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Copenhagen: Chronicle of a death foretold

Jan 01, 2010

Copenhagen was worse than a farce. It was a farce and tragedy rolled into one, writes activist Nagraj Adve. It was a tragedy for the commons, for the poor worldwide, for vulnerable and small island nations, for future generations, and for other species which face extinction due to climate change, he adds.

When people half a century from now reflect on this ‘Age of Stupid’, one key question they may ask is: why did political leaders not act with greater urgency at Copenhagen when the writing on the wall was so clear? However, an even more crucial question would be: why was the narrative like a chronicle of a death foretold; why did one know, even before it began, that this 15th Conference of the Parties would end in failure?


Before we address this key question, first, are there any positives to take from Copenhagen, however mild? There is a widespread acceptance, even by dominant powers, that one should not cross the 2 degrees C threshold of average temperature above the Industrial Revolution. Beyond this lies dangerous levels of warming – levels at which ecosystems worldwide will cross tipping points and go well beyond human capacity to control further warming.

However, even this gain is a qualified one. Many scientists now feel that, seeing the severity of current impacts at barely 0.8 degrees above the Industrial Revolution, 2 degrees C as a cut-off is too high.

One of the world’s most respected climatologists, NASA’s James Hansen, has argued that anything higher than 1 degree C from the present – would be unsafe. Then, in a paper published in January 2008, he said that historical palaeoclimatic evidence suggests that to be safe, one would need to bring down CO2 levels from 387 ppm at present to “350 ppm or even lower”.

Some of this needed urgency was reflected in the demand from Tuvalu and a number of other nations at Copenhagen that 1.5 degrees C and not 2 degrees be treated as the danger mark.

To put this in perspective, we already are at 0.8 deg C beyond the Industrial Revolution and because of the lag in ocean water warming up, a further 0.6 deg C is unavoidable. That adds up to 1.4 degrees, and the Earth is currently warming at 0.2 deg C per decade. Basically if we are to avoid crossing 1.5 degrees in the not too distant future, we need to halt all excess emissions beyond Earth’s absorption capacity of 16-17 billion tonnes a year within 5 years!

"Basically if we are to avoid crossing 1.5 degrees in the not too distant future, we need to halt all excess emissions beyond Earth’s absorption capacity of 16-17 billion tonnes a year within 5 years!"

None of this urgency was shown by major nations at Copenhagen, and this is another qualification: whereas they all pay lip service to the 2 degree cut-off, their proposed emission cuts in practice assure us a rise beyond 2 degrees, as one study of existing commitments published in Nature earlier this year revealed. Let me repeat this: all existing promises, even if they are met – and remember, the mild cuts under Kyoto were not, not even close – commit us to dangerous levels of warming.

So, to return to the key question, why was Copenhagen like a chronicle of a death foretold? And why has there been so little progress over a decade and a half in all the 14 COPs that preceded Copenhagen? Because the entire process does not address three key issues that lie at the heart of global warming, without which meaningful progress is impossible: capitalism, class and equity.

Three core issues: Capitalism, class and equity

Unless one understands global warming’s umbilical links with capitalism, one has not even defined the problem correctly, and hence has no hope of dealing with it adequately. It is revealing that in the 8,000 years preceding the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased very little, by barely 20 parts per million (ppm), from about 260 to 280 ppm.

With industrialism, the use of coal in mining and other economic activity, and in factories – and later, the widespread use of oil and gas – meant much higher returns of energy than earlier sources such as wood, biomass, wind, or animal dung. With these intensified energy sources, and under the new and brutal economic system, trade, transport, mining, resource extraction and warfare happened on a scale, speed, geographical reach, intensity and violence unprecedented in human history.

The use of fossil fuels to power these activities has meant that CO2 levels have shot up by more than one-third since the Industrial Revolution, to about 387 ppm. Much of this rise happened in the last 60 years, since World War II.

Things have become really dire over the last 15 years with the spread of industrial capitalism to regions where its entry was limited hitherto, such as in China. Again, this is a clear systemic cause; it happened as manufacturing and services spread to China, and more recently to India, with capital looking for relatively cheap sources of energy (coal) and labour power.

The spread of capitalism in India in the last 20 years has meant – as a direct result of conscious Indian government policy – the explosion of cheap flights, cars, energy-guzzling urban malls, easier imports of elite consumables, cheaper consumer durables, and high-end jobs in banks, IT and other industry and finance capital.

This has been simultaneously a most repressive and energy intensive process: for example, every kilo of aluminium that is processed from alumina which has been mined from bauxite, violently displacing adivasis in western Orissa, consumes hundreds of MW of electrical power.

In India, this happened even as real wages for factory workers stagnated (they actually declined as a proportion of production costs), while returns for agriculture fell for most, while 836 million people, an official report revealed, consume less than Rs 20 a day! Now, at Rs 20 or less daily, one cannot contribute much to global warming, however hard one may try!

So when the government claims that ‘India’s’ per capita emissions, at 1.3 tonnes a year, are too low, they are being too clever by half.

"So when the government claims that ‘India’s’ per capita emissions, at 1.3 tonnes a year, are too low, they are being too clever by half"

Class – the second core issue missing in most debates – is present in the Indian government’s stand only in the most devious way. They have refused to commit to emission cuts saying, if we cap our emissions, how would we provide energy to the poor? Which climate deal stopped them from doing so in the last 62 years?

They gloss over the fact that much of the rise in recent energy use has been directed towards the rich. One instance of this is the recent reported study in Mumbai that air conditioners consume nearly 40% of electrical power in the city, in six lakh homes, offices and malls (Times of India, 23 Dec 2009)!

Even as elite consumption grows, it is the poor, in India and worldwide, who are facing the impacts of climate change the most. Conversations with small and marginal farmers, activists and those impacted from many regions in India, and published scientific literature, suggest that this has been happening in India for past 10-15 years, and no region is immune anymore.

Droughts in Bundelkhand; warmer winters, less snow, shifting of crops and greater incidence of pests in the mid-Himalayas; changing and irregular rainfall all over the country; sea level rise, particularly on the eastern coasts, and many other impacts are already hurting dalits, poor women, agricultural labour, small and marginal farmers, and poor communities all over.

For them, the impacts of climate change are like the proverbial last straw, as they already reel under other prevalent crises, such as the deepening and widening agrarian crisis.

It is one of the tragic ironies of global warming that the poor who face its consequences the most contribute to it the least. In fact, an elementary calculation of equity, in crude mathematical terms, would suggest that the poor are entitled to consume more and emit more.

The Earth has an absorption capacity of 16-17 billion tonnes of CO2 each year. Divided equally among the world’s people, that works out to 2.5 tonnes per person per year. Since this absorption capacity is declining because of warmer oceans, let us put it at 2 tonnes to try to be safe.

But the vast majority in India consume about one-third of this. They have a right to higher emissions but this is only possible by forcing the rich to emit less. If we need to drastically curtail worldwide emissions from the current 35 billion tonnes a year to roughly 16-17 billion tonnes, what the Earth can absorb, the only way to do so is by forcing the rich to consume less.

But equity is not merely for the current underclasses. Equity also needs to be intergenerational; consuming more now will mean future generations will be forced to consume less as we ourselves are being forced to learn the hard way. It also needs to take into account the right of other species to the commons, to the Earth’s space and resources.

Copenhagen was about none of these things. Instead of a deep equity, only equity between nations is proposed (though important) since that evades the trickier question of internal equity between peoples, of urban-rural equity, between regions and communities.

"Copenhagen was about none of these things. Instead of a deep equity, only equity between nations is proposed (though important) since that evades the trickier question of internal equity between peoples, of urban-rural equity, between regions and communities"

Instead of cutting elite consumption, capital and political elites try to foreground efficiency, which has been shown (by the Jevons paradox) to not work. Instead of interrogating capitalism, the issue of global warming is constantly addressed in nation-state terms: the US provisionally proposed a ridiculous 4% cut over 1990 levels (17% over 2005); even something so small is being resisted by US elites unless more is wrested from China.

The Chinese government announced a 40% cut of emissions intensity, i.e. reduced carbon emissions per unit of GDP. But overall their emissions will grow as the economy booms; China has already galloped past the US as the biggest emitter in the world.

The Indian government stand, articulated most recently by environment minister Jairam Ramesh in Parliament, to cut carbon intensity by 20-25% by 2020, is again too little. They are refusing to budge in the name of ‘growth’ and ‘development’ when it is now naked truth that these only benefit the upper middle and elites.

The European Union too watered down its stated commitments. The poverty of the nation-state frame was distilled in Jairam Ramesh’s moronic statement that his brief at Copenhagen was not about saving the planet, but protecting India’s right to development. Why, even some of the critiques since Copenhagen have been couched in nation-state terms: Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, has blamed US President Barack Obama for the failure of Copenhagen, Mark Lynas (the author of the superb book Six Degrees) blames China, and Martin Khor has blamed hosts Denmark.

Realpolitik would suggest that established governments are not about to overthrow capitalism, negate the effects of class or promote equity in any meaningful sense. And while the concerns about global warming have been spreading fast in the last 2-3 years, the movement is not strong enough on the ground to force the issue fast enough. So where does that leave us? Four-five things follow.

One, the world will not be able to avoid crossing dangerous levels of warming. Anyone who has read Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees would have some idea of what a horrific world lies ahead. It means that we have to give greater attention to impacts of climate change, to anticipate them and prepare to cushion their worst effects on the poor. Two key areas to focus on in the Indian context would be water and agriculture.

Two, though greater focus on impacts is needed, mitigation is crucial, as the more CO2 in the air, the worse the impacts. It is a choice between the horrific and the unimaginable. Also, the sooner the cuts the better, since a significant portion of CO2 we emit stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, continuing to cause warming. In mitigation, the focus needs to be on developing public transport, building decentralised and renewable energy systems, questions of distribution, etc.

Three, mitigation needs to be combined with urgent cuts in wasteful consumption by the rich, and the evolution and implementation of policy that enforces this. There is no way we can reach safe levels of emissions just by efficiency, or even by renewables, without simultaneously making the better-off consume less.

Global warming aside, making the rich consume less has other benefits, such as less displacement, less waste generation, less resource use, etc. Having said that, think of what falling consumption in the West has done to migrant workers in export-processing towns and workplaces. How do we do cut elite consumption without in the process harming workers and other livelihoods?

"Making the rich consume less has other benefits, such as less displacement, less waste generation, less resource use, etc."

Four, it is very easy to blame the Obamas and Manmohans for the failure of Copenhagen; they make for obvious targets. The problem is much more diffused. There are millions who buy in to cheap energy, more consumption, and an easy life. Then there are others, who are actually victims of the process, who have also bought uncritically into high growth, and the little employment it generates (who can blame them?). This is something elites realise. And it is not just the elites; uncritical models of development trajectories thrive among sections of the Left as well.

All this makes our targets much more diffused, our problem much more intricate and complicated. There is clearly a need for an alternative, sustainable vision of development. This alternative vision needs to theoretically be able to provide the levels of employment necessary in a vast society such as ours, otherwise it can never be attractive to many.

It needs to have a sustainable agriculture as its starting point, not just because only agriculture can provide the scale of employment needed but also because of food security for the poor. It needs to have an industrialisation and livelihoods strategy that focuses on basic needs and eschews all elite, wasteful production and consumption.

Such a model needs to take into account different regions, ecosystems, climatic zones and traditional agricultural practices. Such an intimate knowledge of what is appropriate for each terrain and ecosystem can’t come from one academic or organisation. It needs numerous organisations working in different regions to come together and evolve a holistic vision for the future.

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