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Blowing hot and cold in Beijing

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Climate change. Image courtesy UNEPThe science of understanding climate change has long given way, among two big Asian governments, to the politics of nationalism. This was evident in December 2009, even through the rubble of the ruined Copenhagen summit on climate change, and it was just as evident months earlier when both India and China, separately, said that they would not subscribe to any form of emission controls that would jeopardise their economic growth trajectories.

That’s the main act, which the countries of the western world like not at all. In the forefront of the finger-wagging western club are the USA accompanied by Britain and Australia (its ready allies), Germany and France (whose moralising manner and hypocritical practice deserve all the scorn they receive and then some) and sundry others from north America and western Europe. They have charged India and China with sabotaging the Copenhagen talks, and their allegations have turned up anew in a tape recording obtained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

“Secret recordings obtained by Spiegel reveal how China and India prevented an agreement on tackling climate change at the crucial meeting,” said Der Spiegel. “The powerless Europeans were forced to look on as the agreement failed.” The German magazine, whose editorial instincts are about as sophisticated as the Spice Girls’ taste in clothes, lashed its reportage with large helpings of dime-novel suspense. “A hush came over the room. Even the mobile phones stopped ringing. It was Friday, Dec. 18, 2009, at about 4 p.m. That was the moment when the world leaders meeting in Copenhagen abandoned their efforts to save the world.”

India's GHG emissions 2007, in million tons CO2

India's GHG emissions 2007, in million tons CO2

Laboured drama apart, Der Spiegel was only repeating instructions given to a supine western media from the ruling cabals in Berlin, Paris, London and of course Washington. Of course. Blame it on those upstart Asians, whose economic growth and global ambitions now threaten western civilisation. It’s a tiresome re-run of how easily development patronage can become scolding xenophobia. But what really happened at Copenhagen (and its entertaining versions) is only the background to a more interesting opera that has swung merrily on, between New Delhi and Beijing, and with unrelated cameos from scientists and economists, two tribes usually disconnected from one another by both design and inclination.

First, the government of India announced with some fanfare a report, ‘India’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2007’ which is the work of the new Indian Network of Climate Change Assessment. Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for environment and forests, heaped praise on the Network and on India’s climate related ‘achievements’. “More than 80 scientists from 17 institutions across India have contributed to this Assessment,” he said, and added that they did so in “record time” (which is definitely not good from a science point of view).

Climate change. Image courtesy UNEPHe went on: “India has become the first ‘non-Annex I’ (developing) country to publish such updated numbers. We will be the first developing country to do so.” (Some Asian one-upmanship there.) “Interestingly, the emissions of USA and China are almost four times that of India in 2007. It is also noteworthy that the emissions intensity of India’s GDP declined by more than 30% during the period 1994-2007, due to the efforts and policies that we are proactively putting in place.” Ramesh went on in such vein, but the report served to underline India’s basic stance on the subject: no, we will not cap or control our emissions based on your standards and recommendations for as long as we are a developing country.

Second, Jairam went to Beijing. There he became very much more the manager rather than the politician, and made a number of plain-speaking statements. “Chinese do not talk as much as Indians, but Chinese perform better, they do much more. I am full of admiration for the way that China just gets to work, whereas [in] India [we] talk and talk and keep on talking,” he was quoted by Xinhua as saying on May 7. Next, he said that India’s Ministry of Home Affairs should not be paranoid about China and take a “much more relaxed” approach to Chinese investments and remove “needless” restrictions. This won him all sorts of applause from the media in China, but provoked instant ripostes from red-faced and bristling Home ministry mandarins in New Delhi.

Ramesh thereby earned the rare distinction of being praised in the lead editorial of the ‘China Daily‘, which together with the Xinhua news agency (Ramesh gave them an interview) sent out the signal to Chinese media that there was a ‘Copenhagen spirit’, South-South teamwork to counter western powers and a sound model to strengthen India-China friendship. “I see climate change as an opportunity to change the political climate between China and India,” Ramesh had told Xinhua. Typically, as soon as Ramesh returned to New Delhi there were furious outbursts and calls for his resignation, which is a distinctly Indian political pastime, the overuse of which recently resulted in Shashi Tharoor being booted out of his ministerial post.

Third, far more serious and quite unnoticed in New Delhi (although Beijing I’m sure has) was the release of what is quickly being called the ‘Hartwell paper‘, a political economy statement on current climate policy of emissions targets, and an effort funded in part by the London School of Economics. The authoring group says that international agreements on reducing greenhouse gas emissions are doomed to failure and must be replaced by a drive towards low-cost green energy. “The bottom line is that there will be little progress in accelerating the decarbonisation of the global economy until low carbon energy supply becomes reliably cheaper and provides reliability of supply,” says the paper. Which effectively means, the successors to the failed Copenhagen summit are doomed, and we should now pay great attention to the Ramesh doctrine of climate change management.

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