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Climate Change and Global Equity

by Anju SharmaCentre for Science and Environment
March 31st, 2000

Most Northern groups that dominate the civil society opinion-making process within the climate convention have consistently ignored Southern demands for equity

At a meeting of international scientists and non-governmental organisations (NGOS) at the Netherlands recently, a list of controversial issues related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was put to vote, to prioritise discussions. The list contained a range of issues, from the fears expressed by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that they would lose income if nations cut down on fossil fuel use, to principles such as equity between nations in the convention. Participants were given red and green dots to mark issues listed on a flip chart -- a green dot signifying high priority issue and a red dot low priority.

Though OPEC's concerns have raised very little sympathy among international environmental groups in the past -- many consider their demand for compensation to stop polluting as ridiculous -- it was not OPEC that got bottom rating at the Netherlands meeting. Instead 'principles of equity' was a red blotch at the end of the voting, signifying maximum resistance, and a rash of emotion against the issue. Why were the participants, mostly Westerners, against even discussing the principle of equity within an international convention such as the UNFCCC?

The reaction of this group mirrored that of many Northern NGO groups to the e-word, ranging from uneasy silence (for who in this day and age CAN come out and oppose equity outright?) to absurd arguments that per capita entitlements would give countries an incentive to increase their population. Many see the principle of per capita rights to the atmosphere as compromising the future of the climate negotiations because the us, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, will not hear of it. They argue that the climate convention is not the forum to address equity -- another place, another time, they say. Very few Northern groups are willing to come out in support for equal rights to the atmosphere and accept that industrialised countries will have to curb their emissions while allowing developing countries a chance at development.

Northerners at the Netherlands meeting preferred an incremental approach to the convention -- lay down rules as you go along, rather than discuss principles that industrialised countries may have a problem with. Unfortunately, this approach just does not suit poor countries -- in the long run, all they have in their favour against the economic might of industrialised countries is strong and just principles. If the climate convention does not accept the principle that all human beings have equal rights to the atmosphere and lay down exactly what these rights are, what is to prevent industrialised countries from using more than their share? This fact has escaped civil society groups, who have become partners to a form of modern-day eco-imperialism, giving equity concerns in the UNFCCC low priority simply because the us Senate will not hear of it.


A Force to Reckon With

NGOS and scientists, which form the backbone of the world's civil society, have had a role in the global warming issue from the very beginning -- first in raising public awareness of the gravity of the problem, and, early in the negotiations, in keeping the issue in focus. At the first conference of parties (cop) of the UNFCCC in Berlin in 1995, NGOS from the North and South came together under a coalition called the Climate Action Network (CAN), to dispel the notion of large developing countries being bottlenecks for solving the climate problem. A 200-people strong CAN backed the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), in opposing a German proposal that implicated developing countries by looking only at future emission projections, completely ignoring the past and current emissions of industrialised countries. The remarkable consolidation of NGO opinion at Berlin forced German environment minister Angela Merkel to withdraw the proposal.

Post-Berlin, however, as the climate issue got more and more entrenched in political and scientific complexities, the role of civil society has become increasingly blurred. Many Northern NGOS have fallen victim to the web of scientific complexities spun by industrialised countries unwilling to take on reduction commitments, and lost sight of their original goal in a maze of baselines, percentage cuts, sinks, trading and a whole lot of other creative diversions. North-South equity, the mainstay of NGO concerns during the UN Convention on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, has become secondary. Northern NGOS dominate the CAN coalition, and most representatives from the developing world have completely failed to bring basic Southern concerns onto CAN's agenda. They have been happy to serve as consenting voices to the Northern NGO agenda.

At cop-3 in Kyoto in 1997, and also at cop-4 in Buenos Aires the following year, most CAN members fell victim to the Stockholm syndrome, once the us announced that it would not take on reduction targets unless it had participation from key developing countries. As the us held the negotiators hostage, the goal of the convention suddenly became us ratification rather than climate change mitigation. NGOS from the us started pushing for 'voluntary' developing country participation as the only "pragmatic" way of getting the us on board. At cop-4, some NGOS from the North came out in open support for the Argentine decision to take on voluntary commitments. A press release issued by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace International welcomed the move, and warned that they will be "watching to ensure that it (Argentina) brings forward an environment-friendly target."

The word "pragmatic" has been used several times by NGO representatives, to justify why CAN no longer pushes for North-South equity as a major issue at the climate talks. Pragmatic, of course, is defined from the point of view of the us. Some NGOS have even gone as far as saying that the climate treaty was not meant to deal with inequity in the world, only with climate change. Others are willing to accept the theoretical need for equity in the convention, but are unwilling to push for its definition. But, as Southern NGOS like the CSE have pointed out, when it comes to dealing with a common resource like the atmosphere, the concept of equity cannot remain in the background. It has to form the basis of any workable framework.


The US strategy

As it stands, the us government has a useful ally in Northern NGO groups, in pushing their cause for commitments from developing countries. Fully aware that a protocol without us ratification is meaningless -- since they are the world's largest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- the us senate, negotiators and industry capitalise on their ability to hold negotiations hostage to their demands. The list of us demands includes developing country participation, low commitments, and the flexibility to meet their entire commitment through emissions trading and the clean development mechanism. While the first demand questions social justice and equity, the very basis on which any global negotiation should be built in a civilised world, the latter two threaten the objectives of the treaty -- its ecological effectiveness.

However, the position taken by the us negotiators, known to sell out for short-term gain, is far more understandable than the position taken by the so-called civil society present at the negotiations. As at the Seattle demonstrations during the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) 1999 ministerial meeting, these Northern groups seem only too willing to abandon principles and expect developing countries to give up too much of their sovereignty to deal with cross-border environmental problems while allowing industrialised countries to jealously preserve theirs. To them, concepts such as social justice and equity seem to have become anachronistic as they settle down to accept a world where economic might is right.