Greenhouse: Third World not to blame

An independent research institute based in New Delhi has accused the United Nations Environment Program, United Nations Development Program and the World Resources Institute in the United States of spreading disinformation about the contribution of developing countries — India, China, Brazil, in particular — to global warming.


Gases like carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere trap the sun’s heat, creating the “greenhouse effect”.

“The exercise of blaming developing countries has already begun”, says Anil Agarwal, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, who has just completed a study entitled “Global warming in an unequal world: a case of environmental colonialism”, co-authored with his colleague, Sunita Narain.

“Until recently it was widely accepted that developed countries of the West consume most of the world’s fossil fuels and produce most of the carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming”, says Agarwal. But in recent years, Western nations have been carrying out a sustained propaganda that deforestation in developing countries and generation of methane through irrigated rice farming and the keeping of cattle also contribute to global warming.

Recently, WRI, UNEP and UNDP jointly released a report, “World resources 1990-91”, which said that India, China and Brazil are among the top five countries responsible for the accumulation of these gases.

But CSE’s study, which uses WRI’s own data, gives a totally different picture. It shows that neither India nor China are responsible for any carbon dioxide or methane accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere, whereas the WRI-UN report claims that India is responsible for 476 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 5.2 million tonnes of methane.

The CSE study says that developing countries as a group are responsible for only 16% of carbon dioxide accumulating, whereas WRI-UN claims a Third World share of 48%. Developing countries are not responsible for any methane accumulations, says CSE, whereas WRI-UN claims a Third World share of 56%.

Why are there such dramatic differences in conclusions based on the same data? “The WRI-UN conclusions are based on patently unfair mathematical jugglery, politics masquerading in the name of science”, answers Agarwal.

He explains that large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane are absorbed each year by the troposphere and by the oceans. Therefore, the issue is not how much carbon dioxide or methane each country produces, but how much is produced over and above earth’s natural ability to cleanse the atmosphere.

No country can be blamed for the gases accumulating in the atmosphere are in the earth’s cleansing ability has been apportioned on an equitable basis. The earth’s cleansing ability has to be treated as a common heritage of humankind. Good environmental management demands that all nations should learn to live within the earth’s ability to absorb gaseous wastes, says Agarwal.

CSE has notionally apportioned the world’s cleansing ability to each country in proportion to its share of the world’s population. India, with 16% of the world’s population, therefore gets 16% of the earth’s natural sinks for carbon dioxide and methane. CSE finds that India is producing carbon dioxide equal to only 6% of the world’s natural sinks, and methane equal to 14% of the natural sinks.

The same picture is true of China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Chile. But almost all Western countries are emitting well beyond their shares of carbon dioxide and methane sinks. In Europe, only Portugal and Albania are emitting carbon dioxide within their permissible shares. It is Western waste and wilful overconsumption of the world’s resources that are threatening everyone’s environment. “While the cause belongs to a few, the effects belong to all”, says Agarwal.

But what WRI has done is to calculate the percentage of a country’s total emissions of carbon dioxide and methane in the world’s total emissions of these gases before they are absorbed and then hold the country responsible for the same share of the gases actually accumulating in the atmosphere.

According to WRI and UN calculations, the USA, which produces 14.4% of humankind’s annual output of carbon dioxide, becomes responsible for only 14.4% of the carbon dioxide actually accumulating. The USA produced 4500 million tonnes (mt) of carbon dioxide but is held responsible for only 980 mt of emissions accumulated in the atmosphere, while 2521 mt are considered as absorbed by the natural sinks. But India, which produced 1077 mt of carbon dioxide, becomes responsible for 476 mt accumulating in the atmosphere, while 601 mt are said to be absorbed by the earth’s environment. So India, with 3.4 times the population of the USA, gets less than one-fourth of the share that the USA gets in the natural sink.

The WRI and UN method of calculating is unfair also because it favours the bigger polluters. “The bigger the polluter you are, the bigger share of the sink you get”, Agarwal points out.

CSE’s method allots developing countries a fair share of the earth’s natural cleansing ability. Several industrialised countries are also shown to be less responsible for greenhouse gas accumulation than in WRI-UN figures. France’s contribution goes down by 43%, Japan’s and Italy’s by 36%, the UK’s by 12% and West Germany’s by 4%. But Saudi Arabia’s share goes up by 131%, Canada’s by 110%, Australia’s by 78% and the USA’s by 50%.

The CSE study also argues that it is patently immoral to equate the “luxury emissions” of carbon dioxide from US, European or, for that matter, New Delhi cars with the “survival emissions” of methane from the minuscule paddy fields or few cattle owned by a poor West Bengal or Thai farmer.

“The global environmental concern is all about caring and sharing and learning to live within the limits of the earth’s environment. The Western environmentalists are talking a lot about caring but there is no Western talk whatsoever about fair sharing”, says Agarwal.

Andrew Garton, Melbourne, 1991.

Published in GreenLeft Weekly, 1991

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