Growing in the context of climate change

A Thought Leader Series Piece

Sunita Narain

By Sunita Narain

Note: Sunita Narain is the director general of The Centre for Science and Environment. She will be speaking at the next Wrigley Lecture Series on March 27 at Arizona State University.

We all know the threat of climate change is urgent. We also know combating this threat will require deep and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. This is when, already, the poor of the world—who are more vulnerable and less able to cope—are feeling the pain of a changing and more variable climate.

The question is: Why has the world been desperately seeking every excuse not to act, even as science has repeatedly confirmed that climate change is real? Climate change, though related to carbon dioxide and other emissions, is also related to economic growth and wealth in the world. Climate change is man-made. It can also devastate the world as we know it.
Shared solutions

The issues are clear, but the answers are lost in avoidance. The reason is simple: climate change is related to economic growth. It is the “market’s biggest failure.” In spite of protracted negotiations and targets set under the Kyoto Protocol, no country dismisses the correlation between economic growth and increasing emissions. No country has shown how to build a low carbon economy, either.

The solution involves redistributing the responsibility for growth between nations and people. There is a stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, built-up over centuries in the process of creating nations’ wealth. This has already made the climate unstable. Poorer nations will now add to this stock through their drive for economic growth. But that is not an excuse for the rich world to not take on tough and deep-binding emission reduction targets. The rich world must reduce so that we can grow. We must also find low-carbon growth strategies for emerging countries, without compromising their right to develop.

This can be done.

Efficiency first

It is clear that countries like India and China provide the world the opportunity to avoid additional emissions. These countries are just beginning to build new energy and industrial infrastructure; they can make investments in leapfrog technologies first, rather than later. Like them, other nations can build their cities on public transport; their energy security on local and distributed systems like biofuels; their industries on energy-efficient technologies.

India and China know it is not in their interest to first pollute then clean up; or first to be inefficient then save energy. But existing technologies are costly. It is not as if China and India are bent on first investing in dirty and inefficient technologies. They invest as the rich world has done: first increase emissions; make money; then invest in efficiency. The global climate agreement must recognize this fact and provide technology and funds to make the world transition to “efficient first” development.

Reinventing for sufficiency

There is another inconvenient truth: cutting emissions at the scale that is needed will require the world to seriously reinvent the way to growth. The agenda then is to reinvent growth without pollution.

For the past 20 years of climate negotiations–from Rio to Copenhagen–the world has looked for small answers to this big problem. We believed the magic bullet was to plant crops that could fuel the world. We learned quickly that there was a trade-off in the biofuel business when cost of food skyrocketed. The next quick fix was to improve the fuel economy of each vehicle until we found that even as cars became more efficient, people consumed and drove more. The end result was the same: emissions increased. Now we are banking on hybrids. We refuse to learn that the scale of transition will need more than just an efficiency revolution. The transition will need a sufficiency goal.

A new growth model

The options for serious emission reduction are limited in the industrial model we belong to or want to inherit. The world has to look for new ways to cut emissions. There are win-win options, but only if we consider that in all current scenarios, the planet is losing.

This new growth model will need changes in behavior and lifestyle to cut emissions. It will need new drivers to stimulate quick and aggressive technology innovation; changes to take the world beyond the known and the ordinary. This change will not come cheap.

Behavior and lifestyle change is the most inconvenient of all truths. And this is precisely why the already rich world wants to spin a deal weak on commitment and action. This is not good for climate change. This is not good for all of us.

About the author: Since 1982, Sunita Narain has worked with the Centre for Science and Environment. She is a prominent environmentalist and writer, publishing Down to Earth magazine and authoring the 7th State of India’s Environment Reports. In 2005, 2008, and 2009, she was voted one of the world's 100 public intellectuals by the U.S. journal, Foreign Policy. Narain's work has ranged from rainwater harvesting to tiger conservation and air pollution to climate change.