Responding to global warming

Why is climate change on the G8 agenda?

The average global temperature has increased by 0.6 C in the 20th century. Most scientists believe that emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ (GHG) like CO2 (carbon dioxide) and methane, which trap sunlight in the earth’s atmosphere, have contributed to this increase. They also believe that a further increase in the emission of these gases will lead to an increase in the average temperature of the earth of about 1.4 C to 5.8 C by the end of the 21st century. This will lead to dramatic climate change.

Since neither the problem nor its consequences are local, international cooperation, especially between industrial countries that produce most of the CO2, is required to reduce emission of these gases. In June 1992, the UN held the Earth Summit to discuss this. The G8 will discuss it at Gleneagles.

Is it just theory, or is there evidence on global warming?

At one time climate change was a lot of ifs and thens, but now things are much more frighteningly concrete. When the idea of global warming was first proposed by British physicist John Tyndall in 1859, it was more of a speculative scenario. Today there’s enough evidence that the earth is warmer than it was 100 years ago. Direct evidence is available from melting glaciers, thawing permasnow (i.e., melting of snow in areas that were permanently frozen over), and shrinking sea ice.

Why worry?

Anyone below 25 years today could face the consequences of global warming. Humankind has never known such high temperatures. Floods, droughts, the extinction of many species, and a rise in sea-level by about 7 ft, destroying coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai, are some of the possible consequences. The earth now is warmer than it has ever been in 420,000 years. We don’t fully understand what might happen. We don’t know if the heat wave in Orissa is a result of global warming, but we do know that things were never so hot for humankind before. Further, the only opportunity for solving the problem is today. Once deep forces come into play in unleashing further global warming, it won’t be possible to prevent bigger consequences.

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol is a short name for the ‘‘United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’’. The Protocol is an international agreement that sets targets for industrial countries to cut their GHGs by 2012. The gases include carbon dioxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. The US and Australia have not ratified the treaty. Others such as Europe and Japan are committed to reducing their CO2 emissions to a total of 5 per cent below 1990s levels.

What is the American position?

The US, which produces 25 per cent of the world’s CO2, rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Since it is costly to adopt clean technology, the US was worried that its companies would cease to be competitive. The US says it will not commit to reducing CO2 emission. Many see this as a reflection of the influence of big energy companies in the Bush administration. The US has proposed to reduce ‘‘greenhouse gas intensity’’ — the ratio of incremental emissions to incremental GDP. In February 2002, the US set the goal of reducing GHG intensity by 18 per cent. This is not an answer because it does not mean an absolute reduction in CO2 levels.

Ironically, most of the research on global warming has come from the US. The pressure on the international community to act on climate change also came from the US. Lately, despite the opinion of most scientists, the US administration has expressed doubts about the impact of human activity on global warming.

What is Europe’s position?

European countries agreed to be represented at the climate change conventions as a single entity, the EU. The EU has accepted binding emission targets and committed to reduce GHG emissions by 8%. It has distributed its targets among the 15 member states.

What is emissions trading?

The EU has set up a system, effective from Jan 1, 2005, in which 12,000 industrial units have been given carbon emission permits. This covers 40 per cent of EU CO2 emissions. If an industrial unit wants to emit more than its permit, it can buy the permit to produce some extra CO2 at a market-determined price, called the carbon price, from a unit which is producing less CO2 than it is permitted to. If the cost of employing CO2-reducing technology is lower than the cost of the permit to produce extra CO2, every unit has the incentive to employ cleaner technology. CO2 permits are traded in the market. This is an elegant solution because overall emissions are controlled, but the market process is utilised to ensure that emission reductions are obtained from the factories where it is cheapest to reduce emissions.

Is the Kyoto Protocol enough to avert global warming?

It may not be adequate, but it is a start. The EU sees itself as providing moral leadership, so that India and China can later be persuaded to cut emissions. High costs of cleaner technology have encouraged Europe to be lenient towards industry and give generous CO2 emission permissions. The US is not expected to join the Protocol or come closer to a commitment to reduce emissions, even at Gleneagles. In that case the Kyoto Protocol will be far from adequate.

Where does India stand?

Since India is not an industrial nation, it is out of the Kyoto Protocol until 2012. But the importance of India and China as CO2 emitters is rising with economic growth. India will eventually have to address this problem. India’s stance is that the world should agree on per capita emission rights. This is a fair approach because every citizen of the planet will be given an identical ‘‘right’’ to pollute. Emissions trading could then involve Indian citizens selling their emission rights to foreigners who seek to pollute more than their permits entitle them to.

Public opinion outside the US favours India’s stance. It is argued, for instance, in an article in the New Yorker, that supposing the total CO2 emission that can be supported by the atmosphere were a big ice-cream cake, if the aim is to reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, then roughly half the cake has already been consumed, and of that half the lion’s share has been ‘‘polished off’’ by the industrialised world. To insist now that all the countries cut their emissions simultaneously amounts to advocating that industrialised nations be allotted most of the remaining slices, on the ground that they have already gobbled up so much. In one year, the average American produces as much GHG emissions as eighteen Indians. If both the US and India were to reduce emissions proportionately, then the American would continue indefinitely producing GHGs eighteen times that of the Indian. ‘‘But,’’ as Elizabeth Kolbert asks in the New Yorker, ‘‘why should anyone have the right to emit more than anyone else?’

Ila Patnaik

Ila Patnaik