The weather out there

The government can truly be proud that it played a big role in the outcome of the recent Berlin climate convention. Its record, however, was not an entirely unbesmirched one. Indian officials, goaded by Indian NGOs, finally agreed in Berlin to support the small island countries" proposal that industrialised nations reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and minimise their negative effect on the global climate. Indian officials were earlier worried that any demand for carbon dioxide reductions by the industrialised countries would, in turn, increase pressure on them to cut down their own emissions.

This change in the Indian position closed the ranks of the developing countries, which were earlier sorrily divided. On one side were the group of small island developing countries, like the Maldives, which are threatened by a sea level rise due to climate changes. They demanded strong action by the industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gases. On the other were the large developing countries like India and China who feared that any opening up of the debate on the reduction of greenhouse gases may ultimately end up building pressure on them which they may not be able to resist. So they opposed, in a blanket manner, the small island countries.

This was obviously a suicidal policy because the underlying premise was that only the small island countries are vulnerable to climate change. India and China are clearly not so weak. India has a coastline of 7,000 km and several islands dotting its territory. Several million people live on the coast and the islands; several other millions survive on agricultural systems based on rainfall patterns. Therefore, any threat of climate change in terms of the number people who can be affected is, perhaps, looms much larger in India than in all the small island countries put together.

There is a dichotomy in the Indian society, where a small gluttonous minority emits almost as much carbon dioxide per capita as the average European; and the agonisingly poor majority is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Faced with this, the government of India was confused about whose interests to protect: they took the easy way out, choosing to protect the interests of the rich minority -- until, of course, it shifted its position in Berlin.

India finally joined the small island countries to demand strong action from industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gases. This step was important because it helps to reduce the negative consequences of the actions of the rich on the economically vulnerable communities. Second, it reserves the right of such communities to increase their energy consumption through the use of fossil fuels to attain a better quality of life.

It is expected that soon there will be an agreement on the total permissible greenhouse gas emissions in the world, which will be less than the levels already reached. So any opportunity for developing countries to increase their emissions will only come provided industrialised countries reduce their emissions.

Still, the agreement reached in Berlin was an agreement between rich and poor countries, not between rich and poor people. Therefore, the treaty may help the developing countries but it does not necessarily help their poor. The current trends are indeed such that the agreement will largely help the rich in developing countries.

This is being ensured through a strategy called Joint Implementation (JI). The industrialised countries said that they would agree to reduce their greenhouse gases if developing countries -- which had earlier opposed it --accepted JI.

Industrialised countries are asking developing countries to give them credits in terms of carbon dioxide emissions in exchange for project funds to buy efficient technologies to reduce the latter"s emissions. This strategy enables them to meet their convention commitments by spending far less. It also ensures that they do not have to change their consumption patterns, and thus their emissions.

Ironically, the industrialised countries here are rejecting a market instrument for a command and control instrument. JI is also, in a sense, a market instrument-like concept, except that it is one which will remain under the command and control of the industrialised countries. They will set the terms on how much they will pay for receiving credits from low-emitting developing countries and how nothing but a concept of tradeable emissions, except it is done under the command and control of the industrialised countries. They have set the terms on how much they will pay for receiving credits from low emitting developing countries and how that payment is going to be made available -- in cash or in kind.

This will, at best, benefit the already rich in the developing world who, in any case, like the Europeans and Americans, need to decrease their emissions. Money and technologies under JI will go to subsidise changes in the existing inefficient manufacturing and energy industry, which mainly benefits the rich. It does not reward the poor in India or China, even though it is the large number of poor in these countries who make them eligible for JI because of their low greenhouse gas emissions.

Therefore, the only fair and just solution is to establish individual entitlements for emitting greenhouse gases once global limits have been set. Once individual entitlements are established, climate change can then be halted by launching an international market in carbon dioxide permits.

Under this programme, each country will be allocated certificates allowing carbon dioxide emissions within a legally established limit based on a fixed population. If the country chooses to reduce its carbon dioxide output by switching to cleaner fuels, it is free to sell its excess allowances to another country that wants to increase its own emissions. And as long as this money compulsorily goes to the poor who emit far less, the system would be fair.

India, which took the lead among large developing countries to ask for stronger action by industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gases also opened the door for JI. It now has the responsibility to protect its economically poor majority. The first and urgent step is to define JI in a way that it will move steadily towards emission-trading based on individual entitlements. Otherwise, a momentum will soon build up amongst vested interests involved in JI activities to establish a carbon credit scheme which will only benefit a few rich in the North and in the South but will completely ignore the poor who have a right to use their environmental space.