Questions Copenhagen will not answer

(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-15 07:51
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Two things show how committed the powers that are to fighting climate change and helping the poor countries adapt to it. First, the expenses and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be higher in Copenhagen than say what they would have been if for the climate change conference was held in Casablanca. But those who chose the venue clearly had only their own geographic convenience in mind. It is precisely such a self-centered approach that is leading our planet toward peril.

Questions Copenhagen will not answer

Two, the climate conference is being held on the 25th anniversary of the worst industrial disaster: the Bhopal gas leak. More than 30,000 people were killed when highly toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in the central Indian city on Dec 3,1984. More than 200,000 people suffered permanent damage to internal organs, a list that includes several hundred newborn babies. Although the US headquarters of the company approved the short-circuiting of safety standards that led to the disaster and Warren Anderson, the then head of the company, was the main accused in a criminal case filed in an Indian court, to date none of its employees has been held accountable by the US government or judiciary.

If this is the level of commitment of successive US administrations to bringing those responsible for the worst climate disaster to justice, there seems very little chance that Copenhagen will amount to anything other than another effort to use the excuse of climate to promote non-climate agenda.

What are these agenda? The first is the sale of expensive technologies to developing countries, primarily nuclear energy. A few countries that have developed advanced technology for nuclear power production are hoping for a windfall of several hundred billion dollars in sales of nuclear reactors. Though India has developed such technology, its decision-makers in Copenhagen could commit more than $20 billion to buying nuclear power plants from foreign countries, including the US, a country that has not built a single new nuclear plant in three decades.

India and China both need to spend the bulk of their resources on their own (much lower-cost) technologies, so that the developing countries get the option of choosing lower-cost systems rather than the hyper-expensive ones offered by "climate warriors" in the developed countries. But it is unfortunate that nuclear cooperation between India and China is zero.

Aside from the sales of nuclear power plants and so-called "green technologies" (usually more expensive than other options) another agenda behind the "climate" talks is protectionism. Several governments in the developed world seek to deny their own consumers access to low-cost, high-quality items made in countries such as China, India, Brazil and Vietnam.

Hopefully, the newly formed BASIC "climate alliance" (of Brazil, South Africa India and China) will have the geopolitical clout needed to prevent climate change from being used as a cover for inefficient industrial and other units.

The neo-protectionists should accept that economic logic demands that they take advantage of international economies of scale in order to serve their own consumers better. To hide behind protectionist barriers of false green concern would only delay the inevitable.

But few expect such a message to come out of Copenhagen. The biggest failure of Copenhagen is the continuing refusal of the "climate warriors" to look beyond a "carbon emission" agenda. As Canadian expert Cleo Paskal has said, the contribution of "carbon equivalents" such as methane to climate change could be much more than that of carbon.

Methane is being released from the Arctic and Siberia because of the melting of permafrost. It is also the by-product of raising livestock for food. But since the real agenda of the "climate warriors" is not so much to save the planet as protection of their own privileged position in the global economic order, almost no attention is being paid to the damage caused by carbon equivalents.

All the attention is focused on carbon, and most disproportionately on the emissions of two developing countries, China and India. The fact is that even if both the countries were to stop manufacturing altogether (thus throwing hundreds of million people back into poverty), the planet would still be getting devastated, because of methane leaks from past carbon emissions and other feedback mechanisms such as the near-saturation level of the oceans to absorb carbon. Hence, it is surprising that US President Barack Obama and others are saying next to nothing about the need to measure the totality of GHGs rather than just carbon.

An increase of just 15 percent in the forest cover on the planet would do more to slow down the destruction of the ozone layer than halting fresh industrial emissions by China. Such trees need not be planted only in forests. They can be planted on roadsides or even roof gardens. We need to make the entire planet green, not just the forests. The oceans can be rescued from reaching saturation point (of absorbing carbon) if we help them grow more seaweed. But the "climate warriors" never raise this subject, presumably because there is no high corporate profit to be made from such activities, as opposed to the sale of technologies.

As a political strategist, Mahatma Gandhi suffered some failures. But as an environmental philosopher, he was far ahead of his time, as is shown by his quest for sustainable development and adoption of lifestyles that would protect rather than destroy the planet.

There is a lesson for BASIC countries in what the Mahatma said. They need to make protection of the environment their priority by discovering and developing local solutions, not by importing high-cost technologies. They have to set up alternative climate technology solutions centers, which can provide expertise to other developing countries as well.

People in all the developing countries still have enough traditional and practical knowledge that could be of immense benefit to millions of people across the world. Unfortunately, such knowledge is being ignored in the rush to buy super-expensive technologies from a few advanced countries. Those staying in Copenhagen's expensive hotels and using up vast amounts of energy need to remember what the Mahatma said: Think of the poorest person you have ever met, and ask if what you are suggesting will benefit him.

Copenhagen should not be about protecting the privileges of the rich. The conference should at least now shift its focus to improving the lives of the poor in a way that promotes a multitude of local technologies rather than through corporate monopolies. This is the issue that the BASIC countries need to stick to in Copenhagen.

The author is professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India

(China Daily 12/15/2009 page9)