Today, world leaders will be in Paris to mark the opening of the COP21 climate change summit. The world cannot afford another failure, as was witnessed in Copenhagen six years ago. This time, the USA and China seem ready to do a deal and to bring most of the current and future largest carbon emitting nations with them. Yes, it is true that Obama, now approaching his last year in office, cannot bind the US Congress on whatever target he agrees to, and also that China might also struggle to meet its own commitments in the cold light of day. However, the alignment between the stars is much more auspicious than was the case in 2009.
The joker in the pack, and on many environmental and social issues in the G20 these days, is India. It is clear from his opinion piece in the Financial Times (FT) today, that Prime Minister Modi will play the “justice” card over the coming two weeks. This is politically pragmatic for the world’s second largest nation in terms of population (and soon to become its largest). It is a core premise of the climate justice movement that the world’s poor – who are the least responsible for carbon in the atmosphere are also likely to be the most vulnerable when faced by the results of rapid increases in global temperature – from crop failure, unpredictable weather to forced migration. The Pope made a similar point when speaking to the US Congress and United Nations in September.
India has one of the dirtiest energy mixes and is still very reliant on coal for producing much of its electricity. Modi makes the case that even a four-fold increase in coal burning will still not bring the country anywhere near the per capita emissions of most richer countries and so there is plenty of carbon “headroom” before it too needs to converge with the reduction targets essential for other governments to make this week. “The lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for many still on the first steps of the development ladder”, Modi writes. It is undoubtedly true that two whole generations of global politicians have failed to inject the renewables agenda with the ambition required (a fact in which most voters are also complicit) and that we might indeed have had better options on the table in Paris now if they had. Mary Robinson, and other leaders of the climate justice movement, are right to demand a global agreement on climate change that is not just sound in scientific terms but also socially equitable.
The persuasiveness of this argument comes from its historical perspective. Some in the climate justice movement go further, demanding that the governments of the west, and their companies, have more than a moral duty to change course, they also have a historic debt to be repaid (particularly if evidence of the risks of fossils fuels was suppressed). In such an unequal world, why should the poor of India be denied their own industrial revolution? Most activists will fudge the issue of India’s coal-powered electricity and instead point to the need for much greater investment in renewable energy everywhere, as Bill Gates has also signalled over recent days and Modi himself backs the new “international solar alliance”. There is also much room for greater efficiency within the way power is transmitted within India – the country needs huge amounts of new electrical infrastructure. But Modi will push the question of justice in part to protect the status quo within this own country. Unlike Gandhi (who he likes to quote), he is no revolutionary.
A point not fully acknowledged by Modi in his FT opinion piece is that future generations also have a need for justice. He takes Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship as his moral steer and it is a good one to take – it is the essence of sustainability: making decisions today with future generations in mind. But to do so from the concept of justice, is perhaps the most radical proposition that world leaders must reflect on in Paris this week. If unlike human rights and most existing moral codes that deal only with the living, we must consider the survival of our species itself and the rights of countless generations yet to be born, then the inequalities of the past 300 years are not the only issue of justice at stake and should not be the overriding moral argument. In such a landscape, there is no moral high ground for Modi or anyone else to attempt to occupy and that all world leaders will share in the guilt if a comprehensive agreement is not reached over the next two weeks. True climate justice requires nothing less.