. The US is the largest polluter on per capita terms emitting a whopping 19 tons of Co2 equivalent per person. In comparison, China is a distant 96th on the list emitting about 4 tons per person and India features even lower on the list with about 1+ tons per person.  To put in perspective, the average Indian citizen is able to live by consuming about 1/18th the amount of carbon that the US citizen needs. (Of course, there are several small countries, both developed and developing, that consume even more than the US on per capita terms. For the sake of this discussion involving only large economic powers, however, I will ignore them.)

And here lies the crux of the current deadlock. The US and the rest of the developed world would definitely prefer that the new economies (newly emerging since the Kyoto Accord of 1992) of India and China agree to caps on their emissions before they commit to any caps on their own emissions. Such a move would make emission targets a bit more palatable domestically, as well serve to ensure that their own industries can compete with Chinese and Indian ones on a level playing field (at least as far as energy sources are concerned).

India and China on the other hand contend, quite rightly in my opinion, that they are not responsible for the current state of affairs and that those with “historical responsibility” should act first, as enshrined in the Kyoto accord. In fact, Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna recently said:

We cannot get away from the fundamental fact that unsustainable lifestyles and patterns of production and consumption in the developed world have caused climate change …This cannot continue

India goes as far to suggest that a cap on emissions would mean a cap on development for it.  Given that 200 million people in India still live on under $1 per day and that nearly 500 million have no access to modern energy sources, I think this is a valid argument. Today, fossil fuel based technology represents the best (and maybe fastest and cheapest) possible avenue for the development and poverty alleviation of India’s poor.

China goes a bit further and demands that the industrialized world agree to emission reduction targets of at least 40% by 2020 and also insists that they agree to a donation of 1% of GDP to the world-wide efforts in climate change mitigation in the developing world. Both India and China also state that given their vast populations, it would be impossible for them to ever reach developed country levels of per capita carbon consumption even if they weren’t any caps on them.

When I said that these positions are not politically marketable, here is what I meant. In the case of the US agreeing to a 40% emission reduction target, as suggested by China, the decision would mean a drastic change in the manner in which each American approaches day to day life as well as steep costs for industries switching over to clean energy and methods of production. For starters, consumers may have to pay the real cost of gas as well as pay the real cost for many of the cheap items of daily consumption they use. I seriously doubt that the American public is prepared for that kind of a change especially when it happens in a short time period of under a decade. So I doubt any far reaching climate mitigation measure is ever going to clear Congress.

For India and China, agreeing to caps would mean putting brakes on fast paced development. Given that both India and China have large percentages of population that are young; creating economic opportunities for the masses is of prime importance if they are to prevent the kind of social unrest that comes with rampant unemployment coupled with slow growth.  In addition to this, agreeing to any sort of cap would mean committing political Hara-Kiri of sorts in India. The opposition would have a field day proclaiming how the Indian government is fast becoming a US vassal.

Caught between these two sides, are the have-nots. The underdeveloped continent of Africa for starters is never going to ever claim a significant share of the carbon pie at the current pace of development. Yet they will pay a heavy price. For instance, disease carrying mosquitoes which previously did not live above a certain altitude (the mosquito line) are now venturing higher because of global warming. Cities like Nairobi which were established to be above the mosquito line may have to now contend with increased outbreaks of mosquito borne illnesses like the West Nile Fever and Malaria.  Global warming may also increase the toxicity of Cassava – the staple of 750 million impoverished people in Africa, Asia and Latin America- as well as reduce per crop yields. Rising water levels will also create millions of climate refugees from small islands and low lying coastal areas that become submerged due to global warming. A climate fund, if established in the grandiose manner suggested by China, may help mitigate such problems. However, with the current deadlock, problems for the have-nots may never find a solution.

In many ways with the recent global economic meltdown, we are witnessing the end of an era of high consumption and coming to terms with the fact that compromises are going to be inevitable, if we are to leave behind a habitable planet for the future generations. The current mind-set (as suggested by this interesting blog post by Naresh Jain and the comments and discussion that followed) seems to be one where people consume more than what they need just because they can afford to, as opposed to consuming only what is really needed. Whether we are successful in creating this shift in thinking, is purely dependent on our will to act now, rather than tomorrow. Vaclav Smil, a reality-based energy expert at the University of Manitoba, puts this quite well in this quote from the New York Times Dot Earth blog:

We have the know-how to consume, in rich countries, only half as much [energy] as we do without lowering our REAL quality of life (REAL does not include unlimited SUVs, 15,000 sq. ft. custom-built houses etc, etc), and to provide everybody, even in the most desperate parts of Africa with enough for a decent life. But we prefer to waste enormously, and Africans prefer endless bouts of civil wars. This is not primarily a technical problem…. This is primarily an ethical, moral problem (i.e., we have only one biosphere).

In the end I feel that as a species, we are increasingly hurtling towards the point of no return. Of course, like the mythical peak oil point, no one knows when it will arrive, just that it’s close and at our current pace, inevitable. All we can really do is take solace in the fact that if it does turn out to be too late for the human race, at least our generation won’t have to face the full climate horrors of the future. By then, we’ll be long gone, shadows of the past, fleeting, unsubstantial, mere phantoms in the mists of history.


  1. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (2009, August). Deadlock on Climate Change, IISS Strategic Comments, Volume 15, Issue 6.
  2. Revkin, Andrew C. (2009, February 15). Imagine Everyone Was Equal, in Emissions, The New York Times Dot Earth Blog.
  3. Jain, Naresh (2009, August 27).Annoyed by the amount of energy waste in US, Agilefaqs Blog.
  4. IANS (2009, September 11). Warming turns global poor’s staple into poison, Times of India.
  5. Developing countries and global warming: A bad climate for development. (2009, September 17).The Economist.
  6. Climate refugee. (2009, September 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  7. List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions. (2009, September 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  8. List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita. (2009, September 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  9. List of countries by population. (2009, September 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
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