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Praful Bidal on Greenhouse Development Rights (and much else)

Praful Bidwai is a former Senior Editor at The Times of India and one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists.  He’s also the author of the recent book The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future. This book is notable in a number of ways, and not just because it contains a long and coherent chapter called “Alternative Visions: What would an Equitable Global Climate Deal Look Like?”

Bidwai is a rare analyst.  He writes as a man of the South, but at the same time he can be extremely critical of the South’s negotiating postures.  In fact, he devotes an entire chapter — “Rooted in Incoherence: Anomalies and Contradictions in India’s Climate Policy” — to an excoriation of India’s stance in the negotiations, which he judges to be incoherent, duplicitous, and short-sighted, and all of these by virtue of being rooted in an unjust model of development.  His essential claim here is not simply that India’s position is an undemocratic one that ultimately serves its elites, though this is a line he develops at length.  It is also that India’s position is based on unsound ethical claims that cannot possibly support a fair global accord.  That, in particular,

“the per capita norm does not capture, nor is it logically related to, the central concern highlighted by recent climate-related scientific findings: namely, the urgent need to prevent dangerous climate change.”

To be sure, one could argue — and many people do — that the “per capita norm” is an important negotiating tool, and that as such it serves a larger goal of global climate justice.  But Bidwai will have none of it, arguing that class disparities within India are probably larger than global disparities. Moreover, he is extremely critical of what he sees as India’s over-emphasis on historical responsibility. His bottom line:

“A fixation with dividing emissions quotas along North-South lines can easily translate into a right to greater carbon space or a right to pollute.”

Bidwai is particularly critical of “rigid interpretations” of the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.”  Indeed, he says that it will be “difficult to sustain the black-and-white North-South” interpretation of this principle.  On this point he is certainly correct.  When even Pablo Solon can argue, as he and Walden Bello recently did in the Bangkok Post, that “The elites of emerging economies are using the just demand of ‘historical responsibility’ or ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ in order to win time and have a weak binding agreement by 2020 that they will be part of,” its clear that the time for “rigid interpretations” is running out.

When it comes to equity-based framework proposals, Bidwai’s scope can be suggested by the subtitles in his “Alternative Visions” chapter.  They include “Six categories of alternative proposals,” “Contraction and Convergence and its drawbacks,” “Why carbon rationing is not a good idea,” “The Greenhouse Development Rights framework,” “The Kyoto-2 proposal,” “NGO-proposed ‘Copenhagen Climate Treaty,” “GDRs compared with C&C and CDC,” and “GDRs weaknesses.”  This list also makes clear, I hope, that he takes GDRs very seriously indeed.  It gets the most detailed consideration of all the “Alternative Visions,” a position it earns by virtue of its concern with not only the North / South divide, but the rich / poor divide as well.

“The GDRs framework is ethically attractive because it sets a higher priority on developmental equity, or the right to life with dignity, that the ‘right’ to emit GHGs, equalized on a per-capita basis. . .

More particularly, Bidwai argues that we need a

“holistic alternative framework with an unambiguous and unflinching commitment both to development equity and environmental effectiveness.  The framework must acknowledge the gravity of the global development crisis and the magnitude of the unfulfilled agenda.  It must set adaptation and mitigation goals which are commensurate with the urgency of preventing irreversible climate change.  And it must be simple and contain clear rules that apply to all participating countries.

In our view, the Greenhouse Development Rights proposal comes closest to such a framework because it brings the development agenda down to earth and roots it in flesh-and-blood people, not nations.  The right to development vests in and belongs to people.  It can be a universal right only if it promotes sustainable and equitable development for all.  These strengths are considerable.”

All this said, Bidwai also argues that [GDRs] “greatest weakness lies in the use of the market for trading and in carbon allocations assigned to countries on the basis of their effort-sharing responsibility.”  In other words, in the fact that it does not rule out emissions trading.  He adds a few pages later that

“GDRs relies excessively on the market even while explicitly recognizing its ‘perils’ and acknowledging that the approach of ‘cap and allocate (and trade)’ would ‘take us, inevitably, into areas of bitter controversy.’  Markets are not just imperfect and failure prone, they are often unnecessary.” … Suffice it here to say that cap and trade methods are not more efficient than taxation, mandatory levies on corporations and rich-country governments in proportion to their RCI, and inter-government or inter-programme financial transfers.  The South’s decarbonization can be promoted equally effectively by non-market means.”

All of these are excellent points.  And, indeed, we (the GDRs author’s group) would much prefer funding mechanisms that do not fundamentally rely on markets.  Or funding mechanisms – like financial-transaction taxes– that are hybrid, in the sense that they are taxes on markets.   And if “mandatory levies on corporations and rich-country governments in proportion to their RCI” were on the negotiating table, we would enthusiastically support them.

That said, we would only ask that observers like Bidwai understand that, in adopting our rather open attitudes to financing – we’ve always said that “taxes, trading and funds” could all be done well, or very poorly – we are seeking first of all to focus on our core contribution to the overall climate-justice debate – a principle-based effort-sharing system that might actually be fair enough to support a global emergency mobilization.

As the Arctic ice melts, as the corals die, as the weather edges into instability, it’s increasingly obvious that we’re going to need one.

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