The Environment Minister, Ms Jayanthi Natarajan, has reason to feel satisfied with the outcome of the multilateral discussion on climate change, at the recently concluded Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. It has resulted in restoring the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) — a euphemism for placing a higher burden on developed countries in all future global environmental negotiations. This principle, central to the consensus originally evolved in the discussions in Kyoto, Japan, puts the onus for reducing greenhouse gas emissions more on the developed world than the emerging and developing economies. Unfortunately, it got severely undermined in the climate change meets at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011). CBDR basically underscored the fact that developing countries could not be deprived of their right to grow and consume more energy, given their low current per capita income levels; besides, the rich economies of today were not subjected to any such environment or climate-related curbs during their peak development phase. The latest conference at Rio de Janeiro has, in a sense, reversed an insidious process that veered towards ‘equal’ rather than ‘differentiated’ responsibilities, thereby tarring China and India with the same brush as the US and Western European economies.

The above ‘victory’ needs to, however, be tempered by the fact that neither the US President, Mr Barack Obama and the German Chancellor, Ms Angela Merkel, nor British Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, showed up at the Rio+20 meet. The three leaders were obviously distracted by more immediate issues, from the deepening economic crisis in Europe to the US presidential elections later this year. It only points to how the rich world’s problems always receive precedence — one reason why Rio+20 attracted much less attention compared to the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, that helped raise resources for a $456 billion global firewall mainly to bail-out troubled European economies and banks. That said, the Rio meet after all, is a multilateral declaration involving the participation of these nations, even if the top leaders from the Western world had chosen to skip it. It may not have the binding force of a treaty. All the same, there is no denying the moral force of such declarations for an equitable sharing of the burden of arresting climate change. What is, however, regrettable is that the declaration of intent has not, however, been backed by any commitments on financing or transfer of green technologies from developed countries, to make sustainable development an economically viable proposition for their poorer counterparts. With no one to put money on the table, it wasn’t at all surprising that the so-called outcome document from Rio lacked “specificity, clear dates, funding and accountability” — as aptly summarised by the CEO of Unilever, Mr Paul Polman.

Receding global interest should not, however, blind India to environmental concerns, which ought to translate into reduction in the fossil-fuel intensity of growth. It calls for a diversification of the energy basket with a higher proportion of nuclear, hydel and renewable sources; opting for fuel-efficient super-critical boiler technologies in power plants; greater emphasis on public transport and freight movement through rail; rationalising prices of diesel, electricity, water and fertilisers to prevent inefficient consumption; and subsiding low-income households through direct cash transfers. For a country with limited energy resources, these are desirable steps to take – with or without a global emissions treaty.

The Rio+20 meet re-establishes the principle of developed countries being primarily responsible for cleaning up the planet.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 26, 2012)
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