International Affairs — 03 November 2006

Reducing carbon emission is about a lifestyle change in the west but in the developing world it is a matter of life and death. The climate change debate is incredibly western centric. Using growing fears in the west over carbon emissions to take a pot-shot at the relatively recent economic growth in China and India is profoundly disingenuous given that since the industrial revolution the west has been solely responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions in the world today.

The members of the Group of Eight (G-8) – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – make up the industrialised world and together account for about two-thirds of the world’s economic output. Not coincidently, since 1850 North America and Europe have produced 70% of all carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Stern economic climate change review. Industry, power generation and transport are among the biggest generators of carbon emissions world wide – accounting for 70% of green house gases in the EU. Meanwhile, the US with 5% of the world’s population is the world’s single largest polluter in absolute terms and per capita.

What are the ‘fruits’ of the industrialised western world: power literally at the flick of a switch; seemingly limitless selection and variety of household goods and appliances from all corners of the earth; unseasonal exotic foods all year round; the most elaborate disposable packaging to entice sale; decadently cheap flights for short-haul weekend breaks; and the ultimate freedom to drive a gas-guzzler a mere two blocks on the daily school run.

In stark contrast, the lot of the mainly poverty stricken developing world including India and China is: for the fortunate few that are connected to power, daily outages; no hot water let alone running clean water; death by every-day aliments eradicated in the west half a century ago; managing the whole family budget (food, housing, transport, education and heath) on less than $2 a day; no safety-net of a welfare state; and no passport to trouble the expanding market for air travel.

Morally it is highly questionable to look to India and China to curtail carbon emissions when they have only recently begun to lift some of their citizens out of abject poverty. Also, it sends the wrong message to other poor developing countries which need to grow, industrialise and reduce poverty. It is also opportunist as the world is paying the price for mainly past emissions which have hung-around in the earth’s atmosphere for several decades – as the report highlights.

Also, it is questionable whether the west is taking the problem of potentially cataclysmic proportions seriously. Aside from the growing selection of reports on the subject, what has practically been done to reduce carbon emissions? The most notable example is the emission trading scheme, a voluntary, hands-off, free market approach to the problem which excludes key polluting sectors such as air lines, and big polluting countries such as the USA. Indeed since the scheme was launched in January 2005 the value of carbon permits or the cost of polluting has fallen in real terms. With the tool most favoured by Sir Stern to reduce carbon pollution widely said to be in disarray it is difficult to see the west matching deeds to laudable words.

Given the lethal cocktail of capitalist industrial policy of the last 150 years mixed with the western culture of unbridled consumerism, the depletion of the very air that we breathe was predictable. The fall-out will be mostly in the developing world – floods in Bangladesh, migration and food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa. While London and New York can afford to pay to fortify themselves against the impending rising tide, Chittagong and Madagascar can barely afford food for their citizens. A creditable and genuine western stance would be take the lead and consistently reduce carbon emissions over a decade – then western leaders would be taken more seriously in a very serious debate about the future of our planet.

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