Green issues need equitable entitlements

Now that the Cold War is over, concern for the environment will play a vital role in international relations in the foreseeable future.

By Kamal Nath
Published: Monday 31 May 1993

WE ARE all conscious of the problems of the global environment. However, if we are to move beyond mere recognition of these problems and address them in unison, it is necessary to reconcile our differing perceptions on the nature of these problems, to understand them in their totality, and then to evolve strategies that transcend base selfishness and lead to enlightened self-interest.

Herein, I would like to suggest a number of considerations that participants in any such process should keep in mind.
Entitlements Global problems can only be solved through appropriate global management systems. To be workable, these systems must be fair and equitable. This in turn can be achieved only if we have clear rights as to the use of common resources, such as the atmosphere and if we resolve to use national resources, such as oil, minerals and forests, responsibly. The environment is not a fast-food franchise whose benefits can be enjoyed on a first-come-first-served basis. Resource use should be built upon equitable entitlements.

Equitable entitlements would help to fix liability and thus ensure that no one nation derives economic benefits from the environment at the expense of others. Once these entitlements are known, instruments such as emissions trading can be seriously considered to help price the use of a resource. (According to a World Bank estimate, emissions trading could mean the transfer of US $70 billion annually from the North to the South, an amount greater than the total official development aid today.)
Poverty Should not poverty also be a global concern? It is the poor who suffer most from environmental degradation; they are the victims of a tragedy that is not of their making. The irony of this situation cannot be overemphasised, for measured against the environmental stresses created by the rich, those created by the poor are insignificant. Indeed, in India, recycling of materials and reduction of waste is part of the national psyche and way of life, and examples of ecologically correct behaviour abound.
Structural Adjustments It is largely international economic relations -- characterised by a high degree of indebtedness and declining terms of trade -- that force us and other developing countries to discount the environment. If the South is to be more involved in protecting the environment, there has to be a fundamental change in these relations. The World Bank harps on about effecting "structural adjustments" to the economies of developing countries as a precondition for disbursing loans and financial aid.

Similarly, the North must now accept structural adjustments to its consumption pattern to put the world ecology into order. Those who have been living beyond their ecological means must repay their natural debt. There are no limits to growth, but there must be limits to waste. Market forces alone will not ensure this; experience has shown that ecological costs tend to be externalised, punishing the environmentally prudent and favouring the environmentally profligate.
Transfer of technology Transfer of technology is an issue that is as sensitive as it is important. What industrial waste, pollution and energy inefficiency we do create in India is often a result of outdated technology. How can developing countries comply with international requirements in technology-related fields unless the technology to reduce pollution is made available on acceptable terms? In this context, legal and national sensitivities about patents and intellectual property rights are moot. A legislative, executive or financial means -- or a combination of the three -- has to be found to enable this transfer or we must accept the consequences of continued environmental degradation such as destruction of the ozone layer and widespread flooding.
Biodiversity When genetic resources are taken north, they are treated as free and common, and knowledge of their characteristics as belonging to an intellectual commons. However, when the same genetic resources have been processed, they become private intellectual property, with high prices and royalties attached to them. Devising a system to compensate the real guardians and owners of genetic resources would be a challenge but not an impossibility. One solution might lie in granting preferential access to the products of bio-material, as it is usually in the form of pharmaceuticals or food-strains and can be of direct benefit to the great mass of people.

In sum, as the Earth Summit clearly demonstrated, awareness of and concern for the environment will be the hallmark of international relations in the foreseeable future. The end of the Cold War has reduced the threat of nuclear holocaust, but the threat of a shattered environment looms larger every day. Let us work as hard and as wisely to reduce this new threat as we did for the nuclear threat.

---This is an extract from a speech by India environment minister Kamal Nath at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston on March 8.

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