Friday, Dec 02, 2022

Structural inequality and the response to global emergencies

Kaushik Das Gupta writes: For long, it has been apparent that a few people corner a lion’s share of the world’s resources, and exercise unfair sway in the way global wealth is used

A person carries a globe model during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 8, 2021. (Reuters)

The declaration of the just-concluded COP26 at Glasgow begins by making a reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. That was, perhaps, inevitable. The pandemic delayed the climate summit by a year and loomed large on the proceedings. High travel costs and quarantine rules reportedly resulted in several developing countries sending smaller delegations. On the eve of the meet, The Guardian relayed the warning of activists that about two-thirds of civil society organisations who usually send representatives to UNFCCC conclaves would keep away from the Glasgow COP, “making it one of the whitest climate conferences”. Health risks to those who attended were also obvious.

Yet, beyond such immediate links, there are other reasons to see the two challenges in a similar light. Covid, like climate change, is a global emergency — the interconnectedness of the world facilitated the proliferation of the virus and its mutants. Like decarbonising the world, rendering effete a virus that has no respect for national boundaries requires international cooperation. The WHO’s message at the pandemic’s outset — “No one is safe till everyone is safe” — expressed this imperative aptly. From a practical, as well as ethical, standpoint, therefore, preventing temperatures from rising catastrophically and dealing with the virus should be guided by the common purpose: Putting human well-being above parochial interests and commercial profits.

Since the early years of the climate change discourse, civil society activism has consistently refashioned the technical issue of cutting down emissions into one of ecological justice. At the core of this principle is the understanding that while the entire world is vulnerable to storms, floods and other extreme weather events, some people are more at peril than others. People in the small island nations face the risk of death, disease and livelihood disruptions because of coastal flooding and sea-level rises. Evidence from the US shows economically-strained communities of Black, Hispanics and indigenous people are more vulnerable to cyclones. As their land turns arid and crops fail, hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Africa to South Asia will be forced out of their homes. Madagascar is currently in the grip of a drought that could trigger the first climate change-induced famine.

Allied to the understanding of disproportionate vulnerabilities is the notion of “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR)”. One of the founding principles of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change, CBDR acknowledges that though all countries are obliged to address global warming, individual capabilities should guide the extent of each effort. It also recognises that all countries cannot be held similarly culpable for climate change — there is now enough evidence that a small percentage of the world’s population puts a disproportionately high amount of GHGs into the atmosphere.

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This is where the global concord on averting a climate catastrophe has gotten fractured. Developed countries have scarcely acknowledged that the roots of climate change lie in their industrial trajectories and high per capita emissions. This denial has led them to renege on pledge after pledge on climate funding and made them stingy with technology transfer to the global south. COP26 disappointed by its failure to frame a pathway to address this long-standing issue. But then that was expected.

With the carbon space shrinking, the principle of climate justice has come under duress and its scope has become constricted. The Paris Pact refers to CBDR but makes no mention of the historical responsibilities of nations. At COP26, there was precious little to allay the fears that decarbonisation could mean denying the poorest the things that people in the developed world take for granted or assuage apprehensions that a transition to a system that produces power intermittently from solar panels or wind turbines, and requires large-scale retrofitting of national grids, would end up jeopardising energy equity in large parts of the world — including in India, which showcased its ambitious renewable energy plans at the meet. According to the IPCC, annual investments of $2.4 trillion would be required till 2035 to fund a global clean energy transition. A post-pandemic global economy might make such investments difficult, especially in the outposts of renewable energy.

Like extreme weather events, the virus takes a toll on livelihoods, and impacts social classes differentially. Amongst the lasting images of the pandemic will be that of the procession of Indian migrant workers to their native villages. Lacking even the most basic social security, these workers continue to bear the scars of one of the most stringent lockdowns even after a large number of them have returned to their workplaces.


Medically, success on the equity front is crucial in the battle against the virus. The sharing of information among research agencies facilitated the development of vaccines at an unprecedented pace. But even before the vaccines had completed their clinical trials, developed countries signed agreements with pharma majors to procure doses of the most promising jabs. It’s an irony that even as we are in the midst of the greatest global inoculation programme, vaccine inequity is a major reason for prolonging the pandemic. Latest estimates suggest that less than 10 per cent of the adult population in at least 70 countries has completed the inoculation regimen.

At the same time, several countries have begun administering booster doses. According to the WHO, six times more booster doses are being administered globally than primary ones — a development described as a “scandal” by the global health agency’s head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Experts have made it clear that the virus will continue to be a threat in a world dotted by pockets of inoculated populations. These warnings do not seem to have struck a chord with the vaccine hoarders.

For long, it has been apparent that very few people corner a lion’s share of the world’s resources, and exercise unfair sway in the way global wealth is used. Structural inequalities in political and economic systems are compromising humankind’s capacity to deal with emergencies such as climate change and Covid, even as science continues to create pathways for human resilience.


The sentence carrying the reference to the pandemic in the Glasgow declaration also talks about “the importance of ensuring a sustainable, resilient and inclusive global recovery”. In an unequal world, such statements are increasingly beginning to sound like homilies.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 16, 2021 under the title ‘Climate of inequality’.

First published on: 16-11-2021 at 03:00:04 am
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