| A tsunami survivor on Marina Beach, Chennai, December, 2006
Global warming is no longer merely a future prospect. The latest reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change show that we are already witnessing climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically, those least responsible for causing climate change will be its worst victims.
Human activities have generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases since the dawn of history. But it is only in the Industrial Age, with the ever-expanding consumption of hydrocarbon fuels and the resultant increase in carbon dioxide emissions, that greenhouse gas concentrations have reached levels causing climate change. All inhabitants of our planet have an equal right to the atmosphere, but the industrialized countries have greatly exceeded their fair, per-capita share of the planet’s atmospheric resources and have induced climate change. If all countries had the same per-capita emissions as India, for example, humanity would not have faced a climate-change problem.
Unfortunately, it is the world’s poor who will be the main victims of climate change. In most developing countries, a large proportion of the population is engaged in traditional farming, an occupation that is particularly vulnerable to the changes in temperature, rainfall and extreme weather events associated with climate change. By contrast, in most developed countries, a large majority of the population is engaged in the industrial or services sectors, which are less directly dependent on climate stability.
Moreover, developed countries possess the capital, technological and human resources required for successful adaptation. They will be able to construct embankments to protect coastal areas against sea-level rise and to build dwellings that will not be blown away in a hurricane. Farmers in these countries will be able to switch over to new seeds or plant varieties, new agricultural practices, new crops or even new occupations. They will not lack the financial or knowledge resources needed for investing in, say, patented seeds or drip irrigation and other water conservation measures.
Developing countries will find it much more difficult to adapt to climate change because they lack the requisite resources in terms of capital, technology and knowledge-based skills. It follows that, for low-income countries, the key to a successful response to climate change is accelerated development. Unless they achieve rapid development, these countries will remain woefully lacking in the financial, technological and human resources required for adapting to climate change in coming decades. Accelerated development is essential to ensure that future generations in these countries are able to cope successfully with global warming.
Adapting to climate change can only be a partial solution. The international community must address the problem of mitigating, or limiting, global warming. What role should developing countries play in the international response to mitigate climate change' What is a fair or equitable distribution of responsibilities between industrialized and developing countries in the international response to climate change'
Since the industrialized countries are responsible for causing climate change, equity requires that they should sharply reduce their emissions in order to arrest further climate change and allow other countries access to their fair share of atmospheric resources in order to develop. Moreover, the industrialized countries also possess the financial and technological resources required for an adequate international response to climate change. The role of the industrialized countries should reflect their responsibility for causing climate change and their greater capability for effectively addressing the challenge.
Thus, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol require industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These countries, with the exception of the former Soviet bloc “economies in transition” are also required to transfer financial resources and technology to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation purposes.
This does not mean that the developing countries have no commitments at all. All countries, including developing countries, have accepted a common commitment to implement measures to mitigate climate change. However, developing countries are not expected to divert scarce financial resources from their development priorities. They are only expected to implement measures involving no additional costs, where reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is a co-benefit or by-product of measures primarily intended to promote development priorities such as energy efficiency, energy security or local environmental concerns relating to water or air pollution. Projects involving additional costs are required to be taken up only if the industrialized countries meet these costs.
This is explicitly spelt out in the Framework Convention in words that deserve to be quoted: “The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology, and will fully take into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priority of the developing country Parties.”
The industrialized countries are now pressing for a revision of this basic compact. Skirting around the question of equity and responsibility, they are calling upon developing countries to strike some sort of a balance between development and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The argument runs that industrialized countries will not be able, on their own, to effect reductions in emissions on the scale required to restrict climate change to acceptable limits and it is, therefore, necessary for developing countries to curb their rising greenhouse gas emissions, even if this entails some diversion of scarce resources from their development priorities. This obviously has profound implications for development, poverty eradication, environmental protection and the future welfare of a majority of the world’s population.
T he argument advanced by the industrialized countries is misleading because no one questions the need to moderate emissions originating in the developing countries to the extent this is feasible. The real question is, “Who pays for it'” The Framework Convention lays down that all incremental costs are to be met by the industrialized countries. These countries are now trying to change the compact by shifting at least a part of the burden to the developing countries by imposing mandatory obligations on the latter.
The proposal is not only inequitable but also deeply flawed as a response to climate change. By slowing down economic and social development, it would deal a severe blow at the efforts of poorer countries to build up their medium- and long-term adaptive capacity. Moreover, it would distort the proper environmental priorities of developing countries. In most of these countries, water and air pollution and the lack of proper sanitation pose an environmental challenge that is just as serious as climate change — and much more immediate. While the dire threats of global climate change will appear in coming decades, these local environmental problems are even today taking a heavy toll in human lives and misery. Not surprisingly, they are accorded correspondingly high priority in the development plans of poorer countries. Diversion of scarce resources to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would distort the environmental priorities appropriate to poorer countries. It must be recognized that affluent and poorer countries have different environmental priorities.
Low-income countries should firmly reject any proposal that requires diversion of scarce resources from their economic, social and local environmental priorities. Their development goals must not be sacrificed. Only rapid development can enable them to adapt to climate change with any degree of success.