The global cleavage on climate change is essentially between those that have grown rich enough to be climate-resilient and those that are not. The way to bridge this gap is not to set up any Loss and Damage Fund but to spend any money that the rich countries have to spare on sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere.
The World Economic Forum’s annual meet has ended at Davos with fine words and, presumably, fine wine. Of concrete measures to accomplish its thematic goal this year, Cooperation in a Fragmented World, no lookout notices were plastered around the venue, despite their striking absence. We present a couple of plausible suggestions.
The world has fragmented fundamentally not on sourcing energy from Russia. The boycott of Russian energy is more make-believe than real. Europe continues to source gas from Russia and is happy to watch China, India and others import crude from Russia, so that the total supply of oil in the world market remains more or less the same, averting the precipitous rise in global energy prices that would result from taking Russian energy supplies out of the market. Indeed, the West is happy to import the petrol and diesel refined in third countries out of Russian crude.
The real fragmenting of the world has occurred, and is proceeding apace, along two faultlines: access to technology with strategic implications, and the climate crisis. The challenge is to enable cooperation transcending these cracks. The world is inured to complaints about the digital divide. India shows that it is possible to overcome this divide with innovation — Aadhaar, which underpins digital payments and an ongoing revolution in democratising access to government services via tech in India’s states — and competitive markets for mobile data. But artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced microchips present a different kind of divide that is not easy to bridge.
Sure, some kinds of AI are easy to access and deploy. Every idiot who googles ‘Facebook’ and every self-anointed genius who googles ‘Wordle’ automatically make use of the AI deployed in Google’s search engine. TikTok’s success rests on its AI-powered ability to suss out what you enjoy watching. What would not be readily available is the AI used for war-fighting, cyber-snooping and sabotage.
The US has barred export of technology and technological products, including microchips, that would help China boost its AI capability and quantum computing and communications. That includes barring non-American companies that make use of technology developed in the US from selling to China.
China is developing its own technological capability to replace non-available US-sourced tech. If that is all that were to it, things would not be so bad. But the ad-hoc nature of such trade restrictions run the risk of competitive denial of access to assorted products, retaliation, and counter-retaliation between the US and China and among these countries’ trading partners. Trade wars destroy prosperity.
The solution is to institutionalise these trade restrictions and contain them to a bare minimum number of sectors. Such technology control regimes already exist: the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), for atomic technologies and resources, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement on export of conventional arms and dual-use (civilian and military) technologies, and the Australia Group on chemicals involved in chemical weapons.
Let the Carbon Sink In
Thanks to the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2008, India has gained membership of these control regimes (quasi-membership in the case of NSG, with China blocking full membership). China is a member only of the NSG. The institutional method of containing export restrictions on tech is to bring such tech under the items covered by the Wassenaar Arrangement. Once the terrain where the rules of normal trade operate is clearly marked out, accidental spiralling into trade wars can be avoided.
The global cleavage on climate change is essentially between those that have grown rich enough to be climate-resilient and those that are not. The way to bridge this gap is not to set up any Loss and Damage Fund, but to spend any money that the rich countries have to spare on sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere.
The discourse on climate mitigation must shift from emission reductions, via substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energy, to negative emissions on the part of the rich world. They account for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions and resultant warming. The Sixth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says 58% of the 2,400 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 injected into the atmosphere since 1850 took place before 1989, that is, before China’s take-off in 2000, and while the East Asian tigers were as yet mewling, rather than roaring. The rich world did it, in other words.
In 2019, while the average South Asian emitted 1.3 tonnes of CO2-equivalent, and the average African 0.3 tonnes, the average North American stacked up emissions of 17 tonnes, and the average European, 7.3 tonnes (from a consumption perspective).
The UN report also brings out that the carbon budget for containing global warming below 1.5° C above pre-industrial times was 500 Gt in 2020. A decade’s fast growth would deplete that. The only hope is massive amounts of CO2 removal (CDR) from the air. If the captured CO2 is just buried underground, it is pure cost, but if it is used as the starting material for a new chain of chemical reactions to produce petrochemicals, carbon fibre and ammonia, it would alter everything. Let the rich world in the tech, and perform massive CDR.
This article was first published in Economic Times as View: Formalise any trade restrictions, and let the prosperous clean up the atmosphere on 24 January 2023.