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Analysis

Kyoto's ghost will return

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Author(s): Anil Agarwal
Jan 15, 1998 | From the print edition
If predictions of global warming turn out to be true, the ludicrous decisions taken at the Kyoto conference will prove very costly to the world

-- (Credit: Anju Sharma / CSE)if, by the grace of God, the predicted ill-effects of global warming are muted or just fail to appear, then the world can write off Kyoto as an unnecessary exercise. But if indeed they bear upon humanity as predicted by most scientists, then the ghost of inaction in Kyoto will repeatedly come back to haunt the world.

Just what is it that the high drama of Kyoto has left us with? The simple answer is: Almost nothing. The reduction target of 5.2 per cent over 1990 levels for industrialised countries as a whole simply means 'business as usual' at 1996 levels. Global warming campaigner of Germany's leading nature conservation non-governmental organisation ( ngo) , Sascha Muller-Kraenner, says, "If we look at 1996 levels of emission of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, then the industrialised countries as a group are already below 1990 levels by about 4.5 per cent." In other words, as long as industrialised countries as a group stabilise around 1996 levels, they will have met the Kyoto target, which was agreed on after such high drama. The 1996 levels are below 1990 levels largely because of the economic collapse in the former Soviet Union countries and Central and Eastern Europe.

What do these targets mean for the environment? Again, precious little. As Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia in Norwich (uk) explains in a letter to New Scientist, "According to one of the climate models used by the ipcc , the difference between doing nothing as a result of Kyoto and adopting the eu position of 15 per cent cuts for industrialised countries is the difference between, respectively, 1.9 c of additional warming and 1.65 c by 2100." According to the ipcc , carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity have already resulted in a 0.6 c increase in average global temperature over the last 100 years.
Transatlantic chimera Just what are the lessons learnt in Kyoto?

Firstly, that the transatlantic differences are usually a chimera. In other words, don't trust the European Union. After a huge hype, the eu climbed down in Kyoto from its high moral ground for a second time. Even when the Framework Convention on Climate Change was being negotiated in the pre-Rio days, negotiations had dragged on for over 18 months because of differences between the eu and the us over the level of carbon dioxide reduction targets and whether these cuts should be voluntary or legally-binding. Finally, in a day-long closed door meeting held in Paris, the eu climbed down and the industrialised countries cobbled together an agreement. The us won the pre-Rio process with an agreement that only promised stabilisation of carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 on a voluntary basis, which the us is in fact not going to achieve. The then eu environment commissioner, Carlo Ripa de Meana, was so annoyed by the eu climbdown that he refused to attend the Rio conference in 1992.

This climbdown should, however, not be a matter of surprise. It is a systemic problem. There is a certain inevitability in the fact that eu will always climb down in the face of us intransigence.

Firstly, even if a few countries in the eu are prepared to isolate the us and undertake unilateral action, there will always be a handful of countries in the eu who would like to win brownie points with the us. The uk , for instance, often plays the Trojan horse within the eu. Its role in Kyoto shows that a change in government from Conservative to Labour in 1997 has done precious little in this regard. Secondly, even if the eu were to get united and take unilateral action, its politicians would face angry industrial lobbies at home who will argue that they will be forced to become uncompetitive in world markets. It is, therefore, foolhardy to expect eu's political system to deliver strong environmental action against the wishes of the us. The eu's performance in Kyoto has reinforced this for a second time. 'Meaningful participation'
Kyoto also shows that North-South differences remain an unfortunate reality and cannot be forgotten. So also is the role of the meek and forgiving within the South. For these countries, it is very easy to take refuge in the promise of short-term gains (some money and some technology, which rarely ever comes, but promises are always held out during the negotiations). The Mexican environment minister, Julia Carabias, told the Kyoto conference that Mexico was prepared to participate in any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as there was a financial mechanism. Several other Latin American countries also indicated a willingness to participate meaningfully.

Part of the reason that the developing world strongly opposed the Article on voluntary commitments was because it would allow a few nations to join in and thus set the ball rolling for North-South cooperation without any principles being set. Therefore, the age-old strategy of 'divide them one by one' had to be opposed.

It is also important to understand why China usually stands more firm than India. China is a dictatorial country which does not give up its principles easily. But within a market economy-cum-democratic polity like India, there is no dearth of ngos, academics, consultancy organisations and business leaders who see lucre in the 'financial promise' of the North and therefore work to undermine the resolve of the government. In a situation in which the government is itself inadequately prepared for these negotiations, even withholding information can be an effective strategy to sabotage national positions.

The third lesson for Southern diplomats is to understand the meaning of the word 'evolution'. Any government which believes that what is agreed in international environmental fora is a Brahmavakya (the Creator's dictate) is bound to find itself fighting with its back to the wall sooner or later and, at that moment of crisis, it will only be able to give the world the impression that it is being unreasonable and intransigent. For instance, in Kyoto, once the eu and the us had sorted out their differences over greenhouse gas reduction targets and timetables, the world (read Western) media immediately turned its attention to the squabbles between the North and South. A Cable News Network (cnn) interviewer, for instance, asked eu environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard late on the night of December 10 what she thought of China's intransigent behaviour, which was holding up the treaty. The cnn interviewer failed to point out that it was the intransigence of the us in the first instance -- its outright refusal to accept the treaty unless there was 'meaningful participation' of developing countries, an issue that was totally outside the Berlin Mandate -- that was leading to a firm stand by China.

The only option in such a scenario is to go well prepared, anticipating the moves of the North. 'Evolution' will rarely come through frontal agreements which give the South adequate time to prepare itself in advance -- simply because the South will not set a timetable for such an agreement with ease, and rightly so. Evolution will largely come through side swipes at the last minute, as it did in Kyoto, and lack of preparedness on the part of the South will mean that it will have no negotiating counters at the critical moment. The Indian government went to Kyoto with the belief that it would just have to stand firm against any involvement of developing countries as agreed in Berlin in 1995. But it soon found itself facing a Brazilian proposal for a 'Clean Development Mechanism' which would involve developing countries, and another proposal calling for 'voluntary participation' -- both of which constituted first steps on a slippery path. While the Article calling for voluntary participation was dropped on the insistence of India and China, the Article on the Clean Development Mechanism went through.

How and why do these steps constitute a slippery path? Because Kyoto talked about North-South cooperation within a very 'devious and immoral' framework. The Kyoto framework of North-South cooperation only asks the South to help the North to meet its target commitments in a cheap way. It is not a framework which helps both to work together in a fair and just way to meet the objectives of the convention.
Under the Kyoto framework, developing countries are merely being asked to undertake measures that would help them to reduce their future carbon dioxide emissions with the financial help of industrialised countries so that the credit for these emissions reduction can go to the latter. In other words, the mechanism for emissions reductions in the South proposed in Kyoto will only help the North to meet its emissions reduction targets. The way joint implementation (ji) and emissions trading have been conceived do not at all make them instruments that help the North and South to work together to meet the objectives of the convention.

Looking for an alternative
What would be a good framework for North-South cooperation that would help meet the environmental objectives of the convention and be fair and just at the same time? Hardly anyone from the South has worked on such a framework. This lack of application was strongly evident in Kyoto. A number of ministers from the South talked about the need for 'equity', but beyond that six-letter word nobody presented any insight into it.

The only framework that has been suggested up till now is the establishment of national emissions rights on the basis of per capita entitlements. Such a framework would demand several steps. Firstly, scientists would have to sit together to decide what is the acceptable amount of total emissions between now and a certain point in the future that would help to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Global concentrations of carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere have risen from a pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 360 ppm at present. If we agree to stabilise this concentration at 450 ppm, say, by 2030 or 2050, that would give us the total quantity of carbon dioxide that we can allow to accumulate in the atmosphere. Once the scientific community gives us that quantity, it can then be broken down into total annual emissions that would be permissible.

Under the per capita entitlements system, these annual emissions would have to be shared by nations on a per capita basis. In this way, each country would get its share of annual emissions as an entitlement -- or a kind of property right, if you happen to be a market economist -- which the country would have to live with in order to avert the worst effects of global warming.

The second step would be to set up a system for countries to trade their unused share of annual emissions. This would allow countries which have exceeded their annual quota to purchase emissions from a country which has not used its full share. Such a market-based system would immediately provide incentives to all countries in the North and South to start moving towards a less carbon-intensive path of development.

It would, firstly, help industrialised countries to buy at least some emissions from poorer developing countries at a cost that would be cheaper than taking domestic action. At the same time, it would give developing countries enough of an incentive to start thinking of investments in energy efficiency right away. Because every time a developing country invests in carbon dioxide-producing power generation technologies, for instance, it would know that it would be losing money that it would otherwise be earning by selling its unused quota of carbon dioxide emissions. This trade-off will become a living economic reality for all developing countries.

This framework for North-South cooperation would also give developing countries the economic wherewithal to move towards energy efficiency. As of today, an energy-efficient strategy would demand extra investment which many countries in their current stage of economic development cannot afford. They would also have to import the latest energy-efficient technologies for which many would not have adequate foreign exchange. These financial and technological difficulties are part of the reason why developing countries resist commitments for greenhouse gas reduction. The last two decades have consistently shown that Northern promises for additional aid and technology transfer to meet environmental objectives have hardly ever been met, and are also extremely unlikely to be met in the future, especially with the growing aid fatigue in the North and the fact that technology is owned by private individuals and corporations. But the framework proposed above permits such countries to earn foreign exchange to buy the technologies they want.

Need for immediate action
Why is such a framework far superior than the one proposed and discussed in Kyoto, and why is it vital to adopt and implement such a framework right away and not later? For several reasons. Firstly, as the Kyoto proposals do not expect developing countries to do anything except to help industrialised countries out in their commitments, the initiative for North-South cooperation lies mainly with industrialised countries. If, however, targets are weak, as indeed they were in Kyoto, then very little effort will be made by industrialised countries to work with developing countries. Thus, the Kyoto proposals are of a very limited nature. Moreover, they open up opportunities for geopolitics to play an important role. Northern countries can enter into ji projects or emissions trading only with 'friendly' countries and disregard others. In other words, non-environmental issues can easily enter the arena of environmental cooperation. Even if this may happen in practice, the agreed framework should not be such as to encourage this kind of behaviour.

Secondly, the Kyoto proposals mean that developing countries will continue to go ahead on a carbon-intensive path and will be asked to make extremely costly adjustments in their energy paths at a much later stage, when they have already made enormous industrial and energy investments.

Need for immediate action
Why is such a framework far superior than the one proposed and discussed in Kyoto, and why is it vital to adopt and implement such a framework right away and not later? For several reasons. Firstly, as the Kyoto proposals do not expect developing countries to do anything except to help industrialised countries out in their commitments, the initiative for North-South cooperation lies mainly with industrialised countries. If, however, targets are weak, as indeed they were in Kyoto, then very little effort will be made by industrialised countries to work with developing countries. Thus, the Kyoto proposals are of a very limited nature. Moreover, they open up opportunities for geopolitics to play an important role. Northern countries can enter into ji projects or emissions trading only with 'friendly' countries and disregard others. In other words, non-environmental issues can easily enter the arena of environmental cooperation. Even if this may happen in practice, the agreed framework should not be such as to encourage this kind of behaviour.

Secondly, the Kyoto proposals mean that developing countries will continue to go ahead on a carbon-intensive path and will be asked to make extremely costly adjustments in their energy paths at a much later stage, when they have already made enormous industrial and energy investments.

It is amazing that industrialised countries, and in particular the us, did not propose a better framework for North-South cooperation in Kyoto despite all the song and dance about how developing countries will be the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the future and, therefore, there is little rationale for industrialised countries to control emissions by themselves. Yet the only proposal that has been made for cooperation is to help industrialised countries. Kyoto was, indeed, shadow boxing par excellence.

Since the issue of emissions trading was not fully resolved in Kyoto, the fundamental subject of North-South cooperation to combat climate change will keep coming up. It is high time that developing countries like India and China came up with a proactive proposal.

The concept of per capita entitlements was first proposed by the Centre for Science and Environment in 1991 in their publication called Global Warming in an Unequal World. Since then the idea has also been strongly espoused by the Global Commons Institute, an ngo in London -- it got a group of African nations headed by Zimbabwe to support the idea at the Berlin meeting of the Ad hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate in October 1997. Simultaneously, the per capita-based solution has found supporters in the European Parliament as well as in the globe network, an organisation comprising parliamentarians with an interest in environmental issues. In an editorial just before the Kyoto conference, the London-based New Scientist commented: "To restrict warming to a reasonably manageable 2c, the world should probably be aiming to peg total global emissions of carbon dioxide to between 200 and 300 billion tonnes of carbon in the whole of the next century (that's 40 years' worth at current emission rates). That pollution should be rationed fairly. The most sensible option so far suggested would give nations "pollution permits" based on their population, which they could buy or sell among themselves as necessary."

Therefore, it is possible to build a broad alliance in favour of the idea, though it would not be such an easy sail for it. There will be detractors. Ehsan Masood of Nature, for instance, writes that when the idea of an equity-based distribution of responsibility to reduce global warming was posed to a us official, he retorted, "To me this is global communism. I thought we'd won the Cold War."

But it should nonetheless be possible to build up a strong alliance of developing countries in its favour working with key European countries. And through the ngo sector and other members of the civil society a strong pressure could be brought to bear upon the recalcitrant nations to support an equity-based and, even more important, environmentally effective framework for North-South cooperation.

Policing the North
Finally, let us look at an issue that Kyoto failed to address, leaving it to future negotiations. That is the issue of compliance. A legally-binding commitment is different from a voluntary commitment only when it is accompanied by a compliance mechanism. Many environmental treaties like the Montreal Protocol, which aims to phase out ozone-depleting substances, and cites, which aims to control trade in endangered species, have a compliance mechanism built on trade sanctions. In other words, these treaties state that those countries which fail to comply with their commitments can face trade sanctions. Trade sanctions, unfortunately, work only when they are applied by an economically powerful country against a less powerful country. But in the case of the Kyoto protocol, commitments have been made only by the most powerful nations of the world like usa, Japan and the European Union. Who can apply effective economic sanctions against them? Surely not Bangladesh, India, Denmark, Costa Rica or Nauru.

It will be truly interesting to see what kind of compliance instruments will ultimately get incorporated into the Kyoto protocol. Meanwhile, for a laugh, go to bed thinking about the un trying to create a global climate police which has the power to arrest the us president or the German chancellor. Or think of Nauru's president waving a legally-binding treaty against the Japanese prime minister for his lack of commitment.

Indeed, the threat of climate change has thrown up some extremely vexing challenges of our times.

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