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A case for the South

In a world that is polarised, when it comes to environmental management, it is clear that the North's indifference is becoming genocidal for the South. GOUTAM GHOSH on the issue of the `survival of the human race' that will come up for hearing at theEarth Summit in Johannesburg tomorrow.

BY 2101 A.D., the rich may need to carry oxygen cylinders strapped on air-conditioned suits. Why? Because our planet is heading for disaster. The fragile biospheric balance that survived initial assaults has been disturbed. It is reeling now because of the systematic, myopic, hedonism-driven, mindless attacks by a small fraction of the world's people — the rich. If you ask "How does it hurt me?" one could, at most, show you pointers. There is no proof like the Pythagoras' Theorem yet, but these pointers are so telling that you have to be as mindless as a coffee percolator to ignore the signs of Nature churning in fury.

You will agree that the 1990s had been one of the hottest decades ever. Since then, in addition to the El Nino phenomenon, there have been more cyclones, droughts, and unanticipated floods than ever before — as the recent spate of floods in Europe shows. The "fickle weather" has become more unpredictable. The cause, as meteorologists put it at the recent Johannesburg Summit workshop in Delhi for South-Asian media persons, is because of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are heating the planet faster than the fragile "sinks" can handle.

The "sinks" are the oceans and forests that can handle a total load of 3.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. If the load is borderline, any emission will tilt the balance, if the emission rate exceeds the absorption rate of the "sinks". The threshold has been crossed, thanks to cars, the lifestyle, and snobbery of the North.

The Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th Century (cf. Eric Hobsbaum, Industry and Empire) primed the flywheel of economic growth. The North cannot be blamed for its economic might, being more focussed in extracting the needed inputs from the poor, unorganised South. Now the neo-independent colonies are aspiring to grow but lack the means to reach where their former masters are. A classic case of Zeno's Paradox of Achilles (the desperate South) and the Tortoise (the North that got a head start). So the South struggles and adopts technologies the North needs no longer.

The North's growth has been fossil fuel (both coal and oil) intensive. The problem is, its use releases carbon-based and other gases, some lasting longer than others. As emissions add to the atmospheric GHG every second, the cumulative load keeps increasing. The early emissions were from countries that developed first. And the load increased till it crossed the 3.8 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent that the "sinks" could handle each year. This led to the accumulation of GHGs.

Every country of the North theoretically agrees to undo the damage, but when asked to state a deadline, almost everyone, particularly, and most vociferously the U.S., refuses. Though responsible for a quarter of the GHG load today, the U.S. (and some others) is not ready to give up the profligate lifestyle it pursues. Which is why the 1997 Kyoto Protocol may not be ratified at the summit beginning tomorrow unless the South (the Group of 77 and China) wakes up and insists on its right to survive.

Any freeze on emissions would put a cap on the South's development. The North insists that as the South will add to the GHG load, it must pull the reins on itself now. But research has shown that a U.S. citizen's annual GHG emission is equivalent to that of 19 Indians', or 107 Bangladeshis', or 134 Bhutanese's, or 269 Nepalese's (cf. Green Politics, Vol. 1, ed. Anil Agarwal et al.). If anyone should be indignant, we should be — for failing to force the North to tighten its belt and pay for the biospheric damage it has caused to date.

Worse, the U.S., Australia and some other countries are unwilling either to pay for the damage caused or to cut GHG emission or to fund research on fossil fuel substitutes and promise to transfer the knowledge for the benefit of mankind. In other words, they intend to squeeze the rest of the world for any knowledge transfer — a short-term gain at the cost of long-term survival.

The South, particularly India (ranked 124th in the World Development Report 2000-2001), has done its bit to discourage fossil fuel use. India has reduced the subsidy on petroleum products, despite the political fall-out. The capital Delhi stands as an example as its public transport now runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). Though triggered by the Judiciary, using CNG will reduce GHG emission because the pollutant load from burning CNG is much less.

Can the world hope for priority actions to be outlined?

If adopted globally, India, in terms of public transportation, would lead the world in being the least polluting country. In comparison, the North has done nothing. Gasoline, for instance, is available now at $1.309 a gallon in the U.S. (source: the Internet) — almost the same price as in the early 1980s.

The North has not done anything. Corporate houses in the U.S. have funded research to mislead the rest of the world about shouldering the burden for damaging the biosphere. The World Resources Report, 1990-91, prepared by the U.S.-based World Resources Institute, interpreted data to show that the South was as responsible as the North for GHG emissions. It suggested that the share of the "sinks" should be based on a country's quantum of emission. So the larger the polluter, the greater its share of the "sink". A recalculation by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment showed that the U.S. emitted more carbon than its population warranted. The planet's people differ from one another because of superficial traits — nationality, religion and economic status and more — but each has as much right to the environmental public good as any one else from the North.

It is not that the North is indifferent to risks. When it was shown that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and aerosols depleted the ozone layer, and when scientists said that ultraviolet rays pouring through ozone holes could lead to more skin cancer cases among races with less melanin, there was panic in the North, especially in Australia. The recalcitrant industry (the U.S.-based Du Pont, a major producer of CFC), which was dragging its feet by quoting the uncertainty of meteorological predictions, quickly found ozone-neutral substitutes, some of which (viz. perfluoromethane with a life of 50,000 years) are GHGs. So to save the North, the rest of the world readily accepted the substitutes, despite the long term impact of these on the planet's climate.

The response of the South to the North's prerogatives has been laudable, but philanthropy is not evenly distributed. The Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) is gasping as it has no funds from the North. Similarly, polar ice cap melting will raise ocean levels, alter weather patterns and small island nations will vanish under the sea. But as desertification or polar ice cap melting or the thermal expansion of oceanic water will not affect the U.S. immediately, the North (dominated by the U.S.) is indifferent. It is not hurt if Bangladesh's coastline is battered by cyclones or if a rising sea level threatens the Republic of Nauru. Even the recent floods in Europe do not hurt the U.S. The U.S.-dominated North as a whole has the right to be hedonistic, but its indifference is genocidal.

The North also says that agriculture and a large number of heads of cattle in the South have raised the methane (a GHG) load. But this load has shot up as grains are needed to feed the cattle that become sausages and hamburgers in the North. The North's GHG emission, directly or indirectly, is a result of luxurious lifestyle. In the South it is for survival.

What would the North do if the South, in a surge of fraternity, boycotted trade with it, refused all the "tied" aid and shunned ozone-neutral gases like perfluoromethane and used CFC instead (as UV rays are less likely to affect dark-complexioned people)?

The bottom line is, it is not a question of trade or political victory or pride. The survival of the human race will come up for hearing at Johannesburg tomorrow. The Colin Powells and George Bushs of the world can be ignored.

Will the Prime Minster, Atal Behari Vajpayee, wake up from his Kumbhakarnaesque slumber and reach Johannesburg to put forth the South's views? As China and India are home to 38.3 per cent of the planet's people, that makes them strategic markets. The North's economic well-being depends on these countries.

It doesn't matter if George Bush stays away from the summit, but Asia needs to voice its concerns loudly and clearly. By slamming the tables with a gavel if necessary. The time to act is now. The clock to survival or extinction begins ticking tomorrow.

See The "WASH" campaign

Spotlight WEHAB

Pollution, deforestation, desertification ... no country can tackle these alone.

FACED with alarming deterioration in the earth's life-support ecosystems, world leaders will gather at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, from August 26 to September 4, to pursue new initiatives and build a future of prosperity and security for their citizens. The Johannesburg summit will be a reaffirmation of the world's many governments, organisations, citizen groups and individuals of their commitment to work towards sustainable development.

An opportunity for the world to move towards a sustainable future, the summit will call for a different type of international cooperation, one that will allow people to meet their needs without harming the environment. Though the basic plan to achieve this sort of development was structured at the Earth Summit in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, there is still a long way to go. The Johannesburg summit will serve to bridge the gap through solutions of concrete action.

What is uppermost on most minds now is the list of issues that will be paid attention to in this summit. Simply put, it will focus on the extent to which the world can change course and achieve a sustainable future. However, the other issues this statement encompasses are those the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has identified: Water and sanitation, Energy, Health, Agricultural productivity and Biodiversity and ecosystem management. Annan feels concrete results can and must be obtained at the summit on these crucial issues, for which he has coined the term WEHAB.

What, then, will be the outcome of a summit of such proportions? The summit hopes to reinvigorate political commitment to sustainable development.

It is expected it will conclude with an understanding statement from world leaders in the form of a "Johannesburg Declaration" recommitting themselves to a negotiated implementation plan that will outline priority actions needed for sustainable development. In addition, governments, civil society and business are being encouraged to bring forward partnership initiatives that will address specific problems and lead to measurable results.

The distinguishing feature of the summit is its action-oriented nature. Where the Rio summit was one where concepts were arrived at, the Johannesburg summit promises to move on from ideas to implementation. Agenda 21, the plan of action for sustainable development adopted at the Earth Summit, remains a powerful, long-term vision and guide for improving the state of the world. It, therefore, will serve as the basis for the development of tangible initiatives that produce results, in turn becoming the point from whereon this summit will take off.

The problems are global — poverty, air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification, overfishing, climate change — no country can confront these challenges alone. The search for solutions requires that a global consensus coalesce into common actions that will improve living standards and support crucial ecosystems. This summit provides an opportunity to the world community to reach agreement on these issues.

Though having close links with the Earth Summit, the Johannesburg summit ( is not a sequel to the first, nor is it a follow-up to the recent International Conference on Financing for Development (Monterrey, Mexico). It builds on the achievements of both, simultaneously seeking to implement the goals agreed at many conferences under the umbrella of sustainable development. It is to be seen, now, whether the respective governments will take responsibility for implementing the negotiated outcomes of the summit, reality being they are not entirely equipped with resources to do everything that has to be done. This is because the implementation of sustainable development requires building partnerships among different sectors of society, such as with business and non-governmental organisations.

"It is urgent for the world as a whole to learn the lessons of this drought," Annan said of the recent drought in Africa, "which gives us an ugly picture of the fate that lies in store for us, and for our children, if we do not find models of development that are genuinely sustainable." All that remains now to be seen is if the summit is actually a step towards developing and preserving the world and its people for posterity.

Source: Johannesburg Summit 2002, Factsheets

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