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Secret pact on climate change

By Darryl D'Monte

The United States recently unveiled the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, a regional pact that seeks the support of the world's most populous countries to bypass the Kyoto Protocol, take a "business-as-usual" approach and solve the global warming crisis through technology rather than global law

So the cat's out of the bag: a major reason why China and India were invited to the recent G8 summit in Scotland was not the recognition that they (especially India) had become major economic players on the world market but that President Bush was roping them into a "regional pact" on climate change. Bush, whom environmentalists are fond of dubbing "the world's dirtiest man" for his obdurate stand against the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes modest restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases which warm the earth's atmosphere, has made no secret of his mission to include the world's two most populous countries in such a treaty outside the UN multilateral system.

It has fallen on the shoulders of Australia's environment minister, Ian Campbell, to make this controversial announcement, which was officially followed up by Robert Zoellick, US deputy secretary of state. While Bush has rightly been pilloried throughout the world earlier for his ostrich-like stance that the science of climate change was by no means proven and later for calling for an agreement outside the Kyoto Protocol, Australia has toed this line. It has vast reserves of coal and any restrictions on emissions of carbon dioxide -- the biggest global polluter -- would affect its economy badly. It has therefore chosen to remain under the US administration's umbrella, but because of its small population and lack of engagement with the rest of the world, Australia's role in this arena has gone unnoticed.

At the time of writing this column, details of this pact (with the devils?!) are not available, but the broad outline is quite clear. It will be called the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate and, apart from the two Asian giants and Japan, the US and Australia, South Korea will also come on board. South Korea is another major coal producer and exporter and thus, like Australia, has a major stake in the way the world moves ahead on reducing fossil fuel consumption, or at least restricting its emissions. According to Campbell, the objective is to "expand the energy the world consumes and reduce the emissions".

Both the US and Australia believe that the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect this February, and requires industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below their 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, does not address the problem. However, they are ignoring the environmental and political realities of the world. Some of the most telling "global environmental accounting" is not done by international auditors like the late Arthur Andersen (which doctored Enron's figures) or KPMG but by the California-based Global Footprint Network. According to its mentor, Mathis Wackernagel, if the world's productive areas in terms of generating natural resources -- from both land and sea -- were divided equally, each "earthizen" would be entitled to 1.8 hectares in 2001. The average Australian required over 7.7 global hectares (19 acres) to provide for his or her consumption, while an Indian lived on 0.8 hectares, or two acres (www.footprintnetwork.org).

Needless to add, an American had a global "footprint" of nearly 10 hectares, only slightly less than the most profligate consumer of natural resources on the globe -- the United Arab Emirates. Every Chinese occupied exactly the global limit of 1.8 hectares. It is this accounting that gives the most realistic picture of who is responsible for destroying the world's environment and, in the process, for depriving not just future generations of access to resources but also making the world's present-day poor pay for polluters' actions in the past.

Even if the world were to stop, as if by magic, producing greenhouse gases overnight, there are accumulations in the atmosphere that will take hundreds of years to dissipate. As bodies like the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi have consistently pointed out, any global greenhouse gas treaty must take into account the "historical" emissions of countries which have been industrialising for up to 250 years. The other G8 countries are all in this same boat, though Japan is a latecomer (with 4.3 hectares per head).

The latest emphasis on a "regional" pact ought to raise eyebrows. In climate change, we are obviously talking about a global catastrophe. Admittedly, there could be severe localised impacts like, for instance, volcanic eruptions in East Asia, or the burning of oilfields by Iraq in Kuwait. However these are, by their very nature, temporary and limited and cannot by any reckoning be placed on a par with the prolonged emissions of industrialised countries over centuries. Allegations of such regional disturbances have to be treated with the utmost scepticism. This is precisely what happened just prior to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which marked 20 years since the historic Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro -- where George Bush Sr paved the way for his notorious son by refusing to sign the climate change treaty.

The UN Environment Programme, which is the only major UN agency along with Habitat to be located in a developing country (in Nairobi), put out a controversial "preliminary" report on an "Asian brown cloud" which consisted of haze (suspended particulate matter, to employ the scientific term) and was responsible for heating the atmosphere over this area. There is hardly any doubt that with increasing deforestation, along with urbanisation and industrialisation, Asia's load of such pollutants is on the rise. However, it should not be treated as the major cause of global warming, since it is only a few decades old. For that matter, Asia, which is the most populous continent in the world, has major areas to its south which are still not industrialised or urbanised for the most part and therefore can hardly be blamed for upsetting the globe's natural balance. At the time, the Indian government protested vigorously against such scientific sleight-of-hand and the report appears to have been given a premature burial.

This regional pact sounds suspiciously like a (global) Faustian bargain: if the rest of the industrialised world believes that it can continue to consume energy at current rates -- the US alone accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gases and thus is the most prodigal consumer on this planet -- even if emissions per head are reduced globally, the load on the atmosphere will put intolerable limits on climate as populations increase, with consequences that are already alarmingly apparent. How much more evidence do President Bush and others of his ilk need to remind them that the cost, in economic, social and environmental terms, of changes in weather patterns is playing havoc by the month, in one place on the earth or another? If nothing else, the insurance industry is going to step in and refuse to honour its commitments to compensate people for losses on account of damage brought on by drought and floods, not to mention fluctuations in crop production.

Campbell has spelt out that the new pact will require the "development of new technologies and deployment of them within developing countries". Here lies the rub. Instead of falling in line with the Kyoto Protocol and reducing emissions, this pact wants to take a "business-as-usual" approach and solve the global warming crisis through technology rather than global law. George Bush Jr's proximity to the oil lobby, both in his state of Texas and the rest of America, as well as to the Saudi Arabian oligarchs, is too well-known to bear repetition. South Korea has presumably also been roped in because, as an Asian country (more ethnically than Australia), it is better placed than others in the region to contribute its technology in making thermal power generation more efficient.

Bush has gone on record as stating that "US lifestyles are not negotiable", implying not only that Americans are accustomed to profligate consumption of energy, particularly with their gas-guzzling automobiles, but that he is not prepared to cut jobs by investing to make industry more energy-efficient. Instead, he has announced his own plan to reduce the "intensity" of greenhouse gases (the proportion of energy in a unit of output) -- not overall emissions -- by 18% over the next decade. However, since the US economy will grow by 30% over this period, it is evident that it will contaminate the atmosphere more, rather than less, in future. The demand for electricity in the US has risen by 45% over the last two decades.

All the worlds' technology cannot cleanse the air of pollutants if energy consumption continues to rise inexorably: the only solution is to impose some form of global order and ask every earthizen to consume up to a certain limit, after which he or she pays a very steep price. Indeed, the neo-liberal economies of the world never tire of reminding recalcitrant nations like India that they ought to adopt market principles as a sine qua non of growth. If this were so, every true free marketeer would call for the enforcement of the "polluter pays" principle. Even if historical emissions are put aside, a carbon tax of say $ 50 per tonne imposed on industrialised countries first, and later on developing countries, would, according to the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, not only rid the globe of greenhouse gases but provide sufficient resources to rid it of poverty.

Poverty, of course, was furthest from the minds of the G8 leaders, their concern for Africa notwithstanding (according to perceptive observers, Britain in particular is championing the cause of this continent to establish its foothold as its benefactor -- and, in the process, become the seller of technology to these impoverished nations, with the US having established its hegemony over much of the rest of the world, and India apparently only too eager to come under its sway of late). The prospect of having China and India as virtually unlimited markets in which to sell environmental goods and services, albeit at very attractive terms at least initially, is too tempting for the US. Zoellick has admitted as much in declaring that the new pact focused on "practical efforts to create new investment opportunities and remove barriers to help each country meet nationally designed strategies and address the long-term challenge of climate change". In all likelihood, there may even be a system of credits, such as has already been ushered in with the Kyoto Protocol and propagated by the World Bank and others. Under these "carbon credits" and "emissions trading" arrangements, the US for instance can pay India or China to install electrostatic precipitators and other devices in its thermal power stations and get the credit for the reduction in global emissions that this would yield.

China has already fallen for such sops; Indian officials and business interests are anxious to follow suit. However, the earth's environment does not observe such free market principles. The load on the atmosphere is already too heavy to bear and nothing less than a reduction in this burden will suffice. If India and China, with the active connivance of the US, Australia and South Korea, believe that they can take advantage of the global crisis by getting other countries to pay for their clean-up, they are making a grave mistake. The other climate treaty, which is wrongly touted as a huge success, is the Montreal Protocol on another greenhouse gas, chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. It will soon apply to developing countries, but who will pay the bill for the switchover to non-CFC technologies for refrigeration, air-conditioning and the like? In 1990, when there was a major meeting in London to work out the details of this treaty, China and India accounted for only 2% of CFC consumption. However, they need refrigeration for health and wellbeing and are now buying technologies from companies like DuPont that punctured the earth's ozone layer by selling CFC-based appliances.

The clean development mechanism is actually a short-sighted policy because it now costs an average of only around $ 3 per tonne of carbon saved -- for instance by planting trees in the South to absorb excess carbon dioxide emissions. However, as developing countries' energy consumption rises, they will eventually be forced to cut emissions too and the cost of doing so will increase several times. Where will these countries obtain the funds to do this without cutting down on the use of energy? The great danger is that these countries will sell out cheap in the near future, but pay a high price later on. Under the Montreal Protocol, a fund was created to pay developing countries to switch to CFC-free technologies, but it was voluntary and will fall far short of the needs of these countries. A decade ago, India alone was estimated to require something of the order of $ 3 billion for such a switchover.

InfoChange News & Features, August 2005