Dec 14, 2009

Copenhagen A lot is at stake

Should the developing world not enjoy the same freedom to grow as the developed world did in its economic infancy?

By Pradeep S Mehta

Copenhagen promises to be a departure from previous rounds of multilateral negotiations, both trade and climate, in many ways. Even before the curtain went up on these talks, the hosts, Denmark did away with any pretence of neutrality. In fact, it is leading the developed country charge on the emerging nations by asking them to accept binding cuts on emissions.

Second, in a certain sense, the talks are retrogressive. Many developed nations, including Denmark, have not kept the promises made at Kyoto and are using these climate talks to dilute their promises even further. While in Kyoto the developed countries took up the right moral stand of bearing the burden of global emission cuts, in Copenhagen they are in a hurry to lighten their load and transfer it to the recently enhanced muscles of China and India and to a lesser extent others such as Brazil and South Africa (BASIC countries).

As mentioned above, the Danes have led the Western charge on the developing world, coming out with a totally partisan draft which they apparently hope to get ratified by all countries. This is a clever exercise in overstating the position of developed countries so as to eventually broker an agreement which is advantageous to the West.

Other strategies are also being used. The small island economies, which are potentially the worst sufferers from climate change, are being employed by rich countries to squeal long and hard so as to trigger disagreement within the G-77 and evoke a panic reaction from leading lights such as China and India. But negotiations are not for the fainthearted and these emerging nations show no signs of acquiescing to the demands of these tiny nations.

Both India and China, the fastest growers among all the emerging economies, are in no mood to agree to binding or even voluntary emission cuts. These countries are dangling a carrot of emission intensity cuts – a reduction in emissions per unit of GDP – which are entirely consistent with approximate doubling of emissions of both countries by 2025, given their current rates of economic growth.

These countries still hold the per capita principle dear, – i.e. developing countries may keep on increasing their emissions and developed countries reducing theirs till the per capita emissions of developed and developing countries are equalised. Till then, any cuts by developing countries in any sector of the economy should be purely voluntary and not subject to monitoring.

If that principle actually comes into play, India should be allowed to increase its total emissions by a factor of ten and China by a factor of three ---- a case of suicidal arithmetic with the playing out of these dreams driving the human race to extinction. This is because of the masses of population concentrated in these countries – India alone has a population which is greater than the sum of Europe and North American populations and China's population still outnumbers even India's by a good 150 million.

Moreover, in the Indian case, economic growth has yet not proved to be the contraceptive that it promises to be. As the country adds an Australia to its population every year, such growth alone would be the source of a large unavoidable increase in emissions.

Clearly, no party is entirely right and no side entirely wrong! There are also weighty value judgements and dilemmas involved: Should the developing world not enjoy the same freedom to grow as the developed world did in its economic infancy? Should a citizen of the developing world not have the same emitting rights as that of her Western counterpart? Do these rights actually gain precedence over human rights of survival?

These questions and counter questions will be played over and over again in a blinding display of rhetoric that Copenhagen is sure to witness. The stakes are huge – each country would try to minimise its contribution to global efforts to save the world. The challenge is to arrive at an outcome which eventually does save it. This is a classic case of cooperation in conflict so poignantly captured by Amartya Sen – the World can be likened to a household in which husband, wife and children come into conflict over the sharing of privileges within it and yet are unified by the objective of protecting its safety and security and enhancing its economic and social status.

A betting man would not gamble over the outcomes at Copenhagen. Writing an article which makes guesses about the final outcomes of these talks is bereft of such monetary risk, though not of error. It is inconceivable that the rich countries, using Denmark as their mouthpiece, will get the emerging nations to accept the burden of 20 percent of global emission cuts. But both China and India might have to walk away with emission intensity cuts which are even higher than the self envisaged reductions of 40-45 percent and 20-25 percent respectively.

Moreover, in doing so economic growth might take a beating in the immediate run. This is both good and bad as emissions would decrease on two counts – a reduction in intensity and a deceleration in growth. However, it is likely that in return for this sacrifice, the dragon and the elephant would be able to force the developed world to relinquish its exclusive hold over the green technologies that it has so far kept close to its chest. The optimist in the writer visualises a win-win scenario in which such transfer of green technologies would reverse the Sino-Indian departure from the path of rapid growth.

In this way, the world would move over the next 50 years to an equilibrium of higher per capita incomes, lower pollution and averted climate change – in welfare terms to a much higher state of bliss. Of course, things can go horribly wrong – the eventual fate would rest on negotiating expertise in optimising the pressure on the accelerators and brakes driving the parleys at Copenhagen. One wrong move and the entire talks might head to a meaningless stalemate which might drive the negotiating nations, and by a leap of imagination, the world to a point of no return.

The author is the Secretary General of CUTS International, a leading policy research and advocacy group with headquarters in Jaipur, India. Siddartha Mitra and Shruti Mittal of CUTS contributed to this article.

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