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As Washington and Beijing stall, poor folk take the lead

With the poorest countries in the world pledging to do most to combat climate change, richer nations

Of all the mistakes the world has made in trying to tackle climate change, perhaps the greatest will be seen as the obsession with equity. For nearly 20 years, rich and poor countries have been at loggerheads, the poor arguing that the rich have caused the problem and must move first, the rich resisting until developing nations make parallel cuts.

In 1997, the US Senate voted unanimously against the newly minted Kyoto Protocol, insisting that Washington would not sign up to any deal unless rapidly growing countries such as China did likewise. This was monstrously unfair: with Chinese per capita emissions less than a quarter of America's, how could the US demand that China take an equal hit?

Beijing naturally rejected the demand, and the G77 group of developing countries has remained steadfast in refusing to countenance mandatory emissions cuts ever since. So has the US, and the result has been a stalemate. The stand-off is the main reason why Copenhagen is already being written off even before the conference doors open. Once again, we are told, the world must wait for the Americans - yet the US Senate will take months if not years to pass even the limp domestic carbon regulation proposals that have been put before it.

In the meantime, global emissions carry on rising. Carbon releases from fossil-fuel burning have shot up by 29 per cent since 2000 - and most of the growth has come from developing nations such as China and India. Moreover, most of the projected emissions growth (in warming terms, the difference between 2oC and 6oC by 2100) is also expected to originate from economic growth in Asia and elsewhere in the developing world.

As a result, large developing countries have come under increased pressure to act to restrain their emissions. They still refuse, insisting on their right to an equal share of the atmosphere and the need for carbon-based growth to reduce poverty as the most pressing reasons.

What no one seems to have considered is that equity in carbon emissions is actually an irrelevance. Given the rapidly rising impacts of climate
change, emitting carbon is an inherently undesirable thing to do - so why should we all demand an equal right to it, any more than we all have a right to commit a certain number of burglaries a year? What nations want is not the carbon per se, but the energy services it provides - services for which there are now multiple low-carbon alternatives.

As President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, fresh from his first underwater cabinet meeting, recently declared to a gathering of the world's most climate-vulnerable developing countries: "It is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport."

Nasheed's revelation could have revolutionary implications for global-warming politics. His country is taking a different approach, ditching any
presumed "right" to high-carbon development and pledging to become carbon-neutral within ten years. At the Climate Vulnerable Forum, held on
10 November in the Maldives, ten other countries, ranging from Barbados to Rwanda, pledged to "follow the moral leadership shown by the Republic of Maldives by voluntarily committing to achieving carbon neutrality".

At the meeting - which I attended as the president's adviser on climate change - there was a palpable sense of new possibilities. After all, countries with little fossil-fuel infrastructure can reduce their carbon burden much more easily than the dinosaurs in the west. The Maldives does not have to shut down coal-burning power stations; it can simply go straight to wind and solar for its future energy requirements. In contrast, the US is the Soviet Union of energy: a vast proportion of its infrastructure - not to mention its very lifestyle - is rendered obsolete in an age of global warming.

No wonder the Senate is slow to act. Decarbonising the US will be expensive and painful, which is why the rest of the world should not wait while the deniers fulminate and the Senate sits on its hands.

With the poorest countries in the world - which have done least to cause the problem - pledging to do most to combat it, richer nations may finally be shamed into taking action. That action must come not only from the US, but from China and India as well, or global warming will continue to accelerate. Luckily, these countries do not need to pollute to become wealthier. The Maldives is showing them the way.

Mark Lynas's column appears fortnightly
Next week: Bibi van der Zee

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging