Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The mucky country: we outsource our pollution

Gaurav Gupta

The Age, July 23, 2009

Mumbai, where I live, is an affront to the senses, yet through the filthy living conditions, a resilient social fabric - somehow - thrives. Returning to Sydney is a welcome break from the chaos and makes me feel privileged to have grown up in such a clean, well-functioning environment. But climate change makes me wonder if the privilege is not a burden, or at least a responsibility.

Carbon dioxide is insidious pollution; without odour, taste or colour, it diabolically causes global harm at limited personal cost. In Australia, signs of more than a century of past carbon pollution are everywhere, from the energy-intensive construction and maintenance of heavily concreted and bricked cities to the vast network of roads, bridges and pavements, often serving just a few hundred people. All of it has been possible because of cheap energy from fossil fuels, especially brown coal. Australia is anything but a clean country.

Contrast this with the rubbish-filled streets and open sewers of India. Although confronting, this mismanaged pollution is more honest. It is not hidden in the air and it is not shared with the rest of the world.

India's per person emission of carbon dioxide is between 1/15th and 1/20th of the average in Australia, depending on which data you look at. This comparison is more stark if we look at who contributed to the accumulated CO2 which relies on historical emissions: Britain and the United States followed by the other so-called developed countries. India largely lives with its own pollution; Australia outsources most of its and does not pay a price. But someone is paying.

The countries least responsible for climate change stand to suffer the most because of their geographic locations, industrial structure and limited resources to adapt. A two-degree temperature rise - which most scientists agree is unavoidable - risks anywhere between a fifth and a half of agricultural output in a country such as India, according to United Nations figures. Yet agricultural output in parts of many northern countries, especially the US, Canada and much of Europe, stands to benefit from this initial rise.

At least in this regard, Australia and India are both facing increased droughts that may devastate agriculture. The difference is that 60 per cent of India's population is involved in agricultural activities.

Instead of pushing for a bolder Australian target, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, along with leaders of other developed countries, continues to point to the reluctance of developing countries as an excuse for his own weakness.

The spectre of China and India is raised as a diversion for richer nations' unsustainable appetites. How often I have heard that China is now the greatest emitter of CO2 and India is fifth, and without them it is pointless to do anything.

But both countries are large and their per capita emissions remain low. If India broke apart and formed a union of 20 smaller countries (like Europe), each would have a population equivalent to a European nation yet a 10th of its carbon footprint. Would such a country hold back rich nations from acting?

More than 400 million people in India live in non-electrified dwellings and several hundred million more receive sporadic power. Villagers burn kerosene and biofuels for lighting and cooking which exposes them to dangerous smoke and perpetuates poverty through the huge amount of time spent, mainly by women, sourcing these fuels. The poverty of these people, often mistakenly glorified as simple living, is one of the great carbon sinks of the world.

Australians can drive their large cars because Indian villagers have not filled the atmospheric space with emissions. Don't we all have equal rights to that space? If we do, then the lifestyles of the energy rich are possible by the denial of service to the energy poor.

Developing countries can boldly contain emissions, but not by denying the poor energy. What India can do is contain emissions from the growing class of energy rich who over-consume at the expense of the poor.

Its Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, maintains an Indian commitment to never exceed the average per capita emissions of developed nations. If developed nations bring their emissions down to four tonnes a person by 2030, India will not exceed that amount either. Automatically, it agrees to be as bold as developed nations wish to be.

Yet the Copenhagen debate continues to be painted as evenly poised between rich nations wanting to do more but waiting for the poorer ones to make more commitments. Are India's commitments ignored because the implications are too hard for rich nations politically?

Copenhagen is not just a negotiation between the rich and poor nations, it is a negotiation that nations have to have with themselves. What are Australians willing to give up to meet their environmental obligation to the world?

Are they willing to pay higher taxes to pay for cleaner development in poor countries? Will they pay a tax for the climate adaptation burden being imposed on poor nations today due to their historical emissions?

When Rudd says "we are all in this together", he glosses over the deep inequities of climate change. Australians have enjoyed the benefits of more than a century of untaxed carbon emissions floating into the global atmosphere.

It is time to focus on Australian responsibilities, and develop leadership after decades of it being a laggard.

Gaurav Gupta is the director of The Climate Project - India.

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