Who pays the cost?
When the world stands at the verge of collapse due to climatic changes, the developed world should start to be less selfish
Very recently, the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh has created a flutter with a correspondence to the Prime Minister’s Office which supposedly suggests diluting India’s stand
on the Kyoto Protocol on environmental issues. Matters are still murky even as I write this piece, with allegations and rebuttals flying thick from all sides. This piece is not a judgment on the minister’s statement, rather an attempt to understand the whole issue.
Human civilisation has been built on our ability to exploit nature. We are the only animal capable to mould the world according to our needs. Our intellect has enabled us to ‘use’ natural resources in a manner that can enhance our lives. Thereby we have created an ‘artificial’ world and cocooned ourselves in it. Thus we lived for ages, as the resources were seemingly endless. However, every sweet dream has a rude awakening, and we are facing one today!
Despite the much cited ‘lack of awareness’, I believe almost everyone is aware that we are faced with a situation where our activities are taking a toll on the ecological balance of the planet. These activities are those required to maintain our lives, not only in terms of our comfort and lifestyle, but also livelihood. There is a strong economic aspect involved in environmental issues. We may cry about the wanton deforestation, but for those cutting the trees, it is their only form of earning a living! Same applies for all those who are fishing whales and turtles or pit mining ores. All these activities are being engaged in because humankind uses these resources in their daily lives. To stop such activities has two sides to it. Firstly, we have to change our lifestyles, our demands or develop alternatives to natural resources. Secondly, bring it to the mainstream such that those activities can trigger off economic production chain to replace the existing one and address the issue of livelihood as well.
It is not just a lack of awareness, but rather unavailability of alternatives that is the biggest problem. We are worried about the black fumes spewed out of factories veiling the blue skies. No one is more aware of the harm it causes than the hapless workers in those factories who breathe in those fumes daily in their workplaces, and I bet they are not happy about it either. But the question is, if we close down those factories, what happens to economic production? What happens to their livelihoods?
This is much of the basis of the Kyoto Protocol that was formulated. An attempt to bring humankind on a common understanding for controlling environmental damages evolved into a standoff between the developed and the developing countries. The developed countries in Europe and America have reached a certain level of development and economic wellbeing which most others have not. Much of their success lies in the higher levels of industrialisation they have achieved. In that sense, historically, developed nations are more responsible for the damage to the environment than developing nations. However, the question is not only about paying historical debts or score settling (though much of the arguments do tread on
those lines). The point is today they cannot simply ask developing nations to not engage in those activities that they did few years ago (and are in fact still doing) citing ecological concerns and pass off the buck. Most developing nations are
industrially weak, or are in very nascent stages. It is but natural that they engage more in exploiting their natural resources than their developed counterparts today. The developed countries had done the same years ago when there were none to point fingers at them.
The problem is further accentuated when we take into consideration some more serious factors. Developing nations, while being engaged more in primary resource exploitation are net exporters of such resources to the developed world. In that sense, it is really the developed world which is consuming much of these resources! Much of it is actually reflected in the measure of emissions or environmental damages being done even today. It is common knowledge that an average American does more damage to the environment given his/her lifestyle than any other. So, even if we do talk of reducing emissions, there has to be a difference in levels of reduction for different countries.
But more basic is the demand of technology transfer and GDP transfer. 77 countries, along with China (India included), took a position that it was agreed that greener technologies need to be adopted. However, much of technological innovations take place in the developed world. It has been historically so, and thus we are now in a situation where the developed nations have reached such levels of industrialisation that they are capable of improving on existing technologies (with better R&D and overall experiences) to evolve ‘green’ or ‘environment friendly’ means of production. If the world is serious about controlling environmental damages, these technologies must be passed on to the developing nations.
However, as we all know, technologies are priced very high. Patents, intellectual rights etc are some of the means by which the developers of technology safeguard their innovations zealously to earn money out of it. To cite environmental concerns and force greener technologies only to earn handsome profits by selling them to developing nations is simply arm-twisting. To go back to the example of smoke spewing factories; if there is a technology which can ensure such black smokes are not emitted, the workers in these factories do not need to poison themselves daily, then as a developing nation we would be more than happy to adopt it. But it needs to be given to us as buying it is beyond our means. Simply passing of technologies is not sufficient to develop an industry. It requires loads of investment in the form of ‘economic cost’. Bearing such expenses is often impossible for poorer nations.
So the Kyoto Protocol asked the developed nations to give 0.5-1 per cent of their GDP (a nation's earning in plain terms) to developing nations to help them adopt such industrialisation. Without free technological transfer and economic aid to adopt it, asking developing nations to reduce their emissions essentially means raising their cost of production or simply asking them to reduce their economic activities. For countries struggling with poverty, unemployment etc, both such propositions would only raise these problems. The refusal of developed nations to agree on lowering their own emissions unless developing nations reduce theirs is childish bickering at best, and egoist big brotherly weight throwing at worst. The world cannot afford such stupidity anymore.
Any proposal to dilute the Kyoto Protocol is belittling the graver
issue of environment for mean interests. It is meaningless to bend backwards to ‘accommodate’ USA which is the biggest polluter; rather attempts should be made to drag it forward into agreeing to reduce its own emissions.
But what is most disturbing is trying to use the issue of environment as a leverage or bargaining chip to earn other political sops. It is too serious an issue to be treated thus, and the environment minister should be aware of it the most.