SHIFTS ON CLIMATE CHANGE - Rich countries would like poorer countries to cut emissions

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By Chandrashekhar Dasgupta The author has been involved in climate change negotiations for many years. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan earlier this year.
  • Published 1.09.08

There is a growing mismatch between the words and deeds of affluent industrialized countries on the subject of climate change. While joining the rest of the world in calling for enhanced action on climate change, they are failing to meet even their existing responsibilities. They are pressing developing countries to accept new commitments, while shrugging off and retreating from their own commitments.

The facts speak for themselves. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (agreed upon in 1992) called upon the developed countries to restore their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000 and, thereafter, progressively reduce their emissions in order to avert global warming. In gross disregard of these provisions, the total greenhouse gas emissions of the developed countries actually increased between 2000 and 2005 (the latest year for which figures are available).

This alarming trend was less clearly visible during the decade of the Nineties because of the economic collapse of the former Soviet bloc countries. The sharp decline in levels of economic activity in these industrialized countries (referred to as “economies in transition” in climate change agreements) resulted in a corresponding reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions of the “economies in transition” fell by 39 per cent during the Nineties. Emissions of other industrialized countries continued to increase but, because of the unintended decrease in the case of the former Soviet-bloc countries, the total emissions of the group of developed countries registered a marginal decline during the decade. This was trumpeted with great fanfare by the developed countries as evidence of their “taking the lead” on climate change.

The hollowness of this claim can no longer be concealed. The recovery of the “economies in transition” during the current decade has led to an increase in their emissions, in parallel with the continuing rising trend in most other developed countries. As we saw earlier, far from registering a sharp decline, the total emissions of the developed countries actually rose between 2000 and 2005. It is true that some of these countries, such as Germany and Britain, did reduce their emissions but this was not the case with a large majority of the group. Between 1990 and 2005, greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise in 26 out of a total of 40 developed countries.

The framework convention, as its name itself indicates, lays out a general framework of responsibilities and commitments, without assigning specific numerical emission reduction targets. These were set out in an agreement reached in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol. This agreement sought to reduce emissions from the developed countries by about five per cent by 2008-2012, compared to the 1990 baseline. With the major exceptions of the United States of America and Australia (the latter has now ratified the Kyoto Protocol), the developed countries accepted individual time-bound emission reduction targets. The overall reduction target was rather modest and even this will not be fully attained. Despite these limitations, the Kyoto Protocol has made a real contribution to tackling a global problem. Only quantified emission reduction commitments can offer a reasonable guarantee of achieving real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. It is essential that the developed countries should commit themselves to a new set of quantified reduction targets for the next decade as required by the Kyoto Protocol.

Negotiations on these targets have been going on for some years but the developed countries have used every ploy to evade the issue. With the sole exception of the European Union, they have maintained a deafening silence on their treaty obligation under the Kyoto Protocol to commit themselves to a second round of quantified emission reductions for the next decade. It is now quite clear that their real intention is to bury the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, they are talking about a “post-Kyoto agreement”, implying that the protocol should be scrapped. Their intention is to escape from the quantitative emission reduction commitments that are obligatory for developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol and to introduce, at the same time, new commitments for developing countries — in particular the so-called emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Developing countries have a number of commitments under the framework convention and Kyoto Protocol. They are not, however, required to take measures involving significant additional costs that would divert scarce resources from their priority goals of economic and social development and poverty eradication. The UN framework agreement provides that additional costs of agreed measures implemented in developing countries should be met through transfers of finance and technology from developed countries. These provisions reflect the fact that the industrialized countries are primarily responsible for causing climate change through their excessively high historical and current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and also the fact that affluent countries have a greater capacity than the poor to meet the costs of a global response to the challenge. The developed countries are thus seeking to undermine the ethical basis of current international agreements on climate change. Their object is to impose a new agreement that will enable them to reduce their own commitments, while imposing additional burdens on developing countries. In short, affluent countries are trying to pass the buck to poorer countries instead of discharging their own treaty responsibilities.

This is not the end of the story, however. A new and disturbing trend is manifesting itself in the negotiations. Trade protectionism, disguised as concern for the climate, is raising its head. Citing competitiveness concerns, powerful industrialized countries are holding out threats of a levy on imports of energy-intensive products from developing countries that refuse to accept their demands. The actual source of protectionist sentiment in the OECD countries is, of course, their current lacklustre economic performance, combined with the challenges posed by the rapid economic rise of China and India — in that order. Defenders of the global economic status quo are posing as climate change champions.

We should not succumb to pressures from rich and powerful countries to accept new, legally binding commitments, especially when they themselves are backing out of their own commitments. New commitments would result in a slowdown of our development and poverty reduction programmes and this, in turn, would leave us without the financial, technological and human resources required for coping with the impacts of climate change.

At the same time, we must act as responsible global citizens and make our due contribution to international efforts to mitigate climate change. This requires us to implement “win-win” measures that promote our development objectives while simultaneously yielding side benefits for climate change mitigation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The National Action Plan on Climate Change, recently released by the prime minister, sets out an ambitious and comprehensive approach for simultaneously advancing our development and climate change objectives.