Ignoring per capita emissions brings racism, eugenics of blaming population size, socio-economic aspirations of developing nations for environmental degradation.
Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and a number of other teenagers are suing Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and France for inaction on climate change, but not the United States whose per capita emissions are the highest in the world. They are not even suing Sweden, whose per capita emissions are double those of Brazil’s.
The per capita emissions of different countries make abundantly clear the relative contribution to pollution in the world. At the top of the list is the US, whose per capita emissions are more than double of even most other developed nations, including Germany and France. Per capita emissions from other developed nations everywhere (except in comparison with China) are more than three times those of developing nations in Asia. And per capita emissions of developing countries in Africa are a mere fraction of those of any other country in the world. If you compare, say a New Yorker, to some village woman in the hinterlands of Brazil or Turkey, the gap in per capita emissions will be even wider than what the comparison of national average shows. It is said that you would need seven planets to cope with emissions if everyone were to live as Swedes do.
In this context it makes no sense to single out any developing nation on environmental issues. This is the reason why developing countries and their compassionate allies throughout the developed world fought for years to place poverty and per capita emissions at the centre of the environmental discussion. If you do not look at per capita emissions, then you hide the real cause of emissions—lifestyle (“consumption” in eco-jargon) and environmentally damaging (“unsustainable”) patterns of production.
If you ignore per capita emissions you also bring back all the racism and eugenics of the pre-1970s of blaming population size and the socio-economic aspirations of developing nations for environmental degradation.
Any discussion on pollution, development and population carries within it the seeds of racist and eugenicist ideologies. Asking questions at a national or global level about what is the optimal population size relative to the Earth’s finite resources; or how to socially engineer a certain outcome inevitably brings us dangerously close to making distinctions between people or asking for trade-offs that are morally repugnant and undemocratic. From Nazi concentration camps; to forced adoptions of aboriginal children; to the sterilisation camps of India’s Emergency, history is replete with examples of terrible state sponsored pogroms that were justified on grounds of things like public health, giving children a better future and population control. This does not mean that we should not talk about the environment. But we should know that concern for the environment comes from a family of thought that has a mad gene and we should be ever vigilant against ideas that might carry that gene.
For experienced hands in the environmental debate this is a well-trodden ground. People around the world have worked long and hard over the last 50 years to develop a framework for talking about these issues that avoids the pitfalls of racism, eugenics and oppressive state action. This is why the member states of the United Nations have always insisted that environment, development and population will not be looked at in isolation, but in the broader framework of poverty, individual health, economic development and civil liberties. This has been the agreed approach in the United Nations since the 1970s. Those interested in the development of these ideas may read up on the UN’s Bucharest Conference of 1974, the Cairo Programme of Action of 1994 and the Millennium Development Goals of 2000. These principles are not merely historical, but have been reiterated recently in the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015. Most importantly, on the issue of curbing environmental degradation, the explicit and agreed principle in all these agreements is that developed countries will take the lead in doing so. Developed countries have also undertaken transferring clean technologies and environmental solutions to developing nations.
These principles are also embedded in the UN Climate Convention of 1992 and the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016. Climate change activists speak about “consensus”. This is the world’s consensus on the environment. It is a consensus for a holistic and fair response to the twin concerns of pollution and progress. It is a good consensus; probably the only one feasible in a world that is both finite and unequal.
Yet it looks as though Greta Thunberg and, more importantly, the people behind her are seeking to sweep aside this consensus by suing developing countries, and relative pygmies in per capita emissions, like Argentina, Turkey and Brazil, for the environment. The excuse for not suing the United States of America, which has openly rejected climate change environmentalism as contrary to the American way, is that it is not a party to the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child. In that case, why did Thunberg’s handlers not plan a suit under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to which the US is a party (it has only so far exited the Paris Agreement and not the wider Climate Convention)?
This is where the real motives and understanding of those behind Greta Thunberg become rather suspicious. While carbon footprints and climate change have caught the world’s imagination, both emissions and climate change are not the cause but only the (claimed) result of environmentally unsustainable production and consumption. However, the climate agreements do not address sustainable production or consumption in any substantial manner. Sustainable production and consumption have been taken out of the UN climate discussions and put into the relatively unglamorous and unremarked “Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production”. The Paris Agreement declares a grand vision of bringing “global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” but has no prescriptions on what specific actions are needed to do this. The Paris Agreement basically stops at asking governments to make voluntary undertakings on the amount of emissions reductions they propose to achieve. Without specific action on production and consumption this is, ironically for a climate agreement, all hot air.
On the other hand, all that the “Framework for Sustainable Consumption and Production” seems to have produced are long papers on the proper indices for measuring sustainability. In simple terms, this means that countries have not even committed to deciding the parameters for whether their production and consumption are sustainable or not, while at the same time talking big on cutting carbon emissions! How do they propose to cut emissions when they have not been able to decide what things they are doing are putting the carbon dioxide in the environment and by how much? The only proposals so far from the sustainable consumption and production framework discussions are fluff like product labelling, eco-tourism and eco-friendly building construction.
All this shows just how serious developed countries really are about making changes to protect the environment and it is here that eco-activism should be directing its attention, rather than suing developing countries like Turkey, Brazil and Argentina. Suing these countries makes no sense by any measure of environmental concern. Not only are their per capita emissions relatively low, they have agreed on the principles of environmentally conscientious behaviour much earlier in the cycle of their development than any nation in the developed world. According to the UN’s National Inventory of Greenhouse Emissions, Turkey has cut its greenhouse emissions more than any developed country.
The focus of serious environmentalists should be the per capita carbon footprint and getting some concrete results in the discussions on sustainable production and consumption. Given the gross disparities between the per head carbon impact of people in developed versus developing countries, it is an arrogant disregard of the facts for any Swede to sue countries like Turkey, Brazil and Argentina on the question of the environment. What makes it even more deplorable is the use by a pampered and indulged Swedish teenager of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child for this purpose. This document was meant to help feed, clothe and provide shelter to impoverished and vulnerable children. The UN Commission on the Rights of the Child deals not with “fairy tales” of economic growth, but with children in living nightmares blasted out of their homes by war, devastated by famine and teenagers trafficked from conditions of stark poverty into prostitution and hard labour. I am all for older teenagers being more serious and responsible than teenagers from prosperous nations generally seem to be. This is better than “discovering yourself” on marijuana by touring Goa and Manali on your “year off” in a country with endemic and rising unemployment. But grown-up issues need grown-up attention. Is Greta Thunberg ready to have a grown-up conversation?
Suranya Aiyar is a New Delhi-based lawyer and mother. She runs the website www.saveyourchildren.in, critiquing the role of governments and NGOs in child policy.