The South is acting

OUR PLANET 9.3 - Climate Change

The South is acting


describes voluntary action on greenhouse gases
by developing countries, and says that the North
must stop taking the planet hostage

industry The Kyoto Conference is the most important environmental meeting since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It presents both a great challenge and an enormous opportunity to take some necessary, practical and tangible steps to reduce the threat of climate change.

Global scientists and the expert community are calling for a 20 per cent cut from 1990 levels of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2010. But, in reality, levels have increased by more than 12 per cent over the five years since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in Rio.

So far the negotiations, and a practicable compromise, have been blocked by a group of industrialized countries led by the United States, where only 4 per cent of the world's population contributes 20 per cent of emissions of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile Japan, the host country of the meeting - the Third Conference of the Parties to the Convention (or COP-3) - has been accused of poor leadership and has not been able to put forward a reduction target, though along with many others it wants to ensure that all countries participate in a legally binding Kyoto Protocol. In addition, several OPEC countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have been accused of obstructing the process of achieving a common position for developing countries, represented by the Group of 77 and China, despite the fact that most of them are vulnerable to sea-level rise, extreme weather events, mass migration, threats to food security and other impacts of climate change.

The negotiators have a series of options before them. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) proposed a 20 per cent reduction by industrialized countries of their 1990 level of greenhouse-gas emissions by the year 2010, and this is supported by most of the scientific community, many developing countries and the global community of civil society participating in climate negotiations. The European Union is calling for a 15 per cent reduction by 2010 and a 1.5 per cent reduction by 2005, while Brazil has made a very similar proposal.

woman and man

IPCC findings

The global consensus of scientists, through the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that deeper cuts would be needed to stabilize and reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations. They also pointed out that early reductions were essential because there is a time-lag before the atmosphere and the oceans respond. Over 2,400 scientists and 2,000 economists endorsed the findings of the IPCC and urged world leaders to take prompt action. And President Clinton asserted in a speech on 6 October: 'I am convinced that the science of climate change is real. Although we do not know everything, what we do know is enough to warrant responsible action.'

The debate seems to be increasingly shifting - and is sometimes manipulated - from scientific concerns and ecological imperatives to uncertainty about economics and the costs of taking action. The enormous ecological cost of inaction has often been kept out of these calculations. So has the fact that many new jobs would be created from opportunities - such as the expansion of solar energy - arising from a de-carbonized economy.

The oil and coal industries worry that their profits will be reduced if Northern countries reduce fossil fuel consumption. So, as Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe wrote recently: 'The same industry that told us that climate change was bunk is now shelling out $13 million in ads to convince the public that, even if it isn't bunk, it will cost us too much to deal with.' But, she added: 'the public has learned something from its encounters with the tobacco folks. It is a bit of post-industrial skepticism about industry-financed science and corporate dis-informercials.'

One of the critical issues holding up progress in the negotiations is the perception that developing countries will together become the major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions some time between 2020 and 2050. So, cry some of the obstructionists of the Kyoto negotiations, they must undertake some commitment to reductions. Most others demand that the industrialized countries - who committed themselves under the Convention and are mainly responsible for creating the problem - must commit themselves first. 'Most developing countries are already taking significant voluntary steps to integrate climate change and greenhouse-gas reduction,' said the leader of one key developing country delegation recently. 'Calling for developing countries to undertake such commitments at this point is a diversionary tactic, and a violation of the Convention.'

In fact, most developing countries are already demonstrating a serious commitment by taking voluntary action. As a World Resources Institute report by Walter Reid and Jose Goldemberg puts it : 'Developing Countries are already effective participants in global efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, since the signing of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, developing countries may have achieved greater carbon dioxide (CO2) emission savings than industrialized countries.'

China - which accounts for 12 per cent of total world energy-related CO2 emissions, second only to the United States - has, says the report, achieved 'the most significant carbon savings over the past decade'. It explains: 'Although annual carbon emissions grew by 228 MtC [million tonnes carbon] between 1980 and 1990, emissions would have been 155 MtC higher in 1990 without energy efficiency gains achieved over this period. The World Bank estimated in 1996 that further efficiency gains in China have the potential of yielding savings of 1,000 to 1,700 million tonnes of coal equivalents per year by 2020 - an amount greater than China's total energy consumption in 1990.'

It adds: 'Within the past six years, India, Mexico, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Brazil - all of which rank among the top 25 countries for industrial CO2 emissions - also cut fossil fuel subsidies significantly.'

And it points out: 'Much of the growth in emissions in developing countries results from the provision of basic human needs for their growing populations, while that in industrialized countries contributes to growth in a standard of living that is already far above that of the average person worldwide.'

In a major initiative, a consortium of environment-development research organizations involved in global climate change has started a series of Regional Workshops in Africa, Latin America and Asia involving representatives from governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the research community from both North and South. The organizations include the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies; the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security; the Woods Hole Research Centre; Environment and Development Africa; and COPPE, The Graduate School of Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Their efforts are supported by over 10 other collaborating institutes from North and South and have financial support from four Northern countries and the European Union. Their final workshop is in Kyoto during the Conference.

The initiative has produced a report, based on over 12 country studies, which demonstrates a large number of good practices that support development and yet make significant contributions to greenhouse-gas reduction. Peoples and communities in most developing countries are taking many steps - including energy efficiency, improved cooking stoves, better and low carbon housing, afforestation, switching fuels and cogeneration - making a significant contribution both to local environmental benefits and to the reduction of global carbon emissions.

Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to global climate impacts - including sea-level rise, related flooding and enhanced drought - has mobilized both government and non-government agencies in a nationwide tree planting and reafforestation campaign. Early calculations have shown that, as a result, Bangladesh became a net 'absorber', rather than an emitter, of CO2 in 1995 and 1996.

India has initiated a massive programme on wind energy, and its current Five Year Plan (1992-1997) includes a National Energy Efficiency Programme, which has the potential to save 5,000 megawatts (MW) in the electricity sector and 6 million tonnes of oil in the petroleum sector.

Brazil uses ethanol from sugarcane for a transport fuel, and its PROCED programme will avoid the installation of 1,600 MW of new electricity generation at a quarter of the cost of generating the additional power.


Cooperation opportunities

The studies, and the regional workshops, also demonstrate opportunities and potential for technology cooperation. Most developing countries are building a capacity to address the issue at governmental, academic and NGO and community levels. There is significant interest from the private sector, which is waiting for the appropriate profit signals.

Most developing countries are attempting to achieve sustainable development and, in the process, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, thus fulfilling the two clear objectives of the Convention. Socio-economic realities may not allow them to make greenhouse-gas reductions a prime force for development, but they are consciously contributing to such reductions all the same.

It is futile, therefore, for obstructionists to take the planet hostage - and fail to act in the best interests of all people and future generations - on the false premise that developing countries are not acting responsibly. For they are, in fact, taking responsible action both in the letter and the spirit of the Convention. There is a strong case that they should work even harder at this - but the Convention clearly allows for the provision of 'new and additional funding' to that end. All industrializing and developing countries must act to save the planet from the threat of climatic destabilization - but industrialized countries must first make the commitment to significant reductions themselves. They must not cop out from commitment at COP-3.

Dr. A. Atiq Rahman is Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, Dhaka, and Coordinator of the Climate Action Network, South Asia.

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

Contents Next Article


Home | Contributors | Hot Links |
Feedback - Environment Forum | Subscription | Mailing List

In case of difficulties with this site please contact the webmaster at:

Copyrightę1998 Banson
All rights reserved.