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Decolonising climate action

Written by Rathin Roy


The global climate change challenge is to reverse global warming. This requires reducing carbon emissions. The effort is to make energy production less carbon intensive by choosing different energy sources, and developing commercially viable zero carbon technologies that substitute for fossil fuels.

This is a profoundly colonial framework. Consider the framework that was in vogue when environment, and not just climate change, was the focus. Relentless growth in consumption happened without regard to the impact on biodiversity, on the pollution of the natural environment, on the “commons” – things that all creatures took for granted as a common bounty, until the unprecedented acceleration in human consumption and production.

Climate change, too, is a consequence of this acceleration. So, to prevent global warming, consumption should reduce. But the acceleration in global consumption is highly unequal, and the majority of humans continue to be denied their basic consumption needs. So more equitable consumption patterns need to be fostered to solve the environmental problem.

The climate action agenda killed the consumption focused environmental framework. It shifted the objective from equitable consumption to reduction in carbon emissions, secured by developing commercially viable carbon reducing technologies that permitted existing high consumers to maintain their consumption levels. By narrowing the focus to carbon emissions, climate action was largely about switching from one type of energy consumption to another. The question of the commons was subordinated. Shrill cries about the dangers facing “our common planet”, and about “planetary boundaries” are advocacy tools to force those geographies that have yet to complete their development transition to do so without recourse to fossil fuels.

This left three basic principles of the high-consumption development paradigm intact.

First, “development” continues to be about all nations and peoples aspiring to attain the levels of consumption and comfort that rich people and nations enjoy. Decarbonisation would not discommode lifestyle choices of the rich. In winter, the climate conscious European or American, and the rich Chinese, relax in summer clothing in climate controlled homes, happy that the energy comes from a renewable source. They do not consume less heating and wear more warm clothing. They produce and consume every conceivable lifestyle luxury, using low-carbon clean technologies. They sip champagne from plastic free glasses. Their holidays are more expensive due to carbon offsets, but still affordable, because the global economic engine which keeps them rich is untouched by climate action.

Second, we continue not to distinguish between lifestyle and lifeline use of resources. Whether a unit of energy lights a poor Indian household, or keeps a rich Indian in air-conditioned comfort, is irrelevant to climate action warriors, as long as the energy is produced using low carbon technologies. This means that questions of structural demand composition are irrelevant to the economics of climate action.

Third, climate action does not negatively affect profits and accumulation by rich people and geographies. Research focuses on how to make clean technologies for private consumption – cars, central heating, air travel- commercially viable. Yesterday’s fossil fuel tycoons are today’s low carbon billionaires. Climate change warriors mobilise for electric cars, but not to downsize the arms Industry, a huge locus of fossil fuel use. Finance is enabled to continue making money through products like Climate bonds, “blended” finance, and the designation of “stranded assets”. The Green Climate Fund is deliberately under financed to illustrate that private finance for climate action is the only alternative. This done, climate finance warriors advocate public subsidies to private finance to keep their climate investments profitable.

If inequality of consumption is recognised as the major obstacle to tackling the climate crisis, then the conversation would be different.

First, food systems, that contribute a quarter of total carbon emissions, would be the centrepiece of climate action. Poor people and poor countries have to access food at affordable prices. But technologies to enable this have ravaged the commons, while continuing to leave people hungry. Other than token serving of vegetarian food at environmental events, rich people and geographies have gone expensively organic, while the majority of humans have seen their diets and environments degrade.

But this change would require a shift in climate action from a carbon to an equity transition strategy. More equitable consumption opportunities for food, housing, clothing would place agriculture, local production and urbanisation at the centre of climate action. Urbanisation, with more publicly shared consumption- of transport, water, and land would mean fewer cars and more public transport, and a more equitable use of land for living, working, and public amenities. Policy would aim for high but universal standards of provisioning in contrast to the current state of affairs, where the rich work, live, play and move in low carbon private bubbles, while the poor have to continue to make do with third rate public provisioning.

At the root, this would require an acknowledgement that the present climate crisis has been caused by disproportionate wealth accumulation, by a minority of humans, in a few concentrated geographies, leading to highly unequal patterns of production and consumption. It is this, rather than the unipolar focus on technologies, that should underpin climate action.

This is not on the table precisely because that is not how those who determine the course of global progress want it. In effect, therefore, they have colonised climate action. The global reset caused by the pandemic provides an opportunity to change this, to decolonise the future of our common planet.

This blog was originally published by Business Standard on 3 December 2020.