Shreekant Gupta And Swati Madan, For The Straits Times

Only statesmanship can save our ship from climate peril

Delegates talk during a break at a plenary session of the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, on Dec 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Delegates talk during a break at a plenary session of the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, on Dec 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The danger posed by global warming is matched only by our blatant disregard of it.

Immediate concerns - be they terrorism, Ebola or the euro - pale into insignificance compared with the disaster that awaits if urgent action is not taken to slow down and eventually reverse the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs), mainly carbon dioxide (CO2). Global problems call for global collective action, and global warming is no exception.

What the world needs is statesmanship and not the pursuit of narrow national interests as commonly seen in diplomacy. This is especially true of the major world power, the United States, which took the lead in rebuilding Europe after World War II and in establishing a world economic order under the Bretton Woods agreement. More recently, it cobbled together a "coalition of the willing" and arm-twisted the United Nations to turf out Saddam Hussein and his elusive weapons of mass destruction.

Now the US leads efforts to combat threats to global order such as terrorism, Ebola and financial crises. But when it comes to climate change, the world community, and particularly the US, has not been able to go beyond pious proclamations and band-aid actions.

Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, an influential thinker, used a compelling metaphor in a different context that also applies to the failure of collective action to address global warming. According to him, countries were once like a flotilla of more than a hundred separate boats and all that was needed was a way to keep them from colliding with one another.

But today we live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. But this boat has 193 captains and crews, each claiming exclusive responsibility for one cabin! However, it has no captain or crew to take care of the boat as a whole.

The fact that this problem has been caused by the rich industrial nations is indisputable - until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere remained steady at 280 parts per million (ppm). But from then on it shot up and currently exceeds 400 ppm, a level unprecedented in the past one million years. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013 was 42 per cent above the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution.

The increase of GHGs from human activity has caused the planet to warm by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial era, which is causing ice to melt, rising sea levels, more intense heatwaves and more frequent cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) laid down the principles to inform a global treaty to cut GHGs. These are equity and "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR) whereby rich countries were to take the lead in addressing climate change, given their level of economic development and their historical contribution to the problem.

The UNFCCC is the only architecture for negotiating a meaningful and binding treaty to cut GHG emissions. Such a treaty, however, remains elusive even 22 years after the UNFCCC. Each year, countries meet to discuss and debate a global treaty, but this remains an exercise in futility.

The recently concluded 20th such meeting in Lima produced nothing substantive other than a promise by countries to come up with plans to reduce GHG emissions, the so-called "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions". A plan of course is just that - a plan. There is no legally binding requirement on countries to cut their emissions by any particular amount.

More worrying is that rich countries, particularly the US, want to undo the UNFCCC and blur its distinction between developed and developing nations along the CBDR principle.

In their view, emerging economies such as India and China should also cut GHG emissions since they now emit large amounts. This ignores the historical contribution of countries that were early industrialisers since CO2, once released, stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Also, the principle of equity embedded in the UNFCCC implies that there is something unfair in a country such as the US with less than 5 per cent of the world population accounting for 16 per cent of current GHG emissions and for almost 30 per cent of cumulative CO2 emissions since 1850.

Moreover, an average Indian in 2010 emitted less than two tonnes of GHGs whereas the average American emitted 23 tonnes!

With the so-called world leader unwilling to show statesmanship and trying to pass the buck on to countries seeking to lift their people out of poverty, our captainless boat is surely headed for disaster.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Shreekant Gupta is with the Delhi School of Economics. Swati Madan is an independent journalist.