A bad bargain

If the atmosphere is a common resource shared by everyone then should the South let itself be bullied into accepting a US diktat on emission reduction?

Published: Sunday 30 November 1997

By giving his endorsement to the communiqu of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting held in Edinburgh between October 24 and 27, prime minister I K Gujral may be signing away more than he has bargained for. The Indian prime minister may have jeopardised the position of the South even before the Kyoto conference has got underway.

The South has in its hands a potential bargaining tool to challenge the inequitable sharing of global common resources-- the atmosphere-- which is slipping out of the hands of the developing world, perhaps for good.

The prime minister's move, though well intentioned, has put the South in a fix because the declaration clearly states that the signatories have agreed to "call on the Kyoto Conference to recognise that, after Kyoto, all countries will need to play their part by pursuing policies that would result in significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, if we are to solve a global problem that affects us all".

The key words in this statement are "all countries" and "significant reductions". These are the very words that the us has been using for so long. Significantly, the European Union and Japan have joined hands with each other to counter the us argument, at the recent negotiations in Bonn as well as in other fora. When us President Bill Clinton presented his country's proposal on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he drew flak from many quarters, including industrialised nations. Even a us $13 million advertisement campaign by the anti-treaty lobby in the us did not mitigate the flow of criticism of the us plan.

This list of signatures taken at the Commonwealth meeting may be circulated by the North to show that the South is in agreement with them even though the official positions of the individual nations may be very different. All this will be compounded by tremendous diplomatic pressure by the Japanese who will want the conference to succeed at all costs, since they are the host nation.

The endorsement of the Commonwealth declaration, is a watershed, it has marked the beginning of the end of the most important principle of global environmental policy -- that the current responsibility for carbon emissions lies with the North as 80 per cent of the emissions come from the industrialised countries, which have only 20 per cent of the world's human population.

This principle had been evolved during the discussions at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Gujral's endorsement also puts in jeopardy any demand to fix emissions on a per capita basis, rather than a per country basis. A call for equal responsibility is logical only if equal rights -- on a per capita basis -- are ensured.

Negotiations on a protocol at Kyoto are around the corner to fix targets and timetables for the industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. As such this endorsement of the Commonwealth declaration by the Indian prime minister, which has been made without any prior national consultation or consultations with the civil society, has mortgaged India's interests.

The atmosphere should be treated as a common property resource to be managed on a regime that is based on per capita entitlements. Any position taken by India at the Kyoto Summit must also take into account the historical emissions of the developed countries. During the course of their industrialisation, these countries have treated the environment with deliberate contempt, emitting clouds of black smoke from thousands of factories. They still continue to emit tonnes of greenhouse gases. These emissions should be treated as the natural debt of the industrialised countries to the world at large. India and the rest of the South, which are now in the process of strengthening their economies, should not be expected to make the same, or even similar, cuts in emissions as the North.

Besides, emissions that are essential to the economic growth of these nations and the survival of their people (such as methane from agriculture), should be exempt from restrictions. These cannot be compared with emissions from the burning of fossil fuels used for such luxuries as running cars or refrigerators. The poor in India do not even have access to toothpaste let alone a refrigerator. They do not have access to proper food let alone an air conditioner.

Therefore, the suggestion should not be that all countries need to play their part. It should be that the North will take the initiative in reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases through immediate and significant measures.

For safeguarding the future of the nation, and of the whole of the South, India should go to the Kyoto meet with a definite pro-active stance against the Commonwealth Economic Declaration and similar positions. It should formulate one of its own, and push hard for its adoption, instead of meekly accepting the suggestions of those who are the culprits in the first place.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.