Developing country policy-makers should take close note of a not-so-subtle shift in US policy regarding climate change, understand its dire implications, and prepare to respond.
Last month, US President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and half their cabinet met at the White House to discuss the US negotiating position for the climate change negotiations in Japan in December. The meeting could possibly not have had a higher profile, and besides the high administration officials included the leading lights of the US academia, corporations and labour movement. The meeting was significant for developing countries because it seemed to spell a new direction in US policy that might hurt them. The message was: for the industrialised world (the North) to be able to do anything on climate change, the South would also have to do its “share”. Although the exact magnitude of this share was never laid out, it was obvious that the US will look unfavourably at any treaty that does not slap binding emission restrictions for the developing countries. What this means is the unraveling of the finely crafted principle of “shared but differentiated responsibility” in international environmental policy.
If this turns out to be so, it would mean that developing countries would be asked to make ´similar´, if not the same, percentage emission cuts. This, despite the fact that the historical and current responsibility for carbon emissions lies squarely with the North (80 percent of the emissions come from the 20 percent of the world population living in the North). Moreover, this will contradict the so-called “Berlin Mandate” of 1995 (which the US signed) that promises that the South will not be asked to forfeit its development aspirations in the name of global warming.
Doing anything to significantly combat global warming cannot be cheap. For the US (which produces 22 percent of all emissions), the costs could run into hundreds of billions of dollars. Even for developing countries which contribute a fraction, the cost would be big enough to put their entire economies in disarray. While the urgency of doing something is very real, the poor of the developing world cannot afford to pay the environmental bills of the industrialised rich. It is vital that policy-makers in the South – including in South Asia – recognise the not-so-subtle shift in US policy, understand its dire implications, and develop a concerted strategy to respond to it.
To be effective, any Southern strategy will have to dispel two common perceptions: first, that the developing countries are not really interested in the environment and, second, that they are merely using it as a new ploy for begging for money from the rich. This means that the developing countries need a strategy that is a) proactive in that it clearly states that they are interested in solving the issue and suggests concrete ways of doing so, and b) uses a principled stand instead of the begging bowl to further their developmental interests.
One such strategy could be to throw the proposals coming from the North back at them. To be specific, the proposal that the US and many European powers seem to favour calls for an “emissions trading scheme” merged with “joint implementation”. The general idea is to devise a semi-voluntary trading scheme, based on current net emissions, allowing the rich to invest in poor countries to get “good behaviour” credit. On the face of it the scheme seems to have merit: the rich are able to buy cheaper abatement, and the poor get much needed resources.
However, for the South it has many problems: it is akin to the medieval notion of “buying indulgences” by paying gold to have your sins absolved. It provides little incentive for changes in consumption, it does not penalise bad behaviour, it overlooks sovereignty considerations, and it ignores the long-term: what will happen when the efficiency gains dry up (which will happen soon enough) or as developing countries actually develop. The developing countries should do better than just raise these concerns. They should turn them around and suggest their own counter-proposal.
This is what the South should say to the North:
We think a trading scheme is a good idea and are willing to go along with it as long as it is based not on half-baked notions of joint implementation and voluntary arrangements but on the firmer grounds of a principle of ´per capita pollution rights´. If, indeed, the atmosphere is a global common then every individual, whether from the rich North or the poor South, should have equal rights over its use and equal responsibilities for its upkeep. Let us, then, give property rights to the atmosphere to the citizens of the world. Let us determine the average level of emission per person that the atmosphere can sustain and designate that as the per capita pollution right to be managed by the individual´s country. Those who emit more than this would be required to “buy” pollution space from those who emit less than their quota. The 1990 numbers for both population and emissions could be used to keep the calculations fair for high emitting as well as high population countries.
There are many advantages to such a proposal. First, such a scheme sends the right message to both North and South, encouraging the former to reduce emissions and the latter to keep them low. Second, it is based on moral principle rather than arbitrary allocation. Third, instead of turning developing countries into beggars it places them on an equal footing with the industrialised nations giving them the exact same rights and responsibilities. Fourth, it provides a viable mechanism for debt relief for the poorest countries. Fifth, it is based on a market instrument and meshes with the ideological template of our times. Sixth, it can bypass the sovereignty quagmire because countries are free to raise and spend the monies as they like. Finally, it is long-term in character: once established it can maintain itself until it dies out when all countries reach emissions that are at or below their per capita quotas.
The idea itself is not new. However, it is an idea whose time has finally come. Substantively, this has always been the best option for the South. Strategically, there are at least two reasons why this is the right time for the South to put forth this proposal. First, having themselves called for a trading scheme, the North cannot simply dismiss a proposal which is based on the exact same principle. Second, there could possibly be no better response to the new policy vibes coming from the White House. They are criticising the South for not fulfilling its environmental responsibility. This can be the South´s way of retorting, “OK, if you want ´equal´ we will give you equal – but equal means equal in responsibility as well as rights.”