Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Environmentalism and Equity

Ms Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science & Environment, just finished the 2008 K R Narayanan Oration at the ANU in Canbera on "Why Environmentalism Needs Equity: Learning from the environmentalism of the poor to build our common future". She nominated fuel cost, climate change and food security as era for our age. One issue, biofuels, wraps up many of these issues and the ones of equity.

It was an honour to be present at this oration. Last year the oration was by Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, who shortly after won the Noble prize for his work as the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unfortunately the world does not necessarily listen to such eminent persons, as we should.

Ms Narain suggests what is needed is environmentalism of the poor. The industrialised world industrialised first and then responded to the waste generated. Most of the world will demand a new approach where progress will not cause environmental degradation. India's minerals are located where the forests, water catchments and poverty are located.

Ms Narain argued that India's democracy would not tolerate degradation of the environment. She used as an example grass roots action in Goa to block access for mining companies (I saw some of the mining industry on a visit to Goa in 2005).

Another example given was approaches to cleaning up air pollution in cities. She argued that India's use of LPG for vehicles had made a significant improvement in air quality. One problem is that in Delhi most of the road space is taken up by private cars, while most people are transported in buses. The introduction of bus lanes had been opposed by car drivers.Ms Narain did not mention the Delhi Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS, Delhi Metro or दिल्ली मेट्रो), which is an example of the problems with high technology solutions. Perhaps Indian experts could help Sydney's transport problems).

Ms Narain argued that a change in the framework, with equity, so that the global South can implement CO2 reduction, before becoming rich, rather than after, as happend in the North. The system suggested was a per-captia emissions allowance. In this way countries such as India could trade some of their allowance with countries such as Australia. This might be a good way to use carbon trading mechanisms to include the world.

At question time I asked if market mechanisms would be sufficient or was a philosophical change to issues such as climate change needed. The answer was that this is a political issue and the community needs to assert that public goods need regulation and other mechanism to see correct use. The matter is urgent and imporant and can't be left to good will and good intentions.

ps: One point I disagreed with in the talk was the assertion that CO2 emissions were the first environmental issue which required a global agreement to fix. This is not the case as there was previously a global pollution problem with Ozone destroying emissions. A global agreement was reached and has largely worked. CO2 emissions are a much more difficult problem, but the Montreal Protocol shows such problems are not insoluble.

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