Unhappy compromise over atmosphere

Though the bracketed chapter on atmosphere was resolved in Rio, OPEC nations continue to feel dissatisfied

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

Lined up for a cause: people f IT WAS no mean task to iron out differences to get an agreement on the atmosphere chapter in Agenda 21, the whole of which was bracketed at the last prepcom by Yemen on behalf of the Arab group.

As the use of oil was singled out as one of the greatest sources of pollution and the northern world is proposing fiscal and legal measures to bring down oil consumption, OPEC reacted violently, fearing severe imbalances in world oil market.

Initially, Saudi Arabia, with support from the other Arab groups in OPEC, threatened to eliminate the whole chapter from Agenda 21 which contained sections on promotion of energy efficiency. They agreed to retain it only when it was proposed that it could be shortened to focus on the already agreed texts in climate change, ozone, and transboundary air pollution agreements.

The new draft states that "no state can be expected to take measures under the chapter that exceed provisions in the climate change convention". The developed countries had problems with these words as they did not want the climate convention to restrict the scope of the chapter.

OPEC insisted on "economically viable technologies" to prevent the northern states from insisting on carbon taxes and on "safe and environmentally sound technologies" to prevent a rise in nuclear power. Countries with nuclear programmes, including India, found themselves in an uncomfortable position on the issue of safe technology.

"We feel some European countries are trying to impose restrictions on oil to promote nuclear energy," complained Abraham Mohana of Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis did not restrict their resistance to nuclear power. They even wanted to minimise competition from "new and renewable sources of energy".

Observed Raman L Shehri, another delegate from Saudi Arabia, "New sources of energy may not necessarily be safe. Even a renewable source of energy, like hydel power, is not environment-friendly." The Saudis were particularly critical of the attempt by European countries, especially France, to get nuclear energy listed as a renewable source of energy.

"It is a trick to emphasise on safe," argued Delphine Borione of the French delegation, "It is a wrong debate. We use our nuclear energy in a safe manner."

The Saudis categorically condemned Agenda 21 which they said ignored the importance of scientific certainty as a basis of any international action. "We still do not have proper scientific evidence to prove that oil is responsible for global warming," said Mohana.

Finally, it was agreed that while "safe" would be deleted from the text, a new paragraph would be added to the preamble of Agenda 21 to state, "Throughout Agenda 21, the term 'environmentally sound' means 'environmentally safe and sound'.

The negotiations got more complicated when the issue of the proposed forest convention was linked with the atmosphere issue, largely at the instance of the US. OPEC was keen to have the forest convention as it believed that the attack on oil supplies could be counterbalanced by the conservation of sinks.

Abdulwahab Al-Fawzan, minister of health and chairman of the environment protection council of Kuwait, argued, "Shouldn't we fight for existing sinks and not look for sinks that do not exist?" The atmosphere chapter was criticised by the Saudis as unbalanced because it did not refer to sinks.

OPEC officials remained unhappy with the final text of the atmosphere chapter. "UNCED has failed to ensure the required comprehensiveness, fairness and balance between environment and development", concluded Mohana.

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