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Global problems call for global collective action and climate change is no exception. The need of hour is statesmanship rather than pursuit of narrow interests

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Image by Mike Smith

The danger posed by global warming is only matched by our blatant disregard of it.  A scan of news headlines demonstrates our preoccupation with short term crises as the planet inexorably heads towards an apocalyptic tipping point caused by unabated emissions of heat trapping (greenhouse) gases, notably carbon dioxide.  Immediate concerns be it the Middle East, Ebola or the Euro, pale into insignificance if one contemplates the magnitude and inevitability of the disaster that awaits us if urgent and immediate action is not taken to slow down and then reverse the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG).  Last year the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated unequivocally global warming was due to human activity especially the burning of fossil fuel such as oil, gas and coal.

Global problems call for global collective action and climate change is no exception.  What we need is statesmanship, not pursuit of narrow national interests as commonly seen in diplomacy. This is especially true of the major world power the United States which earlier in history took the lead in rebuilding Europe after World War II and to establish a world economic order under the Bretton Woods agreement. More recently, it cobbled together a ‘coalition of the willing’ and arm twisted UN to turf out Saddam Hussain and his elusive weapons of mass destruction. Now it leads efforts to combat threats to global order such as ISIS and Ebola. But when it comes to climate change it has not been able to go beyond pious proclamations and band aid actions.

Kishore Mahbubani, a leading global thinker, used a compelling metaphor in a different context that applies to the failure of collective action to address global warming. According to him, earlier countries were like a flotilla of more than a hundred separate boats and all that was needed was a way to keep these from colliding into one another. But today we live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. But this boat has 193 captains and crews, each claiming exclusive responsibility for one cabin! However, it has no captain or crew to take care of the boat as a whole.

At the same the fact that this problem has been caused by the rich industrial nations is indisputable – until the Industrial Revolution in 1800s the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained steady at 280 parts per million (ppm). But from then on it shot up and currently exceeds 400 ppm, a level unprecedented in the last million years. According to the World Meteorological Organization the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2013 was 42% above the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution. The increase of GHGs from human activity has caused the planet to warm by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the preindustrial era, which is causing ice melt, sea level rise, more intense heat waves and greater frequency of cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons.

The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) laid down the principles to inform a global treaty to cut GHGs, namely, equity and “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR) whereby rich countries were to take the lead in addressing climate change given their level of economic development and their historical contribution to the problem.

UNFCCC is the only architecture for negotiating a meaningful and binding treaty to cut GHG emissions. Such a treaty, however, remains elusive even 22 years after the birth of UNFCC. Each year countries meet to discuss and debate a global treaty but this remains an exercise in futility. The 20th such meeting (COP 20) at Lima late last year produced nothing substantive other than a promise by countries to come up with plans to reduce GHG emissions, the so-called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). A plan of course is just that, a plan – there is no legally binding requirement that countries cut their emissions by any particular amount.

More worrying, rich countries particularly the US want to undo UNFCCC and blur its distinction between developed and developing nations along the CBDR principle. In their view emerging economies such as India and China should also cut GHG emissions since they now emit large amounts. This ignores the historical contribution of countries that were early industrialisers since carbon dioxide once released stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Also, the principle of equity embedded in UNFCCC implies there is something very unfair that a country such as the United States with less than 5% of world population should account for 16% of current emissions of GHGs and for almost 30% of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since 1850. Moreover, an average Indian in 2010 emitted less than 2 tonnes of GHGs whereas the average American emitted 23 tonnes. This view also ignores the right of countries such as India to lift its people out of poverty and the right to economic development. For instance, of 1.4 billion people in the world without access to electricity in the world, over 300 million are in India alone. Which democratic government in the world would not seek to remove all dimensions of poverty including energy poverty and in so doing harness its energy resources?

With the so-called world leader unwilling to show statesmanship and trying to pass the buck to countries trying to lift their people out of poverty, our captain-less boat is surely headed for disaster.

Shreekant Gupta is with the Delhi School of Economics and LKY School of Public Policy, Singapore.  Swati Madan is with the Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.  The views expressed by the authors are personal.

A concise version of the article was first published in The Straits Times.

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