Climate Justice in the Northeast

The Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 15) beginning at Copenhagen on December 7, 2009 is the most important COP after the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. In that protocol the rich countries made a commitment to reduce by 5.2 percent by 2012 with 1990 as the base, their emission of four greenhouse gases (GHG) that damage the ozone layer and cause climate change. But all of them have backtracked on it and are putting pressure on India, China, Brazil and South Africa to reduce their GHG emissions. Because of such pressure the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting was turned into a climate change meeting. There was pressure on India during the G-8 summit to reduce its carbon emissions. President Obama phoned to Dr Manmohan Singh on 1st December.

The rich countries are thus trying to escape their responsibility. They focus on emission reduction and ignore resource sharing. But more and more analysts recognise that climate change is a development issue that questions the fossil fuel based model which the world has known for two centuries. The GHG emissions it causes are threatening the earth's sustainability but the rich countries do not want to change their consumerist lifestyle that depends on it. So they are trying to shift the burden to the poor.

Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) is one of their ways out of the Kyoto protocol. A country gets points for emission reduction according to the number of projects it has under it. That is good in itself but the rich countries have found a subterfuge by inserting a clause that allows them to get points for emission reduction by funding CDM projects in poor countries without changing their own lifestyle. The first CDM is low emission technology. Some rich countries transfer their outdated technology to the poor because it is less GHG emitting than what they have at present but it is not clean.

More important are carbon sinks that are forests or greenery meant to absorb the GHG emissions. The carbon sinks do not have to be in the polluter's region or continent. For example, Northeast India has been identified as a possible carbon sink for Europe. It is never mentioned explicitly but during the negotiations a proposal is made every now and then to turn this biodiversity rich region into a carbon sink. Most carbon sinks are commercial monoculture forests. The Northeast is one of the world's 25 mega-biodiversity zones. So turning it into a carbon sink will involve planting a series of commercial forests that will destroy the biodiversity on which is based the identity and livelihoods of the people of the region. This aspect is ignored in the international negotiations that treat it as a CDM.

That brings two facets of the justice issue to the fore. The first is international justice. The fossil fuel based development model and overconsumption of resources by the rich is responsible for the problem. But they are trying to shift the burden to bigger countries in the developing world that want to invest in their own development. The USA with 6 percent of the world's population contributes 25 percent of its GHG emissions. Europe and USA account for 20 percent of the population and for 80 percent of its emissions. India, whose per capita emissions are about a hundredth of those of the USA and less than a fiftieth of Europe, is asked to reduce them because in recent years it has been investing in projects that are increasing GHG emissions.

The second issue is justice within the poor countries. The most vulnerable groups like the agricultural labourers, fish workers and small farmers do not leave their "carbon footprints" behind i.e. they do not contribute to GHG emissions. If they do, they are "survival emissions" such as methane gas produced by paddy cultivation and animal husbandry while the rich countries and the Indian middle and upper classes produce "luxury emissions" through fossil fuel and synthetic materials. These vulnerable groups, particularly women among them pay the highest price of climate change but they are ignored in the negotiations.

This issue is crucial for India where 70 percent of the population depends on climate sensitive sectors like agriculture and fisheries. Climate change has enormous implications for them particularly for the Northeast which is one of the world's 25 mega-biodiversity zones but has become a biodiversity hotspot in which biodiversity is being destroyed fast. One of its impacts is greater intensity and frequency of floods and droughts. The landless, fish workers and small farmers are its worst victims. Turning the region into a carbon sink will destroy it further. But the Government of India seems to have accepted commercial monoculture as a CDM. For example, the Bhadrachalam Paper Mill in Andhra Pradesh has planted eucalyptus for raw material on 300 acres of land taken from the tribals. That has impoverished the tribes. So for sheer survival they resort to the only alternative available to them of overexploiting the forests around them for sale as timber or firewood. That damages the environment much more than what the paper mill claims to preserve. But the eucalyptus plantation that is responsible for their impoverishment and environmental degradation has been declared a CDM and gains points for it.

The Northeast can face a similar situation. If this policy is followed in the region and its people are impoverished and forced to overexploit the resources for survival, they will be declared enemies of nature. Consumerism of the rich nations and of the middle and upper classes in poor countries has caused the problem. These classes invest in more and more vehicles. The state is investing on coal-based GHG emission producing thermal power plants. The 48 major dams it is planning in the Northeast will destroy its biodiversity and impoverish its people. Scarcity of resources will be one of its consequences. That will result in competition for scarce resources and more ethnic conflicts.

These justice issues do not figure in the climate change negotiations. Awareness of climate change is low in the region though it is paying a high price for it. Time has come for persons committed to justice to join hands to demand an equitable climate justice policy that goes beyond emission reduction and protects and develops people's livelihoods. The region has to accept the challenge of evolving a climate justice based development model that creates jobs for its estimated 40 lakh unemployed backlog and for the youth coming out of its universities, while preserving its resources and avoiding further damage to the environment.

Walter Fernandes

Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati