Beware the technology bait

  • 14/10/1993

JOINT implementation was the main point of discussion at the recent meeting of the intergovernmental committee on climate change in Geneva.

The idea of joint implementation has been promoted primarily by industrialised countries seeking ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Unable to face the politically difficult choice of reducing energy consumption at home and the high costs of increasing energy efficiency, which is already very high in some of these countries, they have started looking for solutions outside their countries. Developing countries have a low per capita consumption of energy, but they are also inefficient consumers of outmoded, energy hungry technologies. Therefore, these countries are keen to obtain both investment and technology.

Joint implementation is being proposed in the nature of an offsetting arrangement. An industrialised country will fund an afforestation programme or a solar power plant or an energy efficient device in a developing country, and the credit for the carbon dioxide thus fixed or saved will go to the industrialised country. The developing country will benefit in the form of technology transfer, power generation or environmental improvement. Joint implementation will, thus, pay for afforestation projects in developing countries to absorb greenhouse gases emanating from industrialised countries.

On the face of it, these proposals make economic sense for international cooperation. Developing countries get technology and money and industrialised nations obtain a cheap way to get credit for their greenhouse gas emissions. However, the proposed framework for joint implementation fails on several counts.

Firstly, it falls within the conventional aid/charity framework, in which developing countries will be asked to submit proposals to aid agencies to obtain money and technology. This is an unfair and unequal mechanism to manage a global common resource like the atmosphere. The world would have been much worse off, had the developing countries used their entire quota of permissible emissions. According to calculations made by the Centre for Science and Environment, developing countries provided space for about 1,459 million tonnes of carbon equivalent (in the form of carbon dioxide and methane) to be released and absorbed by the world"s natural sinks. This advantage should go to them.

Secondly, joint implementation fails to reduce the total emissions. The current discussion on global warming limits itself to asking industrialised countries to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at their significantly high 1990 levels and expects developing countries to continue to increase their emissions well into the next century. This certainly is not going to help in reaching "sustainable emissions level" at an early date.

A bolder approach is required to reach the necessary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than provided by the current framework of joint implementation. The best way is to invest everyone with equal entitlements to the benefits of the atmosphere and set up a system of financial incentives and disincentives, which value the use of the atmosphere. We"ve allowed the atmosphere to become a free dustbin for our wastes for far too long.

The world scientific community will, first, have to reach a consensus on the aggregate level of greenhouse gas emissions that can be considered annually permissible globally, and this global aggregate should be allocated to each individual equitably; each nation"s permissible quota thus being equal to the sum of its citizens" quotas.

Countries should then be allowed to trade their unused permissible emissions with the excess emitters. This trade could result in a transfer of $50-70 billion dollars a year to developing countries, which is equal to the amount of official aid they receive today.

The permissible emissions, purchased from low emitting countries, can then be subtracted from the excess emissions of each industrialised country"s total emissions to the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. If a country still has excess emissions after this, it should be fined heavily by an international organisation, and the money paid as fine used to launch a major research programme on renewable energy resources, which will make solar technology freely available to all countries.

Such an approach will make joint implementation an equitous mechanism. It will also encourage industrialised countries to reduce emissions to avoid the large payments they will have to make to developing countries. And the developing countries would also like to reduce their emissions so that they can sell a larger part of their quota of atmospheric entitlements. In this way, polluting the atmosphere and deforestation will immediately acquire a financial loss in hard foreign exchange -- something that all debt-ridden finance ministries understand.

A major criticism against this proposal is that it benefits countries with a high population growth. This problem can be solved easily. National quotas can be frozen according to the world population distribution at the time of agreement. Nations that reduce their population in the future will get higher per capita entitlements and those that increase their populations will get lower entitlements per person. This will in fact give countries financial encouragement to limit their populations.

Unfortunately, industrialised countries, which otherwise push for market mechanisms, duck the issue on climate because then they would have to make automatic payments.

Developing countries may find the proposed framework on joint implementation advantageous and seductive in the short term, but they should resist falling into that temptation. They must get the basic principles for international cooperation on global warming correct. And the critical principle that must first be accepted is that the atmosphere belongs to all human beings equally.

This is not happening at the moment because of a lack of common perspective amongst developing countries. Most developing countries will wake up when the negotiations are reaching a final stage, when in fact it may be too late. Even the participation of India in the climate change meetings has been low-level and seriously lacking in vision and leadership. Efforts should be made by countries like India to unite developing countries on this important issue and help develop a common perspective with a long-term goal.