Don’t mention the E-word. Or the H-word.

Indian ecologist Sunita Narain on international environmental agreements

May 27, 2013  As the 21st anniversary of the Earth Summit 1992 in Rio de Janeiro approaches, one cannot help looking back at the progress made so far. Or not made. Equally so, Indian climate change negotiations veteran Sunita Narain started her opening address at the MO* debate on international environmental negotiations by taking stock of the past 21 years. A road which has not been easy, to say the least.


Sunita Narain, Indian ecologist © Lisa Develtere for MO* (

The sun was finally shining weakly after yet another week of grim ‘Spring weather’, but still 75 people chose the — it must be said, comfortable — seats of the KBC-tower over one of the terraces on the Groenplaats in Antwerpen on this early Friday evening. Their centre of attention was with the short Indian woman on stage who, belying her small stature, threw them immediately into the deep in a clear and strong voice: “In these 21 years since 1992, our governments have not kept their promise to the people that climate change would be taken seriously.”

The tone was set, and Ms Narain continued by explaining the reasons why climate change negotiations at the international level have been moving so slowly — if moving at all. Climate change, she said, is the issue which brings most clearly to the table the interconnectedness of our world. Not only does a Canadian ton of CO2 not stay above Canadian territory but does it pollute the atmosphere globally, but a ton emitted by Canada means there is less space for Chinese or Venezuelan emissions.

Right to emit

This was exactly the plan back in 1992: developed countries were to make space in the atmosphere for others to develop by reducing their emissions, while supporting the developing countries to grow their economies in a different, cleaner way. A generously optimistic plan, said Ms Narain, hatched during the Age of Innocence: “There are now more claimants for the atmosphere, and there have been no drastic emission reductions to vacate space for the developing countries.”

Needless to say then that so far we have failed to achieve this objective: global emissions have risen by almost 60% over 1990 levels and the Green Climate Fund is still penniless. Meanwhile in the negotiation rooms of the yearly COPs, politicians are unable to decide who is responsible for what emissions, and in what way to allocate the 565 Gigatons of CO2 we have left — if we are at least serious about staying below a temperature rise of 2°C.

This is where the E-word and the H-word come in, two highly contentious concepts in international talks. “The US don’t want to talk about equity,” said Ms Narain, “and they threaten to leave the room every time historic emissions are mentioned.” And yet, deciding on this question is not just the cherry on the cake, she added —  it is the cake. Do we allocate the remaining emission rights on an equal per capita basis, do we also factor in past emissions and thus use a cumulative approach, or do we lock-in present emission patterns and require proportionate reductions across the board?

Pulling up a graph of these cumulative CO2 emissions from 1850-2005 quickly shows why the US would be so hell-bent on avoiding this as a basis for negotiations: while China overtook them as the single largest emitter of CO2 in 2007, historically the US still remain far ahead with more cumulative emissions than Russia, China, and Germany combined. Just how much of a difference this historical perspective can make, is illustrated by the fact that tiny Belgium (10.4 Gt) still outruns emerging giant Brazil (8.8 Gt).

Responsibility to reduce

Another problem with emissions is their territoriality. Territorial emissions are those emitted by chimneys and exhausts in a given territory, say the UK. While these have gone down by 19% between 1990 and 2008, emissions calculated on the basis of consumption have gone up by 20% over the same period of time. The convenient thing is that most international reporting — including towards Kyoto commitments — is done on the basis of territorial emissions, allowing the UK to claim a significant reduction of emissions over the years.

The reason for this huge difference is the relocation of many heavy industries from Europe to countries like China, resulting in lower emissions back home while consumption is allowed to increase unchecked. The obvious problem with this is that global emissions are not addressed, but are even further increased by the need for transporting all these products back to Europe. Artur Runge-Metzger, chief climate negotiator for the EU and one of the respondents to Ms Narain’s opening speech: “In Brussels we would be delighted to deal with those emissions related to our consumption as well.”

So then why don’t they? Dr Runge-Metzger continued: “But just look at the turmoil it gave when we did just this for aviation emissions.” We tried and people didn’t like it. End of story. On the other hand the EU are also taking these relocated emissions into account when calculating the reductions already achieved. Would it then not be much fairer not to count these as EU reductions — as they are simply being emitted somewhere else — but to take additional measures in Europe to achieve real reductions?

Keep the oil in the soil

One such possible measure is to “keep the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole” and instead unambiguously choose the card of renewables, as Leida Rijnhout of The Northern Alliance for Sustainability (ANPED) put forward in her question towards the end of the debate. For Wendel Trio, the second respondent and director at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, the carbon bubble is too difficult to solve at the international level, and should instead be tackled at the local level, driven by citizens.

As an example he mentioned the Beyond Coal campaign in the US, where so far almost 150 coal-fired power plants have been shut down. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the country’s biggest environmental group and initiator of the campaign: “While Congress is paralysed by partisan bickering, our grassroots, people-powered campaign is succeeding city-by-city and state-by-state.” Also in Germany, coal plants are being closed down or cancelled, in spite of rumours of a “renaissance of coal,” said Mr Trio. With “Cleaner air for all” being the topic of this year’s European Green Week, nothing could be more fitting.

Ms Narain got the last word and, closing the circle back to her first words of the evening, with a reference to consumption-based emissions, she concluded in her straightforward style: “I’m seeing too much satisfaction from the EU, saying “we have done it, now you do it.” But the EU hasn’t done it!” Time to start doing it!

Find another article on this lecture at (in Dutch).

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