Playing it cool with climate warmings

Published: Thursday 15 December 1994

THE Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Convention (IPCC) report has confirmed the basis of what many environmentalists have been posting warnings for some time: that the current global emissions of greenhouse gases cannot be sustained by the natural environment. According to this report, even current emissions need to be downscaled by 60 per cent to minimise their deleterious effect on the global climate.

The report highlights the ever-increasing gap on what needs to be done, what is being promised and what is happening in reality. Industrialised countries, the major greenhouse gas emitters, are still talking about stabilising their emissions at the 1990 levels by AD 2000. The reports coming in from all industrialised nations, however, show a continuous increase in their carbon emissions. Surprisingly, even those nations in West Europe, usually supportive of environmental moves, which specifically committed themselves to follow the spirit of the UN Climate Convention, replicate the increase. No major policy decision has yet been taken by any of these countries which may halt this worrying trend.

This is obviously a failure of the inherent nature of the UN Convention, where only voluntary commitments are required. This characteristic was introduced and rammed through by the US, the largest carbon emitter in the world, which was, at that stage in negotiations, unwilling to commit itself to more than a nominal signature.

What is imperative now is turning the voluntary nature of this agreement into a legally binding one -- perhaps with the help of scientists, through the IPCC. Developing countries, who will face the brunt of any climate change -- all without the financial resources needed to adapt to it -- should lead the battle.

An earlier proposal submitted by Germany to negotiate a protocol to this effect was dropped in the absence of any support. Now, the small island countries, threatened by an inexorable rise in sea levels, have proposed a legally binding protocol. The proposal has been opposed by India and China, which suspect that it will give the industrialised countries an excuse to drag them into such a protocol without giving them what they claim is a deserved gestation period.

We believe that this is a shortsighted policy. India and China should be able to support the negotiations for a protocol on the condition that it treats countries fairly, according to their per capita emissions. The past example of the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting substances supports this principle. There is no reason why the proposed protocol should be any different. But by their blanket opposition, India and China not only sound remarkably selfserving among their other developing country partners, but also let the rich culprits go scot free, without so much as a whisper of repentance.

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