Selfish interests in the guise of altruism

Published: Wednesday 15 December 1993

NOW THAT developing countries such as India have agreed to respect the Montreal Protocol and phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances, the North is beginning to bare its fangs -- or, more correctly, its dollars.

For long, Western diplomats and negotiators have argued that the Montreal Protocol is an excellent model for further environmental agreements. On the contrary, the Montreal Protocol is flawed to the core. Pushed by the US and the UK, it respects economic interests more than good environmental governance.

Given the scale of damage caused to the world's ecology and the danger posed to the world's people, companies like DuPont should have ceased to exist. First, DuPont, with the full knowledge of the White House, stonewalled any effort to describe chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the key problem. Then, it used Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to turn the entire sordid affair into a game of international cooperation, with public, NGO and media attention focussing on developing countries. Ronald Reagan's government suddenly turned an ozone saver and Margaret Thatcher a green mum. And, all this green love came solely to save the companies from facing liability charges. If a company like Exxon has had to pay large damages for the small oil spill in Alaska, what would have been the scale of the damages levied on CFC-producers for harm to the ozone layer?

Under the glare of the worldwide media, NGOs and Western politicians, leaders of developing countries failed to pick up the courage to throw out the treaty and went along with its aid-and-charity approach. As it was evident that developing countries could not be blamed for the damage, given their low consumption of CFCs, industrialised countries offered the carrot of a fund to support their move away from ozone-depleting substances.

Accepting that fund was a grievous mistake. It left the purse-strings in the hands of those governments whose companies had created the problem in the first place. Clearly, a ludicrous principle. The rules of the marketplace are very clear: Companies are free to make profits, but must bear liability for their actions. But with Reagan and Thatcher playing a fast one, millions of innocent people -- from Chile to Australia -- whose ozone layer has been damaged, were cheated. So was the Western taxpayer, whose money is now being used to organise the phase-out.

So, how is this aid-and-charity approach now supposed to work?

Does it mean that developing countries must become perpetually dependent on imports of CFC-substitutes? Unless this question is answered, it can only be presumed that Western nations are trying to turn vice into virtue by developing a new market for CFC-substitutes. Will the fund ensure that developing countries will have free access to substitutes that do not damage the ozone layer? The answer of Western nations is clearly "No" because the rules of the marketplace say this is private technology. So why not auction DuPont and ICI for their misdemeanours and buy their technology for free access to all people on the earth? And, what if a developing country wants funds for research to develop safe substitutes? Will the answer then be "Yes"?

The key point in the treaty set-up is: Keep waiting and keep begging.

At least for India, some of that waiting came to an end in Bangkok, when the Fund's executive committee gave India's $2-billion plan of action a hard time. The government was asked to present a revised plan and a proposal from a laboratory to research the production process of HFC134a (hydrofluorocarbon-134a) was deferred. Out of the $5.1 million grants sought, only $1.8 million were approved. A Canadian (Western) delegate said bluntly, "If a multinational can produce a technology cheaply, why should we support any developing country to do research on it? It's cost-ineffective." India should ideally use the Fund's money to buy technology from Western countries and not develop its own.

Western countries are playing these games because they know well that India's financial needs for the switch-over will be high and India's plans will be carefully watched by other developing countries. Hence, their bid to dictate.

There are several complex issues involved in the development of a national plan to move away from CFCs. The first question is: to what? The immediate substitute available is hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), but they have a definite ozone-depleting potential (ODP).

Because of HCFC's ODP, there will soon have to be another switchover to substances with no ODP such as HFC134a, know-how for which is restricted to companies like DuPont, which will make billions selling them. But now, experts argue that HFC134a has a high global warming potential (GWP). So, how many transformations should India undergo, especially given our tiny ODP and fledgeling use?

It has been calculated that even if India's CFC consumption continues unchecked while that of USA completely changes to HCFCs, India's per capita ozone depletion potential will be lower than that of USA in the early part of the next century.

The Montreal Protocol does not respect the ecological rights or the ecological property of the South. There is no reason why we should be afraid to reject it. India is well within its rights to work out its national plan of action within the limits set by the protocol.

The HFC134a strategy is, in any case, being pushed by Western governments in an unholy combine with their multinationals. India should move to hydrocarbons that have no ODP or GWP. Hydrocarbons are available in plenty and with adequate research, the problems of efficiency and inflammability can be easily overcome.

Such a plan would have the full support of not just Indians, but also of all well-meaning environmentalists across the world.

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