All in the same boat

By Chandran Nair

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Global action on climate change is likely only if rich nations halt their demand on the poor, writes Chandran Nair

This century’s challenge is not only understanding that our actions are setting off climatic chain reactions that can lead to catastrophe but also overcoming history of inequality in order to achieve genuine global co-operation.

The International Conference on Climate Change in Hong Kong from Tomorrow until Thursday follows the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that assess the knowledge, analyse the observed changes in human and natural systems, and explore options to ease climate change.

The IPCC will publicise its Fourth Assessment Report. A strong line-up of speakers promises a “call to action” by delegates full of the cool-headed, can-do pragmatism and urgency that people expect the speakers include British scientist and author James Lovelock – credited as the pioneer in developing environmental awareness – British diplomat and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell, and Australian conservationist and explorer Tim Flannery, among others.

The work, to date, of countless people is invaluable, but it is in jeopardy. Years of effort and calls to action have exposed a void: humankind is facing the first truly global problem without the framework and underpinning strong institutions with international oversight necessary to fight it.

Lord Browne, former BP chief executive, argues for an International Carbon Fund to set targets, allocate quotas, monitor and verify action on reductions, and legitimise a worldwide carbon market and currency. It would take the world beyond the Kyoto protocol.

It is a strong call that understands the need for global co-operation on climate change. But it must go further. The reasons for this speak volumes about our dysfunction as a global community.

The link between human activities and climate change is long known, as are the necessary policies that remain absent. Much of the technology needed to reverse the damage has been available for years.

The process has been ransomed and the issues clouded by vested interests, with their sights on short-term profits, and by rich nations fudging figures and playing semantics to win credibility. The alarm has grown helplessly for decades.

Any reasonable person will find it hard to understand why the technology and money are not more widely available. Rich nations are demanding sacrifices of people who are scratching a miserable living. While a growing number is striving to join the global economy as equals, even in booming China almost half the population still struggles on US$2, or less, a day.

Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate, brought into sharp relief for the industrialised world how its actions contribute to sub-Saharans’ suffering “[H]ow much more anxious they might be if they depended on the cycle of Mother Nature to feed their families. … The poor, the vulnerable and the hungry are exposed to the harsh edge of climate change every day … But rain or drought, the result is the same: more hunger and more misery for millions of people living on the margins of global society”.

Maybe delegates this week will call for those rich nations to make their technology available and move beyond their faith in market mechanisms alone.

The developed world needs to accept some harsh truths: It has produced, in the past century, most of the Carbon Dioxide emissions triggering climate change they; their per-capita emissions are, on average, five times those of developing nations, where 2billion people are “energy poor”. Each American uses seven times more energy than a Chinese, and fifteen times that of an Indian.

In the decades ahead, countries such as China, India and Indonesia will contribute a significant share of total emissions, but what practical use is it to force the onus on those not responsible for the accumulated emissions to date and who need the technology most? They are developing their economies, but under current economic norms, can least afford it.

The market mechanisms industrialised nations are pushing – carbon and emissions trading, which they have linked to aid developing countries – may have an impact but are most likely fail at achieving the Carbon dioxide stabilisation levels in the time most scientists say is essential. And without discussion on per-capita emissions, the movement to combat climate change will lack social justice.

Without it, who would blame the developing world for deeply distrusting the West’s intentions in creating market-based solutions? It is understandable that they are resistant in being dictated to and, with their political survival at stake, no government will wait for global complex trading schemes dominated by western players to address climate change and risk dashing their people’s economic aspirations.

Beijing is pressing ahead with its own approach. It fully understands its climate role and Energy efficiency now tops its development agenda, with Premier Wen Jiabao heading a taskforce.

The developing world has responsibilities too. None should lay blame or invoke inequities to defend inaction. But it needs help. Is it unreasonable to ask for an international framework that penalises nations that fail to meet agreed per-capita emissions targets? They could contribute to a global fund to pay for efficient, clean energy or implement measures like forest protection in poor countries for sustainable prosperity.

This discourse is too important to be abandoned to the intellectual dishonesty that has clouded climate change science for years. It must adopt a sense of emergency. The UN Security Council’s decision to debate climate change as a security issue and developing nations objections exposed the divide in finding solutions.

Without intellectual honesty, efforts will stagnate. Cynics would say the debate will stay its course, in spite of the IPCC and others, and that we will be left to adapt like the poor, who are bearing the greatest burden.

But just maybe – for once – we will be jolted into true global co-operation, establish the neededed permanent frameworks and strong, statutory institutions to overcome the challenge of the century.

Chandran Nair is founder and chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, which connects business, public policy and civil society to meet the challenges of globalisation in Asia.