Despite the immense tragedy of November 13, the climate conference is going ahead in Paris. Once again we are being told that life and death issues are being discussed and the future of mankind and the planet is in balance. India is expected (by Indians at least if no one else) to play a crucial role in the final agreement.
This is not, however, the first time we have heard dire predictions and tales of “last week to save the world”, etc. Readers of a certain vintage will remember the Club of Rome and its predictions in 1972 about the world running out of resources any time soon. At the same time was the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment 1972.
There was the Brundtland Report “Our Common Future” in 1987 which proposed the concept of sustainable development. In the same year, the Montreal Protocol was signed to ban the use of substances in household appliances which would deplete the ozone layer. This came into effect in 1989 and has been the best example of a global compact which was focused and has proved effective.
The UN Conference at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 brought us Agenda 21. The idea was still about conservation of resources while pursuing development. The mood was optimistic. Globalisation was all the rage and the WTO negotiations were hurrying towards the signing of the Treaty.
Then, during the 1990s, the mood changed to arguing that growth was unlikely to be sustainable because of the dangers of global warming. From the mid-1990s onwards, global warming/climate change became dire warning signals. In one way, it was the fruit of globalisation that the problem was seen as not of the West or East, North or South, but of all. If the Club of Rome was worried about running out of raw materials, now the danger was that growth could proceed unimpeded till life became difficult to sustain due to carbon dioxide emissions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began issuing its forecasts from 1990 onwards. It warned about the emission of greenhouse gases and global warming. Its expert reports have raised controversy, though the majority view gives credibility to its forecasts. The European Union was the first large group of rich countries to take global warming seriously. The Kyoto protocol of 1997 was strict enough in its proposed restrictions on economic behaviour of nations that instead of just uncritical agreement, the whole issue of emission reduction became contentious. The US did not ratify the protocol, though it had participated in its negotiations. China and most of the South stayed out.
Since then, there have been repeated conferences with dire predictions. Copenhagen, Durban and now Paris. There are climate sceptics who deny the positive correlation between growth and global warming. They do not believe in the actuality or near-prospect of global warming. They cite other statistics, take a cyclical non-linear view of how global temperature would develop or just refuse to see the causal connection between economic activity and global warming.
Among those who broadly accept the IPCC analysis, there are two differences which prevent a global agreement. One is the issues of trade-off between growth and environment. Here, China led the field for much of the last decade. Now China seems to have come around. Even the US is more on-board with banning coal and declaring a willingness to announce targets of emission reduction.
India still leads the old South brigade which insists that the priority is growth at least for a while.
Global warming has been caused by the rich countries and poor countries should not be punished for pursuing growth.
Another argument is about the efficacy of slowing down growth as the best way to reduce emissions. Some experts, Bjorn Lomborg for example, have proposed technological solutions which do not require growth slows down.
So, will Paris succeed or go the way of Copenhagen? The real obstacle is that there is no genuine global consensus that global warming is everybody’s problem, and even if it were, that emission reduction via restrictions on economic activity is the responsibility of all. The first proposition is where sceptics part from the credulous. But the second proposition leads to serious problems. In a world of rich and poor countries, there can be no consensus on the degree of trade-off between growth and environment. This is where the search for an effective global compact fails. There is no single global social welfare function. There cannot be, while the trade-off between growth and emission reduction differs across countries.
It could be argued that a global compact is neither necessary nor sufficient. There is no meaning to a global aggregate such as temperature. Climate change is real but local and felt differently in different parts of the globe. Local differentiated action is what will work, not a single global compact.
Paris may fail, but if countries “do their own thing”, we may yet have a future.
The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer