COMMENTARY: Hot air at climate talks

Posted: 13 January 2004

Author: Sunita Narain

The Ninth Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change brought over 5,000 people to Milan from 180 nations, in December 2003. They included 2,300 non-governmental organisations and some 500 press and TV journalists. But, says Sunita Narain, from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, it was a frustating exercise.

Surreal. This is how a newspaper described the meeting. Ministers and several hundred government officials gathered to fuss over the final details of a treaty they know may never come into force.

But even more surreal is what the negotiators spent their time fussing over. Their big achievement was a resolve to include - by rule now - genetically modified forests in the calculation for sinks (sinks are forests that sequester carbon from cars and power plants and other sources). Their issue was: could this 'soaking in' be 'accounted for' in the carbon balance sheets each country is supposedly working on?

Their deal was: each country can use its own laws to 'evaluate the potential risks with the use of genetically modified organisms'.

Pure denial

What a major breakthrough. In light of the fact that the entire Kyoto Protocol, into which this arcane rule fits, is in real danger of completelyfalling apart, the negotiators seem to me to be in a state of pure denial.

Their condition is easy to understand. To accept reality would be to accept that governments need to change strategy and get real. It would mean accepting that the threat of climate change is so real that only urgent and tough action will do, for we are running out of time, faster than ever before.

It would also mean accepting that Russia is playing a dangerous cat and mouse game with the Kyoto Protocol. It knows the protocol cannot go into force without its 17 per cent of global emissions, because the world's largest polluter, the United States (with its 36 per cent) has reneged on its commitment.

What a shame that the protocol is designed on the 'gracious and willing co-operation' of the world's polluters, requiring 55 per cent of their emissions before it can be legal. Russia is not gracious. Why should it be? It has no real incentive or disincentive to join the action on combating climate change. It has huge oil reserves. It knows about the United States' need and greed for oil. It knows it provides an alternative and strategic source of oil to the unstable and unreliable Middle East.

Russian oil

The world needs Russian oil. Russia does not need the Kyoto Protocol. It is not difficult to keep people, already in denial, also in a state of delusion. So, the believers in the protocol continue to hope that one day, soon, Russia will ratify and the protocol will go into force. In the meantime, they pray and play with making new rules.

In all this, the United States, for the umpteenth time, rejects the protocol as an 'unrealistic and ever-tightening regulatory straitjacket'. The European Union (EU) is still at its moralistic best, even as several of its member states are disastrously failing to meet their emission reduction targets. Margot Wallstrom, of the EU's environment commission, recently warned that only Britain and Sweden are on track, as the decreasing trend in emissions since 1990 was reversed in 2000 and 2001.

Also in the meantime, climate employment seekers -academics, NGOs and consultants - are finding new ways to keep themselves engaged. On the one hand, they are selling a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)- the mechanism that would, in theory, allow the industrialised world to buy carbon credits in the developing world by investing in projects that reduce emissions and energy use. (I am calling it 'theoretical' because without the protocol, CDM does not go into effect. Even with the protocol, the price of the carbon-saving project is so low that it should be termed the cheap development mechanism.)

They are also peddling ideas on 'adaptation' so that we can understand how the poor will cope with changes in climate. So, instead of focussing on the politics of mitigation - on the liability and responsibility of the polluter - the victim will be studied diligently.

Plan B

But even as they sell the fragments of Kyoto, this group is also beginning to discourse on the outlines of a Plan-B. What will be life without and after Kyoto?

What I fail to comprehend is: how can any plan - A, B, C - be more ambitious than the doddering protocol? We know that this protocol is full of loopholes, put there by the United States and other carbon greedy nations. We also know that even this pusillanimous treaty is not acceptable to the world's most powerful. Then how can an alternative work, unless we accept it will be even weaker and less effective than what we have now? Why waste time?

Meanwhile, our world is changing. From Inuit hunters in the Arctic seeing the ice melt in front of their eyes, to news that Britain has become twice as stormy in the past 50 years because climate change has forced depressions, to meteorologists who predict that 2003 will prove to have been the third-hottest year since modern temperate readings began and to all the growing climate vulnerabilities of the world's poor and coastal populations, it is clear that the whisper is becoming a shout. Climate change signs are here. We are, as we said, running out of time.

I write this with visible frustration: what are the options? I would argue that the only option we have is to make the Kyoto Protocol work.

We need renegade nations to join, by forcibly reducing their options to opt out. A group in the United Kingdom has proposed trade sanctions or taxing imports from the United States because of its non-compliance with treaty objectives. We should isolate it. Should find ways of shunning it. We should definitely not agree to any bilateral sops it is offering, such as hydrogen initiatives or clean energy projects.

But all this will take guts. It will also require our governments to accept that the writing is on the wall as far as climate change is concerned. The news is not good. And switching off the radio will not work anymore.

Sunita Narain wrote this commentary in Down to Earth the magazine of the Centre for Science and Environment, based in Delhi