December 9, 2021

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Why we can’t curb global warming by just focusing on carbon emissions

A developing country using coal to pursue the path of development is justifiable and should not be equated with the West’s high carbon emission model just to maintain its luxurious lifestyle

Why we can’t curb global warming by just focusing on carbon emissions

A toxic haze has enveloped Delhi ever since Diwali with authorities in the NCR region making desperate efforts to contain the spiralling air pollution levels.

COP26 has come and gone. It may seem to be just a repetition of what had happened in the past COPs. No wonder there are sceptics who don’t seem to take its outcomes very seriously, claiming how little has been achieved in the past 25 years.

This is true that if a review of the past COPs is assessed, the outcome of these conferences will be highly disappointing. Had that not been the case, global climate would have at least shown some positive signs. There is no country today that is not facing the scourge of flash floods or storms. Look at the Paris Agreement, for instance. Hardly any country has adopted its outcomes in totality, though they all agreed to follow it in principle. All participating nations, by and large, have not been abiding by the principles that are collectively set as norms.

Take the case of global temperature; this keeps on rising despite all the COP meetings. Glaciers across the world have been melting and the rate seems to have doubled in the last two decades. Similar is the case with other natural resources. Many nations came together in COPs and pledged to increase forest cover but to no avail.

By and large, even after 26 COPs, there’s no clear blueprint on how to effectively handle the issue of global warming and how it can be mitigated worldwide. The entire fight among nations seems to be around carbon credit and emission. Finding consensus on coal use is difficult. It is because of resource abundance, technology options and rising demands. China and the United States are the top countries in the world causing huge carbon emissions, while India finds itself at the third position.

The whole discussion in COPs remains centred around carbon points. Due to the carbon obsession of our global leaders, the agenda to cap coal use is imposed uniformly. Here, however, there’s a need to differentiate between necessity and luxury. Carbon emission is caused by two factors — the need for development, and the quest for a luxurious lifestyle.

I believe this differentiated approach is important if we are serious about curbing global warming. For, we cannot compare the usage of coal and the resultant carbon emission in a poor country for development works, while a rich country goes scot-free for adopting lavish, luxurious lifestyles. The developing nations use coal-based industry because they have been left far behind in the march of industrialisation. They have a lot of catching up to do before they should be expected to be judged with a uniform, global parameter.

Western countries don’t have any such excuse for carbon emission. They can’t be pushing this planet on the verge of extinction just to keep their lavish lifestyle intact. Take the case of Scandinavia, where people are raising voices against the soaring price of electricity. It is mainly because electricity in Europe is now generated through gas, to cut the usage of coal. European nations are pointing out that they are bearing high prices of electricity because of a cut in coal usage, while India, China and many other developing countries are consistently using coal. The West needs to realise that poor nations deserve constant coal use for their survival and not for luxurious life status.

Therefore, having carbon emission as the only factor to decide the carbon contribution cannot be ethically accepted. It is high time that the global lifestyle/living standard index should become a factor. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights should seriously contemplate on this issue. A developing country has every right to pursue the path of development and its use of coal should be equated with the West’s usage for high lifestyle maintenance.

The United States, for instance, has 1/5th of India’s population, yet its carbon footprints are the highest in the world, thanks to its high living standards. The US is also known for the highest food wastage. India, which has one-fourth of carbon footprints as compared to the US, has many development challenges to meet. In fact, the global index of living standards should also be placed as an indicator to decide coal use. By this standard, Asian and African nations should be given enough opportunities to make use of any source of energy until they reach the basic standard of living.

The global lifestyle living index may open a new vista to decide the right of coal usage by poor and developing countries; it may also encourage developed countries to put a cap on their carbon use. It has to be on the ethical ground rather than on carbon politics.

The writer is an environmentalist, green activist, and the founder of Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation. The views expressed are personal.​

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