Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When being rude is part of the job

Adam Morton 
September 18, 2008

NOT many people can say they have taken on multinationals and won.

Sunita Narain can. In 2006, the director of India's Centre for Science and Environment took on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo - then responsible for 98% of the Indian cola market.

Armed with a contentious report that found high levels of pesticide in cola, she spurred some Indian states to ban the drinks, a decision that drew global headlines.

It was not the first time the diminutive 46-year-old has forced major change. In 2000, she ran a successful campaign for all Delhi public transport - principally buses - to switch from greenhouse-intensive fuel to natural gas. It was the first city in the world to make the change.

It was a bold step that - as Ms Narain points out - has done little to cut India's greenhouse emissions. With rising wealth comes more cars, and Delhi adds another 400,000 vehicles each year.

This is the battle Ms Narain fights daily. It has earned her a reputation for being acerbic and a firebrand.

In Melbourne yesterday as part of a whirlwind Australian speaking tour, she laughs when this is put to her and offers another word - rude. It is, she says, a necessity of the job.

"The fact is we all have to try to make a difference and often have to use every trick that we can to make that difference. Sometimes fighting, but sometimes persuading," she says.

Ms Narain's trip has included a meeting with government climate adviser Ross Garnaut. She told the veteran economist she believed he had erred by recommending the Government accept a target of cutting emissions by 10% by 2020 under an achievable global deal.

The problem, she said, was the failure to emphasise that Australia could cut its emissions by 25% - the minimum target for developed countries recommended by the UN - and not lose its economic strength. "We will have to say that, even if there is (no global deal), we will take a deep cut because we know we can do it without a major impact on the economy."

She believes the responsibility for securing a new climate change deal lies with the US, Canada and Australia, which have argued that developing countries China and India must sign up to binding targets.

Rich nations' work tackling climate change so far, she says, has been "petty and meaningless". Only Germany, Sweden and Britain cut their greenhouse emissions significantly between 1990 and 2005.

"I'd say the developed world hasn't done its bit and is looking for excuses," she says.

"Australia's politics have changed and you have a Government that is prepared to commit to climate change, which is wonderful, but will it change its negotiating position and give up that India and China must go first? What we require is a framework - not lectures and stick."

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