climate justice now

‘Climate justice is an absolute must for effective climate adaptations, globally and within nations’

Source: Times of India, May 2022. An interview with Sunita Narain, Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

How do you define ‘climate justice’?
This is not a moral issue — it is a prerequisite to mitigating climate change. The science shows us how climate change is the result mainly of
emissions of carbon dioxide. This is a very long-lived gas which lasts over 150 to 170 years in the atmosphere. So, what was emitted a century and a half ago still exists in Earth’s atmosphere today. This is the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which is forcing changes in temperatures.

Clearly, we cannot wish away historical emissions — this is a natural debt of many countries. Such carbon dioxide emissions happen because of using fossil fuels, linked to economic growth as we know it. Even today, with the Ukraine crisis, we can see several countries scrambling for more fossil fuels. Such an intensive use of fossil fuels has led to huge prosperity in many countries and caused the problem of climate change for Earth.

Climate justice should be essential to climate adaptation because without an acknowledgement of this, we cannot have truly effective agreements. Large regions have emitted and developed but our data shows 70% of the world still needs the right to grow.

As these countries develop, they will also emit and add to greenhouse gas emissions, further jeopardising the situation. Unless we make climate justice a bedrock of climate action, we can’t have effective agreements, accompanied by financial transfers, technology sharing and measures to enable countries to grow economically without pollution.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was based on this principle — it agreed that rich nations would reduce emissions while the poor could develop with access to money and technology for clean growth. But since then, the rich world has mostly undermined the principles of climate justice. The final blow came in Paris in 2015 when the Agreement shed the term ‘historical emissions’ and dropped the responsibility of the developed world to take on emission reductions. That is why we are confronting an existential threat to Earth today.

Is the idea of climate justice relevant within nations too?
The CSE had developed a framework based on per capita emissions entitlements where we argued the world should move forward based on each person’s fair share of the atmospheric space. We developed the same principles intra-country — welloff people, such as affluent Indians, also overuse our own share of the ecological space.

When we talk about climate justice, we must acknowledge how it is the poor in the world, including in India, who really need the right to develop. But because we don’t have a global agreement based on fair climate shares in the world, we don’t talk about this in an intra-country context, whether it’s Africa or India. We all need to find ways of living within our fair share of nature.

Can you tell us about your work on a ‘commons’ and ‘subsistence emissions’?
Anil Agarwal and I began working on climate change in 1990-91. We had just returned from a study on afforestation in India – the idea of the global atmosphere evoked the village forests we had seen. We had found that unless everyone benefits from the gains of afforestation, the effort doesn’t work. People would use forests for their own benefit, such as grazing their own goats, etc. We applied the same principle to a global commons — we need equity and fairness for everybody to cooperate.

The tragedy of the commons, from the forests to the atmosphere, is that we haven’t been able to make rules which apply to all fairly. The term ‘subsistence emissions’ is also very important — in 1991, an argument claimed poor countries contributed to greenhouse gases as well since they grow rice and have livestock which emit methane. CSE’s report titled ‘Global Warming In An Unequal World’ showed that this science was wrong and these assumptions unfairly blamed developing countries.

You can’t have the same yardstick for subsistence emissions versus luxury emissions – the poor person’s need for growing price or keeping livestock can hardly be equated with someone driving an SUV. Of course every effort must be made to reduce the former kind of emissions too – but these people need to be enabled and assisted to do this.

The very imperative of it gives me hope — this has been the most divisive issue in the global environmental community. It’s an issue the Western media also rarely talks about despite their huge reporting of the climate crisis. Yet, I believe climate justice is an idea the world will have to accept because there is no other way out.

Since you can’t fairly tell 70% of the world not to grow, climate justice must underpin a new narrative of climate change which understands that unless we proceed with fairness and cooperation, we can’t have effective agreements. I see this awareness in the conversations of young activists from the global north. They understand climate justice much more than their elders – I am sure this is an idea whose progress is inevitable.


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