Oct 24, 2009

Trade vs Climate Change: The missing dimension no one wants to talk about

There is excitement around the corner. Climate change has suddenly become the buzzword. The media is drooling over the endless debates and discussions about the possibilities from the forthcoming COP 15 or the UN Climate Change conference scheduled to be held at Copenhagen from Dec 7-18 2009. As top political leaders are getting ready to descend on Copenhagen, there is surely a thrill in the air.

The civil society, dominated by a handful of international NGOs, have managed to very deftly shift the entire development discourse to climate change. The United Nations (not only UNEP, but all its other arms), the bilateral donor agencies like USAID/DFID, and the global think-tanks like the International Food Policy Research Institute (which are no better than the corporate rating agencies) have for quite sometime been active in putting climate change on the top of the global development agenda. And they have surely succeeded. 

In the process, the real issues confronting the world have been very conveniently swept under the carpet. So much so that if you don't talk about climate change you appear to be out of fashion, feel outdated.

I am therefore not amused to see Indian NGOs, who otherwise swear in the name of poverty, hunger and food insecurity, suddenly riding the climate change bandwagon. Even dalit and adivasi issues are being linked to climate change. I wouldn't be surprised if someone tries to find a correlation between climate change and the gender dimension. This is not only true of India but almost all the civil society organisations in the developing world. In reality, they are looking forward to an opportunity to be there where the action is. I mean travelling to Copenhagen, so that they can tell their colleagues: "yes, I was there." 

This reminds me of the euphoria that the world had witnessed before the Earth Summit held at Rio in Brazil in 1992. The Indian media I remember had gone into an overspin before the Rio Summit. Almost all who wrote front page stories on the threats facing the Earth, landed at Rio. Once the Summit was over, the Earth was forgotten. Environment became a downmarket subject for the media. Copenhangen is not going to be any different.

Nevetheless, the Copenhagen Summit is expected to be somehow different. It is not only about emission standards but if you have been following it carefully, it is all about marketing green technologies and investments. I am not therefore surprised when Heads of State talk about Green Technology Revolution on the lines of Green Revolution, not realising that Green Revolution is in a way responsible for acerbating the climate crisis. In other words, the entire debate has been hijacked by the corporates to suit their business interests. The UN says the world needs an investment of US $ 200 billion to fight climate change, which is an euphemism for corporate investment, and like proverbial cats you will see the Heads of State fighting to get hold of a sizeable pie.

So much so that think-tanks like IFPRI have also come out with startling reports/studies which warns us that the number of malnourished and hungry children will multiply by the year 2050 if the world does not make adequate investment in second Green Revolution technologies. In essence, like the rating agencies, IFPRI is only trying to draw our attention to investments needed for corporate agriculture. I will discuss this in detail sometimes later, but let us first look at what the brilliant minds are simply not willing to see in the entire debate on global warming.

Just a few days prior to the Copenhagen conference, the 7th Ministerial conference of WTO is being held at Geneva, from Nov 30 to Dec 2. The general theme of the WTO Ministerial will be The WTO, the Multilateral Trading System, and the Current Global Economic Environment. Surprisingly, the WTO Ministerial is talking in terms of the global economic environment and not climate change. You will ask me so what? Well, that is where I want to draw your attention to.

The two international treaties that have hogged the limelight for quite some time are the WTO and the Kyoto Protocol. While one relates to global trade, the other is about climate change. I thought global trade is not only about economic growth but also seriously impacts climate change. After all, trade is not going to be conducted on bullock carts. It will mean more transportation, which means more burning of fossil fuels, and therefore more global warming.

In other words, both the ongoing international negotiations work at a cross-purpose. And yet, no one is talking about the role trade will play in bringing the world to a tripping point. The reason (why it is not being done) is simple. Any effort to bring in trade in the climate change negotiations will hurt corporate interests. And since it hurts corporate/business interests, the media, the think-tanks, the international donors and of course the politicians must behave like the proverbial three monkeys that Mahatma Gandhi used to talk about. The message being: Hear no evil, see no evil, and talk no evil.

The World Bank has, through its Global Economic Prospects report, already said that a successful Doha Round completion could generate US $ 291 billion in global economic gains. It of course did not tell us how much the world would have to suffer by way of rise in the average global temperature. So, in other words, the Doha Development Round of WTO paves a way for US $ 291 billion gain, essentially for business and trade, whereas a successful completion of the CoP-13 would mean an additional business opportunity of U $ 200 billion for the manufacturers of green technologies.

Either way, the business sector gains.

In the mid-1980s the OECD had published a study, which had estimated that by the end of 2004, when the WTO Uruguay Round was expected to complete, there would have been an increase of 70 per cent in internationally traded goods as compared to 1992. This ofcourse would mean that more fossil fuels would be burnt to transport these goods across the continents. Already OECD estimates shows that 60 per cent of the world's use of oil goes for transportation, which are more than 95 per cent dependent on fossil fuels.

OECD estimates had also shown that 25 per cent of carbon emissions, with some 66 per cent of this coming from rich countries, is from the global transport sector. When the Doha round comes to a close, I am sure you will agree that the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation would only skyrocket. But we will never be told how much would that be, and what should the world do to usher in green trade.

Remember what Mander and Retallack had said: Each tonne of fright moved by plane uses 49 times as much energy as a ship..... and a 2-minute take-off by a 747 Jumbo is equal to 2.4 million lawn movers running for 20 minutes."

Who cares?


Anonymous said...

Good that you put it together. In Kerala while we used to discuss about WTO as well as FTAs , we used to bring this argument . It is common sense that when trade increases , there will be more carbon emissions and hence intensification of global warming. If the countries are genuine on climate change issue then they should ask for a winding up of the Doha round. The economists even now have not understood the word sustainability and they will never understand ecology.


Anonymous said...

Devinder ji,
You have once again hit the nail on its head. It is clear to even a layman that the developmental model followed by the developed world and blindly followed by the rest and climate talks are inversely comparable. It actually is a ploy to ensure continuity of the evil grip over the world.
But what is the way out? Rest of the world is a divided house. In an effort to demean each other every one is ready to become a tool. ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Media’, who could have become mobiliser’s of opinion, are happy subordinates.
What is the way out? Anticipate seeing something on ‘Hope’, if any.

Rose Bridger said...

Great article and raising a neglected issue. It is ridiculous, and playing to corporate interests, that trade is out of the picture in the build up to Copenhagen conference. I have been looking at agreements between India and the US related to food, and the lengthening supply chains and increase in transportation that this will entail. For example, the Himalya 'fancy food' firm plant near Delhi Airport is supported by US EXIM Bank. Not only will it import berries and almonds from California (as well as contract farming in India) to make American style convenience foods for the Indian market, the actual plant will be imported from the US.

Interestingly, I have heard that the Reliance retail march across India is using prefabricated blocks from China to build the stores. So it is not just the supply chain of goods for the stores that will have an environmental impact, the construction of this supply chain has a hefty environmental footprint as well.