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On Our Last Legs

On Our Last Legs

April 2010: If Jairam Ramesh had not kick-started the climate debate in India, we would probably still be sitting around waiting for money to reach us from “rich” countries before embarking on a journey toward climate security. As things stand, we have been slow off the blocks, but at least, thanks to Ramesh, we have officially registered India as a participant in the race to fight climate change.


On March 9, 2010, India agreed to support the Copenhagen Accord. This is a step in the right direction because it places us in a position to influence key polluting countries, particularly the U.S. and China, prior to the next global climate meet due to be held in December in Mexico. It also leaves the door open to India and Indian businessmen to play a leadership role on the carbon and climate front in South Asia.


Credit:Samsul Huda PatgiriBut this hardly indicates that India has either done enough, or is planning to do enough. Our climate policies are still not being treated on par with other “important” issues such as power, irrigation, health and infrastructure; which is a huge mistake. This is because ‘climate’ is the card that will trump all the aforementioned holy grails of India’s development pundits. Climate change not only merits greater attention, but should be the filter through which all plans to reach roti, kapada and makaan to India’s long-suffering aam aadmi and aurat should be viewed. Speaking in Parliament Ramesh said: “The decision to be listed reflects the role India played in giving shape to the Copenhagen Accord.” He then added: “This will strengthen our negotiation position on climate change.” He made it clear however that the key points India has always insisted on stood: 1. The Copenhagen Accord is a political and not a legally binding obligation. 2. The Accord is part of the UNFCCC canvas and not some new ‘third track’ negotiation. Essentially, Ramesh explains, the Copenhagen Accord will help the 190 nations of the world that participated to chart out a path for consensus on the issue of climate change and the actions needed to restrict pre-industrial global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius (3.60F), which all agree (not really all, since 1.50C is the actual figure that might see us survive into the future). No one really understands the twists and turns that politics, development and the environment are likely to take in an era of climate change. However, the key issues that we should be debating in India today must involve the calculators used to fix past, present and future responsibility for climate change. Thus far, for instance, negotiators have been fixated on per capita emissions – India only 1.2 tonnes per annum and the U.S. 19.1 tonnes per annum as on 2007. This insistence created a log jam for negotiations and is one very key reason why the Copenhagen talks failed. “OK we were responsible for the past, but that hardly gives you the right to hold a carbon gun to our heads in the future,” was the sum and substance of industrial nations when India wagged a finger at them about carbon equity. All this is set to change in the months ahead.




A new and dramatically vibrant carbon calculator is under preparation. It involves per capita consumption, which would then be translated into emissions. For instance, if Arcelor-Mittal makes steel in India and then sells it overseas, the carbon emitted during manufacture would be put on the importing country’s tab. Ditto for emissions from meat, rice, fruit and vegetable exports to the Middle East, or tea to the U.K. According to Lord Nicholas Stern, producers and consumers should indeed share responsibility: “If country A produces and sells to country B then both benefit and the responsibility is joint. Currently we bias the story, however, by looking only at production. But past history is relevant too in consuming from the “finite well” which is the capacity of the atmosphere.”


Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman IPCC, concurs, adding: “We must also look at carbon consumption. We need a very realistic carbon calculator that can actually help us to take carbon out of the atmosphere if we are to have any hope of going beyond talk to solve the climate problem.”


All are agreed, of course, that frogs are to climate change what thermometers are to fevers. Nevertheless, the carbon footprint of consuming these frogs, photographed in Nagaland, would, not be listed under France. This is because India banned the export of frog’s legs to France in the 1970s, thanks primarily to the heroic efforts of people like the late Humayun Abdulali. The domestic impact of consuming the frogs, which are literally on their last legs, is another matter altogether.


By Bittu Sahgal


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