Negotiations have entered the final rounds in Paris to strike the deal of the century to save the world from the ill effects of climate change. The goal is to inspire all the 195 member nations of the United Nations to pledge carbon emission cuts to arrest the global temperature rise within the 2 degree centigrade of the pre-Industrial Revolution level. This will help in avoiding catastrophic changes in climate and their disastrous impact on human civilisation.
During the course of negotiations India and China, large Asian economies, have taken a stand that developed countries should share the bigger responsibility of cleaning up the environment. On the face of it the argument is just and valid. Developed countries have been the major polluters historically and are still the biggest emitters in the world.
The top 10 percent of the population or one billion inhabitants living in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand share 50 percent of the total carbon emitted around the world. While the bottom 3.5 billion people in developing nations contribute only 10 percent of the emissions.
So the insistence on developed countries sharing their responsibility is right and logical. However, this is where the insistence should end. When India and China insist that they will retain the right to develop (read pollute) then the argument starts souring. Right to development as propagated by them still means right to pollute and follow the trajectory of development that was pursued by the developed countries during 19th and 20th century.
These nations should take a hard look on their own development trajectory. The policy planners, opinion builders and the leaders should ask one question, will finances and technology transfer from the developed countries be enough to meet the local adaptation and mitigation goals? Isn’t there a need to rethink their development model? Is it not the time to tread a different path when new technologies, management tools and business options are available?
Take the case of India. Last week while the negotiations were on in Paris heavy rains brought flash floods in a metropolis – Chennai. Negotiators were quick to use it as a tool to launch an emotional plea that we are now suffering the worst impact of climate change. The ill effects are no more a distant threat but a present reality.
The tone and tenor was of a helpless victim at the receiving end of extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change which is the result of centuries of carbon emissions caused by the rich North.
An emotional and slick argument, apt for grand standing except that it’s flawed. Chennai floods, as it is now emerging, are a manmade disaster. Extreme climate events have been happening in the past and will keep happening in the future. But the way in which all the environment considerations were throw to winds, all the rules were flouted in building roads, bridges, airport and in one case an Oceanographic Institute, suggest that it was a handiwork of short-sighted politicians, conniving bureaucrats and greedy developers.
It is true that the rains in late November and early December broke all records for the last 100 years, the reality is when that kind of rain lashed the coastal town 100 years ago the devastation was far less as the natural landscape had the ability to absorb the sudden shock of deluge. However, today things are different. Chennai had 600 water bodies in 1980s. Today only 27 are left. Rest have been degraded or completely usurped by the building mafia.
It is because of callous disregard towards natural drainage that today the city suffers the wrath of the rain gods. Chennai is not alone. Mumbai suffered the same fate 10 years ago for the same reasons.
These are the examples from India. China is no different. The same nexus of power elite, builders and bureaucrats have wrecked havoc on their own land. Close to 1.5 million people were displaced to build Three Gorges Dam. Government spin doctors said that the hydro power plant will meet 7 percent of China’s electricity needs. However, today it only meets 1.7 percent of the needs and is becoming a huge environmental challenge. Cases like these are dime a dozen in China and people’s anger is spilling on the streets, something unheard off till recently.
While pursuing this kind of development paradigm and insisting on polluters pay principle is like the pot calling the kettle black. It is like a new criminal insisting that the older one should be penalised as he is new to the game and should be given his clutch of chances to perpetuate the same crimes and then later society can take a call whether it’s time for the new criminal to undergo jail term or not.
China and India are making two grave errors. One by insisting to follow the same model of development and secondly complicating matters further by subverting policy guidelines, flouting norms and mindlessly breaking every law whether natural or manmade.
India and China should understand a historical truth. When developed nations embarked on their journey of development their populations were small, resources abundant and they had leisure in terms of time to make mistakes and learn from them. With us (India and China) none of these things apply.
Our populations are huge, resources limited and stressed and we don’t have the luxury of centuries to make mistakes. We may crib about this historical unfairness but that’s the reality.
India and China should go deep down within their own indigenous knowledge base and timeless wisdom to evolve a new paradigm of sustainable development. They should tread that path with purpose and integrity, show some concrete results and ten ask the developed countries to pay for their historical responsibility.
It is then the rhetoric will morph into a powerful moral argument, something even the most partisan of negotiators will find hard to turn down.
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