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Caring for our climate

Published by Newsweek on 1998-11-01

When 159 countries signed a historic treaty in Kyoto last December committing industrialized nations to lower greenhouse gas emissions, there was euphoria among environmentalists. After years of heated negotiations an international agreement had been reached to tackle the politically--and scientifically--delicate questions of climate change and global warming. But the euphoria proved predictably ephemeral as officials in many signatory states disputed the complicated provisions of the treaty; some national legislatures--notably the US Senate--refused to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it was too kind to developing countries by not requiring their compliance.

Now eco-diplomats are trying to refine the Kyoto Treaty at a much awaited encore in Buenos Aires. Specifically, they are seeking to persuade poor countries to agree to reduced atmospheric pollution. But their talkfest at the Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP4) is, unfortunately, shaping up as a reprise of Kyoto. Buenos Aires, like Kyoto, is pitting the developed countries against the developing ones--as Kyoto did--on the issue of just how much atmospheric pollution is tolerable and whether the rapidly industrializing countries of the developing world should be required to accept internationally enforced constraints on their emissions.

At the heart of the debate is a question that has bedeviled the international community in the postwar, postcolonial era during which $5 trillion has been spent on promoting economic growth in what used to be called the third world: How much economic development is too much for the environment? The question is generating fresh acrimony in Buenos Aires, where industrialized countries had hoped to persuade developing states to embrace emissions limits--in effect putting brakes on their ambitious plans for economic growth. Representatives of the $2 trillion insurance industry have been pleading in Buenos Aires over the past several days for new measures that would apply some rationality to poor countries' industrial belching.

The developing countries--mainly Brazil, China, India and Mexico--are arguing that while it's fine for the industrialized nations to advocate pollution ceilings, they cannot afford to comply readily. Their industrialization is nowhere near completion, these countries contend, and they need to accelerate economic growth in order to meet the rising expectations of their growing populations. (For example, India--whose population is growing at the rate of 18 million annually--needs to create 4 million new jobs each year just to satisfy current demands; only rapid industrialization can offer a solution.) Led by China and India, developing countries have insisted that industrialized nations--especially the US- must first reduce their emissions in accordance with the timetables contained in the treaty before any discussions of participation by poor countries can take place.

Developing countries are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol's greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements. The Clinton Administration recognizes that a clear majority in the Republican-controlled Senate demands that developing countries be covered by the Kyoto treaty. The administration is frenetically looking for ways to coax the poor nations into being more accommodating so as to increase prospects for Senate ratification of the treaty. (Ratification by the US would give the Kyoto treaty the sort of universal clout it now lacks.) One such way has been borrowed from the classic tactic of British colonialism--divide and rule. The White House, with the cooperation of host-nation Argentina and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, is seeking to create rifts among developing nations. Thus, Argentina and a few other states are supporting an item on the COP4 agenda allowing for voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries. China and its allies oppose such a move. And so another stalemate looms in Buenos Aires.

A stalemate is also developing over the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows industrialized nations to finance clean air projects in developing countries. The CDM was included in the Kyoto Protocol but no specific rules or guidelines were established. One step envisioned in CDM is massive tree-planting in poor countries. For poor countries that have suffered deforestation because of burgeoning populations, such a project may be attractive. But are rich countries prepared to pay billions of dollars for tree-planting at a time when the total yearly aid package to developing nations has shrunk below $50 billion from an high of $75 billion a decade ago?

At Buenos Aires, the US is also pushing for adoption of an international greenhouse gas emissions trading plan. Nice idea, poor concept. The Kyoto Protocol calls for huge emissions allowances to Russia and Ukraine; as Washington's Worldwatch Institute, a well-regarded think tank, puts it, "These allowances are to be available for purchase by other countries, significantly weakening the emissions goals in the Protocol and undermining its legitimacy." The idea of, say, the US paying pollution berserk Russia and Ukraine billions of dollars for "hot air" emissions is so unrealistic that the entire emissions trading plan may be jeopardized. Still, the Clinton Administration--with an eye toward Senate ratification of Kyoto--contends that trading emissions credits across international boundaries will enable the US to lower its greenhouse gas emissions without harming the American economy.

A fundamental flaw at Kyoto and in Buenos Aires has been the negotiators' failure to adequately link Western environmental concerns to the development needs of poor nations. While global warming may affect the world community in varying degrees, solutions to climate change problems need to be far more local and regional than eco-diplomats have made allowances for. In short, what do poor countries get in return for global environmental compliance?

In Buenos Aires last week, African environmental ministers, led by Klaus Toepfer--the German-born Executive Director of the Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme (((OK/pg)))--urged integrated planning and implementation of multilateral environmental agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol. They called for more regional dialogues that involve the private sector, grassroots activists and governments. And they recommended that the Buenos Aires meeting create an "adaptation fund" for the poor and most vulnerable countries, so that they could undertake environmental compliance without undermining domestic development. The fund could focus on timely issues such as technology transfer, debt relief, poverty alleviation and the efficient and sustainable use of natural resources and control of desertification, according to Toepfer.

Absent such timely--and relatively affordable--mechanisms that incorporate development concerns of poor nations, Western-dominated eco-diplomacy may once again wind up in a babble of impractical techno talk. Worse, it may be doomed to irrelevance.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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