People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 18

May 11, 2008


Energy, Global Warming And Development

Prabir Purkayastha

Climate change and global warming makes for some strange bedfellows. We had the spectacle recently of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the vice chairman of the Planning Commission, teaming up with the Liberty Institute, which claims to be “an independent think tank dedicated to empowering the people by harnessing the power of the market” in denying the reality of global warming. It is curious as Ahluwalia has also been arguing on how nuclear energy through the India US nuclear deal is going to help in reducing greenhouse gases. If global warming is a myth, as the Liberty Institute is arguing, why should he be advancing this argument in favour of the nuclear deal?

If the spectacle of a Montek Ahluwalia teaming up with the global warming deniers is indeed strange, so is the spectacle of a Praful Bidwai (Frontline, Apr 26-May 09, 2008) repeating the call of George Bush that if the US is expected to cap its greenhouse gas emissions, so should India and China. Bidwai finds the call for fast-growing, big economies such as China and India moving towards capping their emissions along with the US and other advanced industrialised countries “eminently reasonable”. While Bidwai also calls for limiting elite consumption and improving energy efficiency, by calling for such caps on developing countries, he is really agreeing with Bush that Indian and Chinese middle class is the cause of global warming. Not very different from Bush's views of rise in global food prices due to Indian and Chinese middle classes eating more.

This is of course denying what everybody except the US in Kyoto agreed -- that it is the advanced countries and their carbon emissions that are the source of the problem. The reason that the US walked out of Kyoto was the principle of common but differentiated responsibility – that while the problem of global warming is a common one for the entire globe, the responsibility for its solutions is differentiated by who is causing the major part of the problem. That is why there were caps on Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions for all advanced industrialised economies, while all others had only reporting requirements. For the record, none of the advanced industrialised countries barring one or two have met with the Kyoto call of reducing CO2 emissions by a measly 5 per cent. What Bidwai is now rejecting, as is Bush, is that the responsibility for limiting or reducing CO2 emissions is not a differentiated responsibility based on current emission levels and past historical ones but a common one – everybody has to freeze their emissions as is irrespective of their levels.

The per capita emissions for countries such as India, China, Germany and the US are given in the accompanying table, along with their per capita income and energy consumption. A quick look shows that India and China today are way behind the developed countries as well as the global average with regards to energy consumption and per capita CO2 emissions. India with about 17 per cent of worlds’ population, produces of 3.5 per cent of CO2 emissions.

Table 1: Energy, Emissions and GDP Per Capita PPP

For Selected Countries (2004)


Per Capita GDP at PPP


Per Capita Consumption


Per Capita



Per Capita Emissions

(CO2 Tons/person)





















Global Av.



~ 2,800


It is not that Kyoto agreement is itself free of problems. Clearly, the market mechanism fixed for reducing CO2 emissions has not worked. The idea that every country would get some permanent rights as a kind of quota for emissions and also making such rights tradeable, is nothing but trying to privatise the global sinks of CO2. The final frontier of capitalism was crossed in Kyoto -- air is now a commodity to be bought and sold as emission rights. Despite this, Kyoto had at least the merit of recognising the problem and fixing up some responsibilities in a multilateral platform. That is why it still remains a better bet than what US is now promoting – private negotiations amongst G8, India and China.



Let us examine first what is causing global warming. The global warming is caused -- as is widely accepted today – by excess CO2 emissions that are accumulating in the atmosphere. We will focus here on the CO2 emissions for two reasons. One is that the increase in GHG emissions is most rapid in the case of CO2 but also because energy use generates largely CO2 emissions. So when we are looking at increased energy consumption, it is this increased CO2 that we are concerned with. It is this additional CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere that is creating a greenhouse effect.

The global CO2 sinks can absorb a certain amount of CO2. However, if we produce more than what the global sinks can absorb, it will accumulate in the atmosphere. Before the industrial revolution, the CO2 in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm), it is now around 380 ppm. By Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculations, if it crosses the threshold of 450 ppm, we will be in deep trouble with global temperatures rising above 2-3 deg C over the next 50 years. This means we will have to limit the increase of global emissions, and therefore work out what would be the emission quota for each of the countries. Finally, as CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a long time, we need to reduce global emissions as a whole in order to stabilise CO2 levels in the atmosphere. That means we will not only have to work out limits in the short term, but also lower these limits in the future if we are to limit global climate change. These have been captured in various scenarios that the IPCC has built.

The excess emission that we are talking here are the net emissions of CO2 of each country, after taking into account the terrestrial sinks or sinks over their own land area. Thus, the global sinks that we are considering here are really the global commons. If the global sinks have a limited capacity and we are already producing more excess CO2 than what these sinks can handle, how do we allocate either emission quotas or allocate these sinks between countries? How do we work out how much each of the countries can emit so that we do not cross the redline of 450 ppm? This is the crux of the global climate change negotiations.


However, before we get into emission quotas or the allocation of global sinks based on current emissions, we must also understand that in the atmosphere today, there is CO2 which accumulated for a 100 years. Therefore, when we look at CO2 emissions, it is not enough to talk about current emissions but also the past, accumulated emissions that are already taxing the global sinks beyond their capacity. This is the carbon debt that the advanced industrialised countries owe the developing ones. Current negotiations have almost forgotten the carbon debt as there is very little chance of getting the club of the rich to accept this debt. But this unacknowledged debt reduces the ecological space of all other countries – it sits as a carbon dead weight on all our calculations about how much can developing countries now emit as the globe is already accumulating CO2 beyond what it can absorb.

If we forget the carbon debt, we still need to address how will the global sinks be shared? If we accept the principle of equity regarding sinks, then we have to apportion the global sinks equitably – every person in the world has a right to an equal share of these sinks. An even simpler equity principle is that per capita emissions of all persons in the globe should be same. This means that countries such as India or Bangladesh will increase their per capita emissions while countries such as the US will reduce theirs, till we meet at some pre-defined common point. After this, everybody will reduce emissions in tandem till CO2 levels stabilise in the atmosphere. In this scheme, the global negotiations should be all about fixing this common point and the time frame so that we do not cross the redline of 450 ppm for the globe.

The figures for working out emission quotas are quite simple – India emits 1.2 tons of CO2 per person against 21 tons of the US. India will rise to, say 4 ton of CO2 and the US will also need to come down to 4 ton of CO2. Bush stated that he is willing to cap US emissions after 2025 – if countries such as China and India also cap theirs. That means the US, which is already emitting more that 5 times the global average will continue to increase its emissions and wants China and India with one fifth and one twentieth its per capita emission to also cap their current emissions. While the other advanced industrialised countries are not as blatant, all of them are arguing for a variant of the US position. This, in effect, is a demand to freeze the current unequal levels of development existing in the world. Such a cap would not only freeze global inequality between nations but also freeze internal inequality. What it will do is make the cost of energy much higher, effectively de-industrialising India, trap large sections of the people in a subsistence economy and make agriculture even more uneconomic.

(To be continued)