The Curious Case Of The Global Atmospheric Commons: Equity And The Climate Lock Jam

Posted on December 17, 2011 in Environment

By Meenal Tatpati:

While man has been successful in drawing boundary lines on land and to some extent in the oceans, the atmosphere still remains a global commons. Each country uses it as a “source” of resources (air, to be precise) and as a “sink” for all our “growth” activities, some being as simple as cooking, to massive emissions from thermal power plants and since the latter half of the last century, radioactive material.

As this article is being written, representatives and negotiators from several countries are negotiating the fate of the Kyoto Protocol at Durban, a controversial global treaty that addressed the problem of equity in climate change and green house gas emissions, head on. Ask a student of Environmental Sciences and he will happily testify to the fact that this protocol is the “holy grail” of all competitive examinations, what with it featuring in every question paper. I wonder though, how many of us actually take the time to understand and realize that this Protocol, signed by many, rejected by a few; this “code of atmospheric-emissions conduct” is actually very near to being chucked out of climate talks. It may finally breathe its last after this month’s conference at Durban.

Even though the atmosphere of the earth is a common resource shared by all countries, as a sink, it has been used and abused, historically, by only a few countries. When the problem of climate change came to the forefront in the 1980’s, the major blame of facilitating climate change was with only a few countries of the world. USA, from 1950-2007, was responsible for 26% of the global CO2 (Carbon dioxide; one of the main green house gases that cause climate change) emissions, the entire block of EU countries were responsible for 22%, Russian Federation 9% (Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) Version 8.0. (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2011).

When the climate change conferences began, it was evident that there was a historical responsibility of these developed nations to cut down on their emissions to allow growing economies to emit more and achieve their growth targets. The first such climate conference was held at Rio in 1992, famously called the Earth Summit which created the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). This convention adopted the stance that developed and developing countries had “differential” responsibility towards cutting emissions. This meant that every nation was responsible but the developed countries had to take the onus of cutting their emissions to a greater extent.

As the successive climate conferences came and went, the emission reduction target was never set up. Finally however, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 ended this and set a common emission reduction goal. 5.2% reduction in the emissions at 1990 levels by 2012. However, far from accepting responsibilities, states like the USA never ratified the treaty. Also, by a way of shunning responsibility, the countries that did ratify the Protocol relied on creating a market out of emission space. It devised technologies and institutions like Clean Development Mechanism and Carbon Credits that allow these countries to totally absolve themselves from cutting their domestic emissions while encouraging developing countries to cut their emissions further.

This means that developed countries continue to pollute, while developing countries are made to reduce. Well after Kyoto, the emission levels have not changed. In fact they have increased.

Some argue that the emissions from developing countries too have increased. But how much? They are still miniscule as compared to the mounting carbon debt of developed countries.

At Copenhagen in 2009, the world, browbeaten by a few countries submitted into finishing off these responsibilities. The Accord made way for voluntary emission cuts for all countries. So it seems like the Kyoto will finally be finished off in Durban this year.

Many argue that the way forward is to attain voluntary emission reduction targets. However, the question of Equity remains.

The first lesson is that the main source of environmental destruction in the world is the demand for natural resources generated by the consumption of the rich(whether they are rich nations or rich individuals and groups within nations)…The second is that it is the poor who are affected the most by environmental destruction.

– (Anil Agarwal, 1986)

All climate change conferences that are being held after Copenhagen will continue to dilute this fact.

More than any other country, the small island states are the ones that face an immediate threat from climate change. These include several States like Maldives, Tonga and Singapore to name a few. They are vociferous in their demand and quite rightly so. Increased green house gas emissions threaten their very existence. A 1degree rise in the average global temperature spells a meter rise in global oceans-and this is an opened seal. It will keep rising once it reaches the 1 meter mark. The global temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees. Catastrophe is not far away, like it seemed during the time Kyoto was being framed. These countries are justifiably looking at any emission cut as a good emission cut.

However these countries too have been coerced into accepting whatever little falls in their plate since they are desperate.

The issue of global commons does not require another round of shadowboxing in yet another conference. Has anyone ever thought about the carbon footprint each of these conferences leave in their wake? The time to realize equity has long passed. The First Assessment Report on Climate change by the research body, IPCC which was out in 1990 said that immediate emission cuts of 60-90% were required. We have now come to the end of the Kyoto Commitment period, yet no serious cuts have been made by those who pollute.

However, the problem of equity does not only lie between nations, it also lies within nations. India at present emits about 3% of total CO2 emissions in the world. Here too, the rich emit more than the poor.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar has said, “We must begin by acknowledging that there is a complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane we have an India based on the principles of graded inequality, which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty.”

In our country today, the scenario is such that economic development is neglecting the environmental and social impacts of development. The poorer majority is exploited for their resources and in the process the environment is degraded. Multi corporations leave in their wake a degraded environment and an unhealthy population. Car brands sell petrol guzzling SUV’s in our prosperity hungry country. The indicators of economic growth-consumerism and credit debt in the urban areas are making themselves evident in our country as they have in developed countries. In all economies the problem lies in the fact that economic growth benefits only a certain section of society. The poor are sidelined. So is the environment. Any economy must be analyzed for its cash flow and equal monetary distribution must be given to all stakeholders including the ones who are affected by the economy in terms of resource use and pollution caused by the economy.

The conflict between the poor and the rich over environmental issues, especially climate change stems from the fact that the rich are unwilling to curb their green house gas emissions. Unfortunately in Copenhagen, India advocated this highhandedness of the rich nations by helping in the creation and signing the now famous Copenhagen Accord. The Accord does not give any thought to amount of emissions to be cut down by countries and literally bribes poorer countries by providing bait money for acceptance of the accord.

The Durban conference, as yet, does not seem promising at all.

The truth is that the world stands at crossroads today. The real and present danger is Climate Change. It is going to affect the vast majority of the human race. It is up to us to either curb this crisis through sustained world co-operation or to ignore it and face the wrath of nature.


  1. Who is responsible; Factsheet by Center for Science and Environment, Delhi, 2011