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Climate change for everybody

Published by Newsweek on 1998-11-01

In Buenos Aires last week, eco-diplomats from 160 nations did something at a UN conference that surprised not just those skeptical of international gabfests but even themselves--they adopted a timetable that finally gives teeth to the controversial 1997 Kyoto Treaty on global warming. And in doing so, they offered the possibility of a remarkable consensus on the bitter debate over whether stricter environmental laws would hurt economic growth. A cleaner global environment, the delegates said, would create a better climate for generating more jobs, including more sustainable growth in the poor countries whose industrialization was contributing heavily to global pollution.

The Kyoto Treaty had committed 38 industrialized nations--meaning rich ones such as the United States--to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, setting a target 5 percent below 1990 levels. But officials in many signatory states had disputed the complicated provisions of the treaty; some national legislatures--notably the US Senate--refused to ratify the treaty (formally known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's Kyoto Protocol) on the grounds that it was too kind to developing countries by not requiring their compliance. Moreover, critics said that by not sufficiently emphasizing deadlines for implementation, the Kyoto Treaty even let the rich nations off the hook.

And so no one expected that last week eco-diplomats would wind up setting 2000 as the deadline for devising specific strategies for the implementation of the Kyoto Treaty. There was little doubt that the host nation played a significant role in the proceedings. President Carlos Saul Menem shook up his developing-country comrades--and pleased Western nations in the process--when he announced that Argentina would accept binding targets for limits on emissions of industrial pollution. His announcement signaled the first time that a developing country had explicitly acknowledged that it wasn't just rich nations that contributed to global warming. In an act of eco-statesmanship rare among world leaders--particularly leaders of developing nations that are industrializing rapidly and thus producing alarming amounts of climate changing waste--Menem urged that the international community take a tougher stance on global warming. "We must erase the false option between economic growth and environmental protection," Menem said.

Of course, it wasn't all amicability in Buenos Aires last week. Discussions at the Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP4) pitted 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 was 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 unsustainable for the global environment? The question generated fresh acrimony in Buenos Aires. The developing countries--mainly Brazil, China, India and Mexico--argued that while it's fine for the industrialized nations to advocate pollution ceilings, they cannot afford to comply readily--and certainly not with deadlines established at talkfests. Their industrialization is nowhere near completion, these countries contended, and they needed 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.)

Developing countries are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol's greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements. The Clinton Administration has been 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.) Last Saturday, as the Buenos Aires meeting ended, Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat declared that "Buenos Aires has not only sustained but advanced the momentum of Kyoto." The fact that Washington last week became the last of the industrialized nations to sign the Kyoto Treaty no doubt helped the momentum.

The announcement by Argentina and Kazakhstan announced that they would agree to emissions limit was hailed by diplomats as a breakthrough. But China and its allies opposed such a move--and such opposition may well be fatal to the universal implementation of the Kyoto Treaty.

Notwithstanding the good news from Buenos Aires last week, a stalemate has developed 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. 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?

The Buenos Aires "plan of action" also sets 2000 as a deadline for US backed adoption of an international greenhouse gas emissions trading plan. The Kyoto Treaty calls for huge emissions allowances to Russia and Ukraine. But 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.

As bleary-eyed delegates left Buenos Aires last week, there was general agreement that solutions to climate change problems need to be far more local and regional than eco-diplomats have made allowances for. In other words, what do poor countries get in return for global environmental compliance?

African environmental ministers have 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 international community 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.

The eco-diplomats who made bold moves in Buenos Aires last week surely know that in setting 2000 as a deadline for resolving such matters they have only bought themselves more time. There's much more work that needs to be done before a definitive international pact on global warming and sustainable development can be fashioned.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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