Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, July 22, 2005

Stop making the planet history

G8: Climate change - The unpalatable truth is that raising people out of poverty worsens their impact on the earth. There is a potential solution but will the west buy it?

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman Special Issue (July 04 2005)

It's too long to fit on a wristband, but here is the question I want to ask G8 campaigners: will making poverty history also help make the planet history? Don't get me wrong. I'll be there in Edinburgh, marching for trade justice and debt relief, and my commitment to these causes is as genuine, I hope, as anyone's. Yet I worry about a contradiction at the heart of the development agenda - that raising people out of poverty worsens their impact on the planet.

I am not somehow trying to defend a system in which 500 African children die each hour from poverty-related diseases and 115 million children across the developing world are denied a primary-school education. Nor am I romanticising poverty: there is nothing romantic about having to walk six miles every day just to fetch a bucket of dirty water.

The unpalatable truth, however, is that, in ecological terms, poor people tread far more lightly on our planet than do the rich. The reason is simple: a person's planetary impact rises with their level of consumption. Given that poverty is a relative measure of underconsumption, poor people are bound to cause less damage, and this is especially the case for greenhouse-gas emissions. Most of sub-Saharan Africa has per capita emissions between a tenth and a hundredth of the average British citizen's. (More developed South Africa is the exception, with emissions not far behind ours.) Somalia, not a nice place to live by any measure, is the most sustainable country on earth in climate terms: carbon emissions for the average Somali in 1996 were a healthy two kilograms a year. Compare that to Britain's figure of 9,532 kilograms.

So, by helping make poor countries rich, won't we just worsen the overall human impact on the planet? Unless there is a step change in development thinking, the answer is yes - and this process is already under way in rapidly developing countries such as India and China. Both countries have indeed made dramatic progress in poverty reduction. However, if all 1.3 billion Chinese were to achieve US levels of prosperity and consumption, we would need another entire planet. I am not suggesting that Chinese people have less right to material wealth than Americans, merely that we are already running up against the physical limits to growth imposed by our having only one planet to go round.

Last year, the world economy surged at a rate of five percent, pushing consumption of grain, meat, steel and oil to all-time highs - again, thanks largely to China's boom. China's fuel consumption shot up by fifteen percent, and India's by seven percent. Not unrelatedly, last year also brought the largest-ever increase in climate-changing carbon emissions. As the Worldwatch Institute has pointed out: "In terms of scale, it is as if all of Europe, Russia and North and South America were simultaneously to undertake a century's worth of economic development in a few decades".

Development agencies such as Oxfam have very little to do with these kinds of macroeconomic trends. Putting in a standpipe to give a community clean water in rural Tanzania is a long way from buying everyone in Africa a new car. But in our globalising media culture, American lifestyle aspirations have now achieved nearly universal status - and who are we in the rich west to deny others what we already enjoy? Anyone who believes in global justice will agree that a Somali ultimately has just as much right to drive a Range Rover as a Swede. If we succeed in the laudable aim of making poverty history, we will be helping add Africa's 700 million souls to this melting pot of spiralling global demand, a demand we know the earth cannot supply.

That is why it is worrying to see the climate-change agenda playing such distant second fiddle to the development agenda. As Tony Blair seems to have realised, the two need to be considered jointly if they are not to cancel each other out: climate change has the potential to reverse development gains by making large areas of the globe uninhabitable, while development (at least in the conventional sense) has the potential to worsen climate change dramatically. Some aid agencies have begun to wake up to the first part of this equation. Oxfam now recognises explicitly that global warming poses a threat to its entire anti-poverty mission, and a coalition of leading development and environment groups has produced a landmark report specifically timed for the G8 summit, entitled Africa: Up in Smoke?. But the second part of the equation remains largely taboo.

There is a good reason for this. Worrying about Africa's potential contribution to global warming sounds a bit like blaming the poor for a problem almost exclusively created by the rich. Yet this moral stance leads to a political dead end: the US refuses to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions unless developing countries do so, too, while developing countries such as Brazil and India demand that the west act first in recognition of its historical responsibility for a century's worth of emissions.

All this is very gloomy, but there is a way out of the impasse. It is called contraction and convergence, and was first proposed by Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute in London. It is the only proposal I have ever heard that reconciles the climate versus development contradiction while bridging the rich-poor divide. At the proposal's heart lies equity - not because of moral platitudes about fairness, but because equity is the only basis that there can be for a realpolitik deal between rich and poor.

Here is how it works. First the world agrees on a tolerable level of climate change. This target translates into a global emissions budget, which would be parcelled out on an equal, per capita basis across the world. Every Chinese, American and Somali citizen would get the same entitlement, phased in over an agreed convergence period. Permits would be tradeable, so a country wanting to emit more than its fair share of greenhouse gases would be able to buy spare atmospheric capacity from a cleaner nation. This would mean the north buying permits from the south in enormous quantities, depending on the date set for convergence. The resulting capital flows would dwarf global aid and allow the Millennium Development Goals to be achieved through the process of - rather than at the expense of - stabilising the climate. Economic growth could continue for a few decades in the south, at the price of dramatic changes in the north. This is not the end of the story: the infinite expansion of human consumption on a finite planet does not make mathematical, let alone ecological, sense.

Contraction and convergence can begin the process of weaning us off growth by offering an unprecedented global constitutional framework, based on the simple recognition that all human beings are born equal with certain inalienable rights: not just to life and liberty, but also to an equal use of the earth's atmosphere. No one owns the air above us, and not even the strongest military empire can take more than its fair share for long. Nor can we just muddle through, hoping that some future technological breakthrough will let us off the hook.

The technologies already exist for eliminating fossil fuels, but without the right policy environment, oil, coal and gas will continue to dominate. The International Energy Agency predicts that without a huge and sustained policy shift, renewables will still comprise only six percent of global electricity production by 2030. The projection is that most of the new growth in fossil-fuelled energy demand will come from the developing world, so it is clearly vital to ensure that poor countries don't ape the dirty habits of the west. Again, the contraction and convergence framework would give a clear financial incentive for clean development, by allowing countries to sell unused emissions entitlements for hard cash. Small-scale, decentralised solar and biomass power are in any case particularly suitable for poorer countries without centralised grids, and hold the promise of delivering power to the poor cheaply and without any of the drawbacks of fossil fuels.

As increasing numbers of people are realising, climate change is not just another environmental issue: it is one that calls into serious question the very survival of most of humanity and other living species on a habitable planet. Politics-as-usual will not get us through this one. The hopeful sign is that we already hold the political key to survival in our hands. But if we do not make the contraction and convergence deal, we will not survive.

Mark Lynas is the author of High Tide: How Climate Crisis is Engulfing our Planet, published in paperback by Harper Perennial. []

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2005

Bill Totten


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