'Polluters and Beggars' at Climate Change Talks in Doha

Developed countries say that plans to combat climate change won't be effective unless emerging economies like India and China reduce their growing emissions.
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DOHA, Qatar -- During a public event at the United Nations climate change conference in Doha, India's veteran environmentalist Sunita Narain told a senior negotiator from India, "The Indian government should take a principled stand and walk out of the Doha climate talks if equity is not made a part of the deal."

On the same evening, in what is seen as a shift in the United States' position from 2011, its climate envoy Todd Stern told ministers that the "principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities" should be discussed in the talks.

Developing countries hold the historical greenhouse gas emissions of the industrialized world responsible for the climate crisis. For these countries, principles of equity and "common but differentiated responsibility" protect their right to develop now.

But developed countries say that plans to combat climate change won't be effective unless emerging economies like India and China reduce their growing emissions. A post-2020 treaty, which will place all parties under legal obligations, is in the works.

In 2007, China (with 19.91 percent of the world's population) released 22.7 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, the United States (4.55 percent population) released 19.73 percent, the 27 countries of the European Union (7.47 percent population) released 13.76 percent and India (16.99 percent population) released 4.78 percent, according to the 2011 assessment by the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute.

Ms. Narain, head of the Centre of Science and Environment in Delhi, has been an activist at the climate talks since 1991. Time magazine has called her one of the most influential people in the country. The environmentalist discusses equity and why these negotiations are between "polluters and beggars."

Q) You urged the Indian government to walk out if there is no equity. Did you mean it?

A) Of course. It's a very important principle. At the end of the day in climate negotiations, there are two issues. We want ambition and that ambition has to be based on a fair distribution of the common atmospheric space. We need to cut emissions drastically but we also need to decide who will cut and who has the right to development. And those are fundamental issues of climate change negotiations. We have been fighting and discussing these for the past 20 years. And instead of deciding now that we should cop out and let the world have its way, I think India should be bold enough to say we walk out because some things in life are non-negotiable. Equity is non-negotiable.

Q) But the world has changed since these principles were first adopted in 1992?

A) There is no doubt that India and China have grown in terms of their emissions since 1992 when developed countries had the bulk of the emissions. Now, it's 50-50. In fact, developed countries are 43 percent.

Very clearly, the world has changed. But the world has not changed in the fact that the agreement in 1992 was that they [developed countries] would reduce and we [developing countries] would increase. And they never reduced. The commitment that was made to provide space for us to grow was not done.

So you cannot tell the Chinese that oops, we couldn't reduce and now we've run out of space... now you can't grow... so you just have to reduce. That's not acceptable. You cannot freeze inequity.

Q) What do you make of the flexibility in the United States' position on equity just before the talks are set to wrap up?

A) I think it's good that the Americans have looked up the dictionary and found the word equity. Now, the challenge is to operationalize it. But we know that the American definition of equity does not include historical emissions but only future emissions. For us, both are important. But pressure should be maintained on the United States because it's civil society pressure that has worked to change its position.

Q) The old climate regime of developed countries shouldering the burden of tackling climate change is on its way out. India's also agreed to a post-2020 treaty that will bind all nations. Do you think developing countries may have been outwitted in climate negotiations?

A) The rich world is powerful. Come on. They call the shots everywhere. Why do you expect them not to call the shots here? The fact that the developing world has stuck out for the past 20 years is a huge achievement. Which negotiations has the developing world been able to succeed? And today, the poor are fighting the poor for the little crumbs that are being thrown at us. These negotiations have been reduced down to polluters and beggars.

Q) What is India's own responsibility towards cutting its greenhouse gas emissions?

A) I think India has no responsibility at the global level to cut its emissions. But India has a lot of responsibility to avoid emissions for its own interest in India.

Q) Has it been doing so?

A) Not enough, it has to do more. And that's our job as environmentalists to push it to do more.

Q) And how can it do more?

A) Put a tax on diesel cars.

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