18 february 2012

A BASIC issue

In climate change talks, the countries need to think equity differently

Sunita Dubey in The Indian Express, February 18, 2012

Just before the BASIC ministerial meeting on climate change in Delhi this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stressed on "equity" in climate change talks and said economic growth should not harm the environment. Although the BASIC countries — Brazil, South Africa, India and China — are growing, making them a powerful voice in global economy, they still view themselves as victims when it comes to equity in climate change negotiations.

The group went to Durban in December with the usual drumbeats of "equity" and "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR). It essentially translated into this: We are not responsible for the bulk of the emissions. We need to grow our economies and cannot cut emissions.

But do these arguments still work? The fact remains that the carbon emissions of many emerging economies (BASIC particularly) have risen steeply over the last decade due to their fast-paced growth. The larger issue is how to apply or define the principles of equity and CBDR when climate science is calling for urgent and deeper cuts in carbon emissions from every country.

Keeping with the BASIC Plus approach, Qatar (as incoming president of COP-18), Swaziland (as chair of the Africa group of negotiators), Singapore (as a member of the Alliance of Small Island States) and Algeria (as chair of G77 and China) were invited to the Delhi meeting. BASIC wants to strengthen ties with the most vulnerable countries.

In Durban, the BASIC countries were perceived by some as roadblocks in negotiations. The island nations, which are most threatened by rising temperatures and sea levels, supported the EU proposal for a single legally binding treaty with all countries. They questioned the lack of support from Brazil, India and China for deeper cuts and ambitious emissions targets. This finger-pointing, however, shifted focus from real culprits, such as the US which is yet to show leadership on climate change.

Clearly, the BASIC countries need a revised game plan going forward vis-a-vis G77 as well as developed countries.

For one, they have to think equity differently. There is a growing chorus on framing equity and CBDR in a way that accounts for industrialised countries' historical responsibility while exploring low-carbon development trajectories for developing countries. Many argue that growth and development objectives can be met without sacrificing national interests by changing the way we produce and consume.

Bangladeshi climate change expert Saleemul Huq says that equity itself is an old-fashioned idea, which will not work in a new world where the dichotomy of rich and poor countries has vanished. Instead, he says, BASIC countries are equally responsible and must take steps to cut emissions. Meanwhile, some researchers suggest that equity and responsibility for emission reduction should be based on emission profiles of individuals in each country rather than average per capita emissions of countries.

For BASIC countries, action on mitigation should be the new mantra. China is already making progress by reducing the carbon intensity of its economy. Accelerating the deployment of clean and renewable energy and technology has given China an edge, not only over other BASIC countries, but also over other developed nations.

Other BASIC countries are yet to mainstream the climate change agenda into their polices and reap the benefits of a pro-climate development model. For India, environmental co-benefits would mean reducing dependence on fossil fuels, while improving public health.

The BASIC countries should delink poverty alleviation and climate mitigation, and recognise that climate change mitigation will not stifle their development. Poverty alleviation should not be only about increasing income and energy consumption, but also include environmental well being and sustainability.

The BASIC countries could lead other G77 nations by mainstreaming climate change in polices, despite not having binding emission reduction targets. This does not mean that they let developed countries off the hook.

While equity still remains the cornerstone of any future legally binding treaty, it should be based on a principled approach where the BASIC countries' right to develop doesn't impinge on the others' right to survive.

The writer is a coordinator of BASIC South Initiative, express@expressindia.com

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