Climate Change

The missing key

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Wednesday 31 December 1997

Everybody from governments to ngos has missed a key point about the Kyoto Conference. Everyone has focused upon the problem of global warming and how developed and developing countries should work together to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The critical issue that we are dealing with here is not global warming but how to manage a global common property resource called the atmosphere. Behind all the global environmental problems that we have been talking about, there are global natural resources which are under threat. When we try to manage any resource, it is important to understand how that resource is being managed, who are the parties responsible for its destruction, and what are the stakes for humanity in that resource. Part of the problem is that the perception of many of these global environmental problems are driven by scientists who understand little about management or about property rights. They focus on technical solutions and insist that those technical solutions be adopted by everybody. Social scientists have paid very little attention, particularly in the deve-loping world, to the management of global environmental resour-ces. In Kyoto what is being negotiated, therefore, is not how much future emissions should be cut but how do we manage the atmosphere and who owns the atmosphere. If the atmosphere is owned by every human being on Earth, then it is now very clear that a few people are using this resource as a free access property and destroying it at the expense of others. Clearly, therefore, a good entitlements regime is necessary to establish everybody's rights in this common heritage of humankind.

It is indeed unfortunate that neither developed countries nor developing countries have raised this issue. Developed countries are not interested in raising this issue because it would mean establishing property rights of other people on resources that they have been using almost exclusively until now. In fact, the concept of common heritage of humankind, which was first applied to the deep seas under the un Conven-tion on the Law of the Sea, has been opposed by industrialised countries, particularly the United States. But what is most unfortunate is that even deve-loping countries and their leaders have completely forgotten this perspective and have totally played into the hands of those who argue, in overly moral tonnes, that we must get together to solve the problems without first thinking about who actually owns these resources.

Why is establishing a management system over these resources so very important? It is very important for the simple reason that problems like ozone layer depletion, climate change or pollution of the deep seas will keep arising over and over again. Even if these problems are resolved, there will be other problems in the future and we will not have established proper management systems for these global resources.

This is nothing new. All governments recognise that natural resources have to be carefully managed at the natio-nal level. But they want an open-ended regime at the international level because then the more powerful nations have greater access to these resources without any controls on their activities. It is extremely important, therefore, that developing countries and their governments wake up to this issue and start insisting on effective and just management systems for global natural resources.

In Kyoto, developing countries are under pressure to undertake obligations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. A just and fair entitlement regime would show that developing countries are not using their fair share of the benefits of the global atmosphere. And, therefore, it is only a handful of countries which are not only using their own share of the benefits of the atmosphere but also using the share of other nations. In the case of the atmosphere, it is necessary that all of us move towards a convergence principle in which only that amount of emissions is allowed which is sustainable in the long term. Developing countries should not just be reactive to the western proposals but they should take up a proactive position to say that the global atmosphere is something that belongs to everybody and nobody has any right to damage that resource. And that the management of the atmosphere, in order to avoid problems like human induced climate change will have to be built on equal rights.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the Kyoto conference and whether developing countries learn this lesson. The key thing that is driving the us position to bring in developing countries is the self-interest of its own eco-nomy. In a world fast turning global, companies do not want to get their competitiveness eroded. The polluter pays principle would mean that those who are the biggest polluters will be the ones to pay the most. In the case of global warming, this would mean that the companies of the industrialised countries, particularly in the United States, will have to bear the biggest burden and, therefore, may be unable to compete in the global eco-nomy. The us position has nothing to do with saving the environment. It has to do with the saving of its own economy. This is no way to manage global resources. Global resources have to be managed on the principle of equitable entitlements of all stakeholders.

Anil Agarwal .

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