Turning on the heat

The international community is being exhorted to enforce a greenhouse regime

WHEN temperatures soared to alarming levels this summer in India, the rising level of global warming was squarely blamed. Many saw the rise as a confirmation of their worst fears that all of Earth is getting increasingly warmer.

Although it is inconclusive as yet whether global warming was actually responsible for the scorching heat this year, it is certain that gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), chlorofluorocarbons and methane cause what is called the "greenhouse effect" -- similar to what happens when the glass of a greenhouse lets in sunlight and traps a certain proportion of the heat, raising the temperature inside the greenhouse. In the case of Earth, greenhouse gases like CO2 and water droplets in clouds stop the heat from escaping the atmosphere, making the planet hotter.

The emission and concentration of greenhouse gases have been steadily increasing in the atmosphere. According to an overwhelmingly large number of scientists, it is fairly certain that Earth's temperature will continue to rise. But it is difficult to predict the effect global warming would have on life forms on the planet. The options are limited -- it's either wait and see or try to prevent the catastrophe.

It is to minimise the effects of greenhouse gases that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up in the '80s under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation. In 1990, the UN General Assembly set up the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). The convention was signed by 155 countries at the Rio summit in 1992. By June 1993, the convention had received 166 signatures.

To be operational, the convention needed to be ratified (approved by a country's parliament or cabinet) by at least 50 countries. Till June 10, 1994, it has been ratified by 76 countries. In India, the cabinet ratified the convention on November 1, 1993. The INC met in Geneva on August this year to discuss the implementation of the convention and to decide on the steps to be taken to stabilise climate change.

By signing the convention, governments have agreed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in their territories. The target of reducing CO2 to 1990 levels by the end of the decade was advocated by a few countries of the European Community and opposed by the US. This was because many of the European countries have well established public transport systems and there is a willingness among the people to pay for pollution the systems create. But in the US -- where the infrastructure for public transport systems is weak at best and gasoline prices are among the lowest in the world -- the people do not want to be burdened with pollution taxes.

According to the FCCC, "climate change" means a change of climate attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere. The climate change convention signed in Rio sought to stabilise greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system; to do so quickly enough to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to the change; to ensure that food production is not threatened; and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner in the developing countries.

In order to achieve the objectives set out in the FCCC, the reliance on fossil fuels has to be reduced because burning coal and oil emit CO2. Deforestation also needs to be restrained since burning or decaying trees release CO2. Measures to promote energy efficiency and penalising over-consumption are also major objectives. But all this costs money. The question is: who pays? Obviously, the polluter.

We also have to take into account that the change in climate and the required cuts in energy use would hurt the fragile environments of developing countries more than the countries of the North. Add to this the fact that developing countries have to spend the bulk of their resources to meet the more immediate concerns like eradicating poverty. Under these circumstances, it is justified that the rich nations of the North, which have been the main producers of greenhouse gases in the first place, pay for the costs involved in the efforts to reduce emissions.

The FCCC addressed some key issues like the provisions for financial assistance and the transfer of technology to determine who pays for the costs of reducing emissions in developing countries. The industrialised countries pledged "to provide new and additional financial resources to meet the agreed full costs incurred by developing countries in complying with the obligations under Article 12 (communication of information related to implementation)". They undertook to "take all practical steps to promote, facilitate and finance the transfer of or access to environmentally sound technologies to developing countries".

The Global Environment Facility has been entrusted to provide financial assistance on a grant or on a concessional basis to the developing countries so that they are able to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and yet continue with their development programmes. But this was envisaged as an interim measure as the ultimate control over this financing mechanism rests with the parties to the convention. The countries who signed the convention also have the right to review and redefine its financial mechanism after 4 years. In Agenda 21, formulated at the Rio summit, it was decided that the rich nations would contribute about 0.7 per cent of their gross national product (GNP) to this fund. At present, the rich nations contribute about 0.4 per cent of their GNP as aid to the developing nations. Thus, they are committed to contribute an additional aid of about 0.3 per cent of their GNP. Unfortunately, this obligation is yet to be fulfilled.

However, the convention defined only the costs of national emission after conducting research on the costs of implementation. It has failed to define the exact level to which emissions should be brought down; nor has it defined the scale and content of the effort required to achieve the goals of the convention. The subsequent negotiations on these issues have been unsuccessful in reaching a consensus on the level of emissions permitted and the exact costs involved.

The international community faces difficulties in implementing the FCCC because it poses certain negotiating obstacles. For instance, monitoring is a massive task because of the dispersed nature and variable consumption of those who use the atmosphere and the huge number of greenhouse gas sources. As a result, it becomes easy for the polluter to go on polluting without having to pay for it. Also, because of the uneven regional impacts on the climate, it is very difficult to assess responsibilities.

The most contentious issue is that of determining the net emission of greenhouse gases. Unlike the ozone-depleting gases, which come from a relatively small number of human sources and remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years before decomposing, the major greenhouse gases have larger natural sources and much shorter lifetimes in the atmosphere.

Another bone of contention is how carbon sinks should be treated while calculating total emissions, keeping in mind that the existence of nearly a quarter of the "sinks" is yet to be established through scientific evidence. Some countries demand that the effects of those sinks that are nationally-controlled should be subtracted from national emissions in determining emission quotas. Adding to these difficulties is the unpredictable way the atmosphere reacts to the greenhouse gases. Therefore, it is very difficult to agree on a particular method for calculating the damage and its cost.

The FCCC allows scope for bilateral agreements, with the Scandinavian countries proposing a joint implementation programme under which industrialised countries would get the benefit of receiving credits for their greenhouse gas emissions by sponsoring economical climate change abatement projects in developing countries. Developing countries, on the other hand, could obtain foreign investment and possible technology through the joint implementation. These projects could range from afforestation to sponsoring alternate technologies. At the Geneva meet, the participants discussed a common criterion for joint implementation, which could become a legitimate activity in the convention.

The first phase of negotiating the terms and content of the convention was partly completed at Rio. The ongoing 2nd phase is concerned with the terms and conditions for implementation. What is crucial at this stage is an effective global greenhouse regime -- based on the twin principles of equity and 'polluter pays' responsibility.

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