Equity, Energy Access, and Global Carbon Space

If you take a look at Global Carbon Budgets and Equity in Climate Change, an extremely interesting and forthright set of papers and reflections compiled by India’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, you’ll see that the “equity debate” is alive and well, at least in the developing world.

Equity, Energy Access, and Global Carbon Space, the paper by Surya Sethi, is particularly interesting. Sethi was for many years a member of India’s climate negotiating team, and while this is no long the case, his views still carry real weight. And what views they are! The fundamental questions of climate justice are neatly listed here. The injustice that would follow from any accord that allows the wealthy to continue to “occupy” more than their fair share of the atmospheric space is quickly explained. A tidy case is made for a regime of dual obligations, one in which the long-time over-polluters of the North are assigned “negative entitlements” that can only be discharged with “signicant actions within their borders and action beyond their borders, with finance and technology.” And, critically, a bit of bile is reserved to excoriate the reality of intra-national injustices within the South, injustices that allow southern elites to “hide behind their poor.”

The really key point, the attractor at the core of Sethi’s arguments, is the necessity of fundamental change. He notes, for example, that

“The incremental primary energy consumption in OECD countries between 2002 and 2007, in absolute terms, was about 2.1 times that in India over the same period. The population of OECD countries is slightly less than that of India. So despite OECDs advanced technological and developmental level and already high income and consumption levels, OECD countries continue to disproportionately increase their consumption of global commercial energy supplies.”

This, as it happens, is a fairly damning passage, and a nice challenge to the easy optimism of the technology-first crowd. In fact, the best way to read Sethi is probably as a radical pessimist.

“No one is forecasting numbers that show that new technologies will allow us to reduce or maintain fossil fuel consumption compared to the 2007 level. To my mind one fail-safe way that addresses development, equity, access and climate change is to redistribute current consumption more equitably. History is replete with revolutions that had this objective as their genesis.”

This sort of view, obviously, is not in line with the “realism” of the post-Copenhagen world. A long story, this, and not one to bring up here. But I will say that this is a view that can only be refuted with actual success, in the negotiations and on the ground. Rhetoric isn’t going to cut it.