China, India, and Brazil: activists debate climate change (part one)

Rubens Born Angel Green Clifford Polycarp Mark Lutes
18 May 2005

Angel Green (China)

Like India and Brazil, China is a fast-growing economic power. It has experienced severe energy shortages in recent years, as demand has been increasing by as much as 15% a year but generation only by around 12%.

The Chinese economy, with its huge consumption of steel and chemicals and all the associated industries, is highly energy intensive. More than 70% of China’s greenhouse gas emissions come from industry. The country’s economic output per unit of energy used is only 20% that of the United States and 14% that of Japan per unit output.

China’s economic boom increases the probability of severe environmental crisis. Pan Yue, deputy director of China’s State Environment Protection Administration (Sepa), rightly noted this in an interview published on openDemocracy.

In early 2005, Sepa halted thirty projects that had illegally started construction work without environment impact evaluation, among them nineteen coal-fired power plants. In face of the energy shortage, many local governments had panicked about their ability to supply electricity to factories that needed it in order to operate fully. If this kind of illegal construction continues, a decarbonisation path for China will be a “mission impossible”. So Sepa’s actions are, in this case, a good, small step.

For the second part of this international climate change roundtable, click here

Don’t miss other articles in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change

China’s government is already aware of the direct impact of the coal burning that fuels about two-thirds of the country’s electricity supply. 30% of the nation’s land has been eroded, and five Chinese cities are among the ten most polluted cities in the world.

The government also recognises that it faces increasing external pressures about the amounts of emission the Chinese economy produces. On “Kyoto day”, the deputy general director of the National Development and Reform Committee, Liu Jiang, said that China must prepare well both for post-Kyoto negotiations and for China’s own sustainable development.

There are some signs of progress. The government has recently released its first renewable energy utility law. It is going to release its first renewable state plan and state wind resource assessment later in 2005. In June it will publish China’s first national strategy on tackling climate change under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

At the 2004 Conference of the Parties (COP 10), the Chinese government sent out a clear signal that if industrialised countries intend to create technology-transfer mechanisms, it will be ready to talk about an emission cap. It is arguable that among the Group of 77 (G77) developing countries, China is now taking the leading role.

The challenge is still huge. In order to prevent the most severe climate change, really new institutions are needed. This will require some “global wisdom”, quite apart from “national interest”.

Clifford Polycarp (Centre for Science and Environment, India)

Political leaders in India view climate change as a strategic issue rather than a fundamental problem that could have unforeseeable socio-economic consequences. They speak in catastrophic terms of the impacts of climate change when it suits them politically, without necessarily believing what they say.

Scepticism of some of the more extreme claims may be in order. But India cannot afford to belittle the challenge that climate change poses. Agricultural, coastal fishing and forest-dwelling communities – the great a majority of a national population now exceeding one billion people – are extremely vulnerable to shifts in weather systems and ecosystems resulting from climate change.

A sizeable proportion of India’s poor already face threats to their survival, which could be exacerbated by climate change. In 150 of the country’s poorest districts, drought is a perennial feature (these mostly tribal-dominated districts contain some 40% of India’s forest resources). Moreover, India’s long coastline is threatened by unexpected natural calamities like the cyclone in Orissa in 1999 and the tsunami in December 2004.

Indian governments have taken a strong moral stand on climate change in the past. More recently, the government has seen it more as a business opportunity. There seem to be two preoccupations: milking the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) cow, and avoiding any legally binding limits on its emissions.

The government still makes the right noises. The Indian environment and forests minister, A Raja, has emphasised the need for industrialised countries to reduce their emissions – most recently at December 2004’s Argentina meeting and at a New Delhi event marking the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol.

Yet India is relatively uncritical of the policy of the United States administration, and has been drawn into two US-led voluntary initiatives to combat climate change: the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLFMethane to Markets Initiative.

The biggest challenge for civil society groups in India is not getting their government to take a rhetorical position internationally; it is persuading the government to take stronger action at home.

Rubens Born & Mark Lutes (Vitae Civilis, Brazil)

The challenge of climate change has particular features from a Brazilian perspective. Around 70% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation, and there has been very limited progress in addressing this problem over the past decade. By contrast Brazil’s energy matrix – power generation and transport – has relatively low greenhouse gas emissions because of the extensive use of hydroelectricity and biomass energy sources such as alcohol and charcoal.

Brazil has played an active and constructive role in international negotiations. Brazil presented the original proposal for a clean development fund that became the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in Kyoto, and continues to be very active in the Group of 77 (G-77) and elsewhere. Brazil also plays key roles in several United Nations forums and a leadership role in Latin America.

Domestically, the government established a Brazilian Climate Change Forum (FBMC) to engage business, academia, trade unions and NGO representatives in the debate of national policies and CDM criteria. The ministry of foreign affairs has invited representatives from diverse sectors of society to meetings prior to each international negotiation. We think these meetings offer civil society a real opportunity to influence the process even though they are organised presentations of government positions. Civil society representatives have also been included in the Brazilian delegation to negotiations for the climate regime. Vitae Civilis, our NGO, has been participating both in the FBMC and in the Brazilian delegation to several conferences of the parties (COPs) since Kyoto.

Brazil has a very rich set of civil society networks. Brazilian NGOs, and the Social Movements Forum for Environment and Development (FBOMS), a coalition founded in 1990 to facilitate the participation of NGOs and social movements in the 1992 Earth Summit is recognised even by the government as a “partner” and as a key focus for dialogue. FBOMS, to which more than 300 organisations are affiliated, has obtained the right to have representatives in several multi-institutional national policy-making and advisory committees.

In our view, civil society participation in domestic processes and in Brazilian delegations to multilateral forums also serves to encourage other countries within and beyond Latin America to take similar measures.

The FBOMS includes issue-oriented working groups focusing on climate change, energy, and forests. Its coordinating committee comprises representatives of regional or thematic networks such as the Atlantic Forest Network (RMA, with 230 NGOs), the Amazon Working Group (GTA, with 400 organisations), and the Federation of Trade Unions (CUT, with more than 1,000 member unions). Other networks deal with issues related either to climate change or international processes, such as the Climate Observatory and the Brazilian Network for Multilateral Financial Institutions.

Public opinion and media coverage in Brazil is overwhelmingly in favour of action to prevent climate change. The small number of “climate sceptics” has very little influence. But there has been little public debate of what form Brazil’s eventual emission-reduction commitments may take, and the government’s negotiating strategy – in line with the G-77 position – has been to resist any formal discussion of this issue. The overwhelming role of deforestation in Brazil’s emissions makes it likely that this question will be central to future negotiations of Brazil’s role in the emerging global emissions-reduction regime.

Negotiations over climate change offer civil society groups a venue for pursuing more democratic global governance, and a chance to frame this debate in terms of sustainable development ideas. They can help us to link global governance to values and actions that can promote equity, and social and environmental justice.

We in the Brazilian networks hope to work with others to expand the participation of civil society groups in climate change negotiations, both nationally and globally. This will add more political force to the effort of making these negotiations secure lasting progress.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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