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The Kyoto Protocol

Published by Newsweek on 1997-12-01

The diplomats and developmentalists who are preparing for December's climatathon may have Kyoto on their calendar but they are likely to have Stockholm in their consciousness. They aren't merely negotiators seeking binding targets for developed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next century. They are players in the great global conference game that began 25 years ago at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Sweden. They are standard-bearers of the Stockholm established tradition of creating new bureaucracies after each conference, generating new demands by developing nations for foreign aid and technology transfers, and engendering fresh frictions over development policy between rich and poor countries. In multilateral circles, it's known as mission creep.

Mission creep involves incremental inflation of a mandate. The Kyoto conference is the latest in a continuum of a dozen international talkfests, each of which dealt with a new theme that upped the ante for the global community. In Stockholm, the theme was the "human environment"; in Alma Ata, "health for all"; in Bangkok, "education for all"; in Rio de Janeiro, the 1992 Earth Summit injected the term "sustainable development" into the global vocabulary. Each conference set the stage for the next; each conference spawned a new agency or thickened an existing bureaucracy- Stockholm set up the inept U.N. Environment Programme; Rio produced the moribund Commission on Sustainable Development. Now there's talk that a new superagency on global warming will be activated after Kyoto.

The conference continuum that started in Stockholm in 1972 is expected to culminate in a U.N.-sponsored "People's Millennium Assembly" in the year 2000. Several activist groups are already fashioning a "Earth Charter" for the 21st century for adoption at the assembly. It wouldn't be inappropriate to ask how significantly these conferences have contributed to global deforestation--itself one of the causes of global warming.

Mission creep may not seem a terribly malevolent notion, but there's always been a problem with the conference game. Regardless of which worthy cause was floated and what objectives were fixed, little thought was given to implementation of conference "programs of action." Because UN and other international agencies are generally paper tigers with little enforcement power, few conference goals have been met. Five years after Rio, for example, they're still bickering over just what "sustainable development" means.

There is also the dismaying reality that world leaders typically do little on global issues after conference photo-ops are finished. When was the last time "Children First!" (the theme of the 1990 Children's Summit in New York) served as the campaign theme for a developing-country politician, let alone one from the West? Indeed, climate change is a case in point: some 170 nations were signatories at Rio to a nonbinding convention on global warming; the very fact that the Kyoto treaty--which revises the Rio agreement--was deemed necessary underscores a fundamental flaw inherent in the conference game: lofty--and fuzzy--objectives are frequently preferable to specific targets because international consensus is more attainable on the former, and more fundable.

Notwithstanding all the hullabaloo over climate, how different will Kyoto be from other U.N. conferences? The prospects aren't encouraging. Whatever the final syntax of the compromise language that emerges from Kyoto, the treaty will fall far short of its proponents' expectations. Says Edward L. Morse, president of the Energy Intelligence Group (which publishes the influential Petroleum Intelligence Weekly): "At odds are the oil-producing countries, especially in OPEC, which have complained that the consumer taxes imposed by Japan and the governments of the European Union represent nothing short of an effort to stake claims to the 'rents' from petroleum exploitation that should be theirs. Among the industrial countries are differing views in Europe, Japan and the countries of North America--the largest users of petroleum in the world and the largest polluters. For these counties there are differences with respect to what constitutes 'reasonable' targets that should be the subject of government policy for controlling carbon emissions as well as the right mechanisms for getting there--taxes versus regulation."

Underlying all of this are debates between the developing and industrialized countries, Morse adds, with the former seeing a need for restraint by the major energy-using countries but wanting to accept no restraints on themselves lest they be deprived of the rewards of economic growth. Every climate negotiation since the 1992 Earth Summit has urged developing countries, however subtly, to address climate change because their rates of economic growth, energy consumption and emission of greenhouse gases would ultimately cancel out the benefit of any reductions by industrialized countries.

The uncertain prospects for Kyoto also stem from the fact that the short term technology doesn't exist to limit emissions without inhibiting economic development, especially in the emerging nations of the developing world which emphasize rapid industrialization as a key to alleviating rampant poverty. In an age of economic liberalization and increasing assertiveness of nations' sovereign rights, there is also the risk that the North-South divide on climate could turn sharply ideological. Developing countries may well revive an argument that served as their rallying cry during the 1970s, when Unesco triggered a divisive and debilitating debate over freedom of the press: What works for the rich isn't necessarily in the best interests of the poor. In other words, poor nations, claiming eco-sovereignty, would accuse rich ones of eco-imperialism.

Another troubling aspect of Kyoto is the ironical possibility that by proposing specific targets on emissions--however unsatisfactory to various parties--the conference will seem to be too compartmentalized. Of course, the Kyoto process had never claimed to be anything but a dialogue on climate change. Still, at this time of globalization and interdependence, can climate change be meaningfully discussed separate from population growth--especially since the world is now adding 100 million people each year to an already unsustainable global population of 5.9 billion? Doesn't more people mean more pollution, particularly in many poor countries where fuelwood, not fossil fuels, accounts for much of the atmospheric contamination? And doesn't climate also affect health issues? Shouldn't the problems of urbanization be part of the debate?

Development is a long-drawn, untidy and uneven process. And while international conferences can clarify issues and maybe even set some overall objectives for the global community, the real effort needs to be made at the grassroots in individual countries. Such a process would adequately take into account cultural sensitivities, traditions and the capacity of nations to respond to their economic and social challenges. That is where Stockholm went wrong: there was touching, but misplaced, hope invested in the global institutions entrusted with enhancing our common future. Not enough attention was paid to strengthening local institutions in the developing world whose engagement was critical to promoting human development. Kyoto seeks to prevent global warming from damaging the human environment well into the next century. But for much of the developing world, the future means now, and today's problems of poverty and social dislocation are far more pressing than whether the weather will be just a wee bit warmer a hundred years hence. Climate, really, is a matter of people--those who?e already here--and Kyoto might do well to show greater recognition of this.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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