Earth Day: Are we doing enough for Mother Earth?




By Harshmeet Singh

Albeit most people in the developing world came to know about the ‘Earth Day’ just a few years back, it goes back to 1970 in the US when it was first proposed by Gaylord Nelson, a US Senator. Observed all around the world now, this annual event witnesses several programs aimed at raising awareness about the ill effects of pollution on our planet’s environment. The events range from International multilateral meetings and outdoor activities to fun quizzes and pledge taking ceremonies.

Earth Day aims at diverting the attention of the common public towards grave environmental issues such as depleting fossils, rising temperatures and pollution, so that they can force their national leaders to take note of the problem. Till date, numerous conferences have been held to chalk out a definite plan regarding reduction in carbon footprints at a nationwide level (since carbon emission has one of the most detrimental impacts on the environment). But with no nation willing to let go off an inch, a final and concrete consensus is still far from reality.

Much like other international agreements, the consultations on agreement regarding green house gas emission have divided the countries into two groups, viz. Developed and Developing Nations. While the developed nations have been calling the shots in most international agreements, the developing nations have, in unison, taken a strong stand against them on this particular issue.

Collective but differentiated responsibility                                               

While every nation agrees to the need for reduction in green house gas emission, there is disagreement on the individual responsibilities of the nations. The common perception is that since the developed nations such as the USA and UK have been emitting such gases for several decades, they had the biggest hand in bringing about global warming, while the developed nations, such as India and Brazil, have just kicked off their emissions recently. Therefore, the ‘reduction target’ for each nation can’t be the same.

This has created two different sects of nations, with the developed ones vouching for an equal responsibility whereas the developing ones supporting ‘differentiated’ responsibility. Agreeing to the demands of the Developing world, the Kyoto protocol fixes separate responsibilities for the countries to cut their green house gas emission.

Kyoto Protocol

After the Earth Day went global in 1990, there was a surge among the countries to lead the battle against green house gas emission which led to the formation of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. It was during the third meeting of the UNFCCC that Kyoto protocol came into existence. Signed in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol required the developed nations to cut down their emission of green house gases by nearly 5.2% by the year 2012.

According to the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005, the developed nations were handed out a compulsory binding target for the reduction in emission (for instance, 7% for USA). Additionally, these countries were also required to provide technology and financial support to the developing nations to help them cut down on their emission. The developing countries, on the other hand, had no binding targets for emission cut, but were just ‘encouraged’ to follow suit.

This protocol gives specific ‘carbon emission’ units to the countries as their annual quota for emission, known as ‘Kyoto units’. 1 unit is equivalent to 1 ton of carbon dioxide. If a country exceeds its Kyoto unit emission, it can compensate for it by buying units from other countries, which may have some unused units left from their quota. This is known as ‘Carbon trading’. Another method to compensate for overshooting the quota is to finance a clean energy project (say solar power project) in another country which may result in reduction of green house gas emission in that country, equivalent to the overshot units.

USA not a part of the Kyoto protocol 

The USA refused to ratify the protocol, citing that it would have a negative impact on its economy. The US that it would put its industries in a disadvantage against China and India (which have no emission cut targets due to ‘developing’ nations tag) and termed the protocol as ‘flawed’. Significantly, even if the US President personally favours the protocol, the powerful Industrialist lobby in the US would ensure that the protocol is never ratified.

Additionally, with China currently being the largest annual emitter of green house gases, the US won’t want China to get a free hand at running its industries while the US strives to adhere to the mandatory cuts.

Canada quits

Canada became the first country to back out from the protocol in 2011, quoting that since the two biggest emitters (USA and China) aren’t covered by the treaty, it won’t be effective. While the USA refused to ratify the agreement, China, being a developing nation, has no legal obligation to cut its emissions.

Copenhagen Accord

The UNFCCC met at Copenhagen in 2009, where the US, India, China and other nations ‘voluntarily’ pledged to reduce their emission in the coming years. With no legal obligation attached to this accord, it gave the countries some breathing space to think about their next move while giving them the luxury of saying that they have already pledged to bring about the change.

During this meeting, the countries also decided to launch a Green Climate Fund (GCF). Scheduled to start operating from 2013, this fund was supposed to be financed by the developed countries with $100 billion by 2020. The money in this fund would be used to frame policies, support programs and other activities related to climate change in the developing nations (which also include India and China!) But with an increasing number of nations opting out of the Kyoto protocol’s extension and no clarity on the fund contribution from the nations, the GCF is turning out to be a failure.

India’s stand

India is a firm supporter of the Kyoto protocol and its principle of ‘collective but differentiated responsibility’. While India isn’t shying away from any legally binding agreement, it doesn’t want the developed nations to dictate the terms and favour their industries at the cost of life on earth.

Our increasing efforts to turn towards solar and wind energy are testimony to the fact that we are committed towards reducing our carbon footprints. Due to our large population, the per capita carbon foot print for India is much lower than the developed nations. Furthermore, we have pledged to reduce our ‘emission intensity of GDP’ by close to 25% by the year 2020.

India has also pointed out towards USA’s reluctance in transferring ‘clean technology’ to the developed countries, as mentioned in the Kyoto protocol. But it seems that compelling USA isn’t an easy task even for a world body.

Would Earth Day help?

A number of nations have backtracked from their commitments of emission cut over the years. Japan, for instance, ended up increasing its emission by 3% (compared to the 1990 level), when it pledged to reduce its emission by 25% as compared to the 1990 levels. The other developed countries are also shying away from taking any concrete steps apart from preaching India and China on their carbon emissions. The recent US China agreement on carbon emission reduction is a welcome change. While the US pledged to cut its emissions by 26-28% (compared to 2005 levels) by the year 2025, China agreed to enhance its energy usage from ‘no emission sources’ by close to 20% by the year 2030 or earlier.

Observing Earth Day annually is a surely a welcome step. But individual efforts would find it hard to bring a major change unless the countries collectively decide to provide relief to the Mother Earth with some strong will.