Viewpoint: The lion in the dark

OUR PLANET 9.3 - Climate Change

Viewpoint: The lion in the dark


argues that developing countries have become
their own worst enemies by failing to take
a strong enough negotiating position
on climate change


The principle of 'common but differentiated responsibility' in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides an excellent springboard for launching global efforts to mitigate climate change. Under it, developed countries acknowledge that they are responsible for the present level of environmental damage in the atmosphere and developing countries accept that - regardless of who bears the blame for the problem - all nations must act responsibly to prevent further deterioration and, perhaps, to restore the natural climate balance. It is on this basis that we have been able to come so far in setting up international mechanisms for combating further climate change.

Unfortunately, developed country Parties to the Convention have taken advantage of this understanding and the whole exercise has been reduced to negotiating tactics and strategic economic positioning. This trend - signalled and spearheaded by the United States as early as the 1992 Earth Summit - poses an even greater economic threat to developing countries than the present extent of climate change itself.

Developing countries have failed to take a hard-nosed approach. If they take a firm hand the world can find a serious response to climate change and a commitment to act meaningfully to meet the Convention's requirements. A weak developing country position, as now, represents the greatest danger both to efforts for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and to their own internal economies.

Survival and naivety

Developing countries can only act within the bounds of two possible extremes. One is to participate fully and take equal, not differentiated, responsibility, as the United States wishes. The other is to pull out completely and press firmly for the North to take full and active responsibility. A middle position (the trend up to now) is a natural recipe for economic bickering, and leads to differentiated penalization by countries like the United States of those developing countries that fail to succumb to their position. Climate change is now about economic impacts and survival and it would be naive to expect the powerful to go easy.

Some argue that there can be no basis for action without clear and conclusive evidence of climate change, and that there is no justification for putting resources into responding to a perceived threat based on a weak scientific argument. Initial debate on climate change in such developing countries as Zimbabwe centred on this theory and was also slightly tainted with the traditional North-South conflict and a rather unrefined concept of the 'polluter pays principle'.

Yet the 'precautionary principle' has now gained acceptance both among most industrialized countries - including the United States, historically its most pronounced antagonist - and among developing countries, who have not the resources to go on a wild goose chase. If someone shouts 'LION' in the dark you would be foolish indeed to sit still and relax just because you cannot tell which direction the beast is coming from. But how far would you run for fear of the lion ill-defined in the dark? Naturally you would run until dawn, when it should become clear that the lion really exists.

Two-thirds of the Convention's 165 Parties are developing countries. It is not clear what they hope to achieve. But there are three possible benefits of membership. The first is to pressure industrialized countries, within the framework of the Convention, to act decisively and practically on their climate change obligations under it. The second is to enhance their own access to technologies that may be ushered in by global collaboration over climate change. The third is to participate in an important global initiative.

There is nothing wrong with any of these expected gains. But developing countries have not been able to position themselves well enough to achieve them. From the beginning, they failed to push the climate change debate into a strong framework of global negotiations. Such a framework, with clearly stated developing country goals, would have given them a more systematic and consistent approach to the negotiating process.

Both at the Rio Earth Summit and now, the only practical framework to fall back on has been the North-South dialogue. Developing countries managed somewhat to hang together in the form of the Group of 77 (G-77) and China. Perhaps this would be better expressed as China and G-77 - for China and, to a lesser extent, India, are, like it or not, the United States' major concerns.

The African block seems to be settling on four principal positions:

- That a ceiling be imposed on emissions on a per capita basis.

- That developing countries be allowed to increase their emissions, since they have to expand their industrial base.

- That a time scale be agreed within which both industrialized and developing countries would reach the same emissions level.

- That there be agreement on a convergence and stabilization of per capita emissions as a basis for future development paths.

These positions are weak and extremely watered down because of the lack of a clear objective or 'stated gain structure' by Africans and their colleagues in G-77 and China. This, in turn, stems from the lack of a negotiating framework.

Industrialized countries have a specific objective. Their message is clear, and this is another reason for loss of direction in global climate change effort. They wish to:

- Maximize economic benefits from the emerging climate change technology markets.

- Protect their industries from any losses associated with activities to meet their emissions reduction targets under the Convention.

These wishes strongly correlate with the push to force developing countries to make commitments to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. If the South does this, it will become a much stronger market for mitigation technologies, which are overwhelmingly supplied by industrialized countries.

Industrialized countries would thus ensure that the developing countries were compelled to harness a much broader range of cleaner technologies than they would under voluntary mechanisms. Under these arrangements, industrialized countries would not logically be required to facilitate developing countries' access to technology. This would lead to a major debt trap made worse by deepening technology dependency. And the costs of the learning curve in implementing mitigation activities would be more broadly spread among all countries, rather than falling on industries in developed countries alone.


Strategic failures

Developing country positions - such as those presented by Africa - fail to provide a matching response to those of industrialized countries because they are mainly tactical, and are much less strategic. The position of G-77 countries is further weakened by the apparent discord within the industrialized countries. It is hard for them to outline clear strategic positions when they seem to have allies among developed nations as well as foes.

United States industry, it is well known, has made strong inroads in Congress in its attempt to force the Government not to make major domestic commitments to reducing greenhouse gases. Denmark's strong message that it seeks a 'zero-coal' future, on the other hand, seems an encouraging development for the G-77 position. But closer analysis shows that the success of the anti-coal lobby in Denmark, or anywhere else in Europe and America, threatens a grim future for coal-sector development in developing countries. How could Danish funds be used to finance the activities of the coal sector in developing countries if the Danes had successfully opted for a zero-coal future?

The argument for per capita emissions is being presented as a way of reducing the economic losses of developing countries, and of limiting burden-shifting from industrialized nations to them. Even after a 20 per cent reduction by 2005, United States per capita emissions would be 20 times - and those of the United Kingdom 10 times - those of India: it would be a long time before they were equalized. Tactically this is a reasonable argument both for equity and to forestall burden-shifting. The graphic (opposite page) shows possible trajectories of emissions from developed and developing country Parties.

The economic implications of the present stalemate in the negotiations are hard to determine. Long-term impacts would gradually set in as the negative effects of the physical aspects of climate change begin to influence production. Short-term impacts derive from the political aspects of climate change. The first would come from a change in the environment, the second from a change in global economic circumstance.

The best solution is for G-77 and China to press for real quantifiable reductions by industrialized countries. This would have the effect of pushing up relative prices in the North for traded goods. If accompanied by the serious application of the Convention's principles - particularly the article on technology transfer and support for climate change activities in developing country Parties - this would indeed reduce the economic gap between the North and the South and force global economic harmony on a cleaner development path. The South would do great harm to their own economies, to the environment, and to global economic relations by failing to press hard enough for quantifiable and well-targeted reductions in the North.

In conclusion, two factors will determine the extent of the negative economic impacts of climate change activities on developing countries. One is the extent to which industrialized countries can carry out serious emission reduction in their own territories. The second is the position of developing countries in making commitments. Commitments to reduce their own emissions would result in fully shifting the burden from industrialized to developing countries, and create a huge captive market for cleaner production technologies in developing countries to the disproportionate benefit of industrialized ones, leading to further economic differentiation between the two blocs.

These negative effects are made possible by the lack of a clear economic benefit target by G-77 and China, who seem to dwell more on tactical positions than on a clear and publicly pronounced one. The lack of such a position is both the greatest danger to the climate and the most potent source of economic loss to developing countries.

Shakespeare Maya is Executive Director of the Southern Centre for Energy and Environment, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Ashok Khosla: Under threat (Looking Forward) 1999
Anil K. Agarwal: Effective, but how fair? (Ozone) 1997
Shridath Ramphal: Now the rich must adjust (The Way Ahead) 1997

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