Noise and a sane voice

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Wednesday 15 November 2000

Sometimes it is wonderful to have an opportunity to say, "we told you so." Particularly you feel strongly about the issue. A recent issue of Science (September 29, 2000) carries a comment from nine eminent us scientists and economists who argue that "equal per capita emission rights to the atmosphere" is the "solution" in climate change negotiations. The authors include John Holdren, member of President Bill Clinton's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology, John Harte, well known physicist and ecologist, and Richard Norgaard and his colleagues at the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.

They argue that the us government's insistence on "meaningful participation" of developing countries will block the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol because the long-term equity concerns of the South have not been addressed. And that these countries "cannot reasonably be expected to restrict their future emissions without being assured of a fair allocation scheme that will not impair their ability to develop."

The Kyoto Protocol, says the group, has assigned emission caps to the industrialised countries based on their 1990 emission levels. "But by basing future emission caps on past levels, the protocol rewards historically high emitters and penalises low emitters," says the group. Furthermore, this agreement based on historical levels would allow high emitters to impose environmental damages on other countries in violation of the 'polluter pays principle'. "This contravenes international environmental law," says this group of experts on climate and energy policy.

Instead, they say per capita allocation can work because "it is simple." Furthermore, ethics, too, demands this. The concept that all people have equal rights is a fundamental principle of many modern ethical and legal codes. The experts silence critics who say the per capita allocation is not politically realistic, saying that an agreements "sustaining unequal emissions levels are not realistic either."

"Institutionalising inequity is a poor basis for cooperation" is the conclusion of the group, which then calls upon the forthcoming Conference of Parties ( c o p ) of the climate convention to adopt the principle of equal per capita emission rights. This opinion has come soon after the uk appointed the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which presented its report on climate to the British Parliament in June. The commissioners said that in their view, "an effective, enduring and equitable climate protocol will eventually require emission quotas to be allocated to nations on a simple and equal per capita basis." These reports and positions are an incredible and exciting breakthrough in climate negotiations. We know the opposition and, indeed, the derision with which our position for equity in climate negotiations has been received over this past few years.

In 1990, we published the report Global Warming in an Unequal World . It argued that per capita emission rights should be the basis of climate negotiations. It generated interest and heat. But the time for emission rights was premature as the North did not agree to take on an emission reduction target on board.

But since the Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon in late 1997, our work gained momentum simply because the protocol committed industrialised countries to make reductions in their current emissions of greenhouse gases. To implement the actions, it set up a trading mechanism so that the industialised countries could buy their emissions from developing countries that were underutilising their share of the global commons. But this, as we have continuously pointed out, would freeze inequity in emissions. Secondly, it would not be ecologically effective as the cheapest and most cost-effective trade was in the climate-destructive fossil fuel sector. Therefore, the Kyoto Protocol would end up subsidising fossil fuels, which create the global warming problem and make renewable energy -- the solution for global warming -- even more uncompetitive. Thirdly, and most importantly, trading in global emissions was being conducted without the establishment of rights over the global commons. Trade based on per capita entitlements gives the perfect incentive for developing countries to move to cleaner alternatives.

But, unlike the early 1990s when we were tolerated, if not loved, this time we faced tremendous hostility. The stakes were higher. The us needed compliance of developing countries to meet its commitment under the protocol. Our voice was unnecessary and definitely discordant, particularly because it had reached key negotiators from the South, like those from India. Even our colleagues in the ngo community shunned us. When we were invited by a leading think-tank of France to participate in designing a us -European-Southern dialogue on equity, our us counterpart, an equally prestigious think-tank, refused to work with us. It argued that it would create problems for them with the state department. Even European ngo s, usually much more appreciative of Southern concerns, remained aloof by and large. But one of them did tell us that by raising issues of equity we were in the pay of the oil and the auto industry, as we wanted to derail the climate negotiations.

The politics is intense. But in an intensely unequal world, we will have to find solutions that protect the interests of both the rich and the poor. What makes us believe that we have a common future is this light we see from concerned professionals, academics and scientists. We hope that this voice will become a shout and then a scream very soon.

-- Anil Agarwal

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