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14 January 2010

Why it’s wrong to preach “climate justice”

Two wrongs don't make a right -- carbon is not a prerequisite to development

By Mark Lynas

The Copenhagen Accord is a month old, but its future — and origin — is still being furiously debated. The international political profile of climate change is now changing rapidly — and growing in what will, I hope, be a more useful direction. Old alliances are breaking apart, and new ones are forming.

All of us must reconsider our beliefs as a result.

My decision to write about the heads of state meeting I attended in Copenhagen was not taken lightly; I was initially reluctant to speak publicly about what I had witnessed. The piece I eventually published in the Guardian (with a short version here in the New Statesman) got a lot of attention, but also exposed polarised opinions on who was to blame for the failure at Copenhagen.

What surprised me most was how many campaigners automatically rejected the conclusion, backed up by my direct participation in the negotiations, that it was the developing world — primarily China and India — that destroyed the putative “deal”. In blogs and emails between groups such as the World Development Movement and their supporters, it was suggested that anything calling into question the roles of developing countries must be a plot by the rich former colonial powers, of which I must be an unwitting (or witting, if you believe the conspiracists) pawn.

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Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity. NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least, while advocating limits to an increase in temperature (1.5°C) and carbon concentrations (to levels of 350 parts per million or less). Yet, for these goals to be realised, global emissions must peak now — there is no room for expansion by anyone.

This would be a problem if carbon were a prerequisite for development. But it isn’t. Large-scale alternatives, such as wind, hydro and nuclear, can generate all the energy at present delivered by burning coal. Electrification will gradually deliver carbon-free surface transport, while solar power can produce both heat and cooling (and more electricity) at reasonable costs in the tropics and subtropical regions. That is why the decision of the Maldives (whose delegation I joined in Copenhagen) to go carbon-neutral is so important in showing a better way ahead for developing nations.

Many NGOs, with the best of motivations, insist that the historic responsibility for causing climate change (which lies overwhelmingly with rich countries) should confer an equal right to pollute on those who are poor. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and the fact is that the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a waste dump for carbon has already been overshot — if we want to limit temperature increases to levels that would allow nations such as the Maldives to survive.

In my view, the historical responsibility question is an unassailable argument for adaptation financing. It is a clear legal principle that if you cause damage you must pay compensation. (Indeed, the $100bn in initial financing put on the table at Copenhagen was a de facto recognition of this principle.) But to use “climate justice” as an argument for increased future pollution by anyone is wrong. It is time that campaigners rightly concerned with equality recognised that there can be no trade-off between solving poverty and planetary survival.

This article appears in this week’s issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.

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