climate change treaty

 sickle_s.gif (30476 bytes) People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 50

December 16,2001

Climate Change
Treaty Concluded

Good News or Hot


IN all the din
made by US bombs in Afghanistan, and the media becoming almost single issue-focused, a
major international event, namely the drawing-up of the first-ever multilateral treaty on
environment, passed almost unnoticed. The Seventh Conference of the Parties (COP-7) to the
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Marrakesh,
Morocco, from October 29 to November 10, with participation from 172 governments. COP-7
was to finalise legal agreements to operationalise the commitments made by countries to
reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and also sought
agreement on mechanisms to strengthen implementation of the UNFCCC.

Despite the
various ups and downs, and a final agreement which was inevitably a much watered-down
compromise, COP-7 brought to a close three years of hard and intense negotiations which
have been closely followed and reported on in these columns. The US, which had abandoned
the Kyoto process at COP-6 in Bonn (Germany) earlier this year after the Bush
administration took over, kept hoping that other countries, at least its close allies,
would follow suit. But this did not happen. Especially after the September 11 terrorist
attacks, which the US tried to exploit to the maximum, the US thought that, as one
right-wing columnist put it, “as long as the war against Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda
dominates centre-stage, the US and other industrialised countries are not going to divert
significant attention and resources toward a sideshow such as global warming.” That
the US’s self-serving bullying tactics have not succeeded is a sharp pointer to the
gravity with which the environmental crisis is viewed by other governments, and indeed by
most US scientists too, as well as to the power of a united resolve against even the
world’s sole superpower.


To quickly bring
the main issue into relief, climate change is considered one of the most serious threats
to the sustainability of the global ecology, to human health and wellbeing, as well as to
the global economy. Overwhelming scientific opinion is that the earth’s climate is
being seriously affected through global warming caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases
(so-called because they result in building up a layer of gases which trap heat under it,
as is done in a greenhouse) such as carbon dioxide produced by modern industrial
activities, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum in factories
and automobiles. Most scientists also believe that precautionary and prompt action is
essential if the process is not to become irreversible and the planet has to face the
horrendous consequences such as melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels submerging
numerous islands and coastal areas, besides drastically altered climate and cropping

international response to climate change took shape with the development of the UNFCCC
adopted in 1992 which set out a framework for action aimed at stabilising and then
reducing GHG emissions. The UNFCCC entered into force on March 21, 1994, and now has 186
consenting parties which have been holding a series of conferences (hence COP) to work out
the details. These intense negotiations, as readers of these columns would be aware, were
characterised less by concern for the environment than by countries defending their
perceived short-term economic interests and building lobbies around their respective
positions, making these negotiations subject to the pulls and pressures of global power

At COP-3 in
Kyoto (Japan) in December 1997, a UNFCCC Protocol was agreed upon that commits developed
countries and countries making the transition to a market economy (what used to be called
the “second world”), both together known under the UNFCCC as Annex-I parties, to
reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by at least 5 per cent below 1990
levels over the period between 2008 and 2012. Specific targets varied from country to
country. Developing countries such as China and India, which are sizeable contributors to
GHG emissions in absolute terms but not in comparison to the industrialised countries and
not at all so in per capita terms, were to be brought on board only after this period.

However, such a
strictly quantified reduction was not acceptable in practice to most industrialised
countries who then pushed for, and obtained inclusion of, several mechanisms which in
effect allowed them to scale down actual reductions by taking several
“compensatory” actions. These market-driven mechanisms included provisions for
countries to trade “emission credits” (i e to exchange emission reductions
beyond their targets with others who had achieved less in exchange for monetary or
technological benefits), to offset their reduction targets by building “carbon
sinks” (i e forested or wooded areas which are expected to absorb carbon dioxide thus
preventing them from contributing to the greenhouse effect), and also credit
industrialised countries for transfer of non-GHG technologies to developing countries.

Subsequent COPs
were to decide on the rules and operational details as to how this reduction would be
effected and monitored. While 84 countries have already signed the protocol, most have
been waiting for negotiation of these operational details before ratifying. To enter into
force, the protocol must be ratified by 55 parties to the UNFCCC, including Annex- I
Parties representing at least 55 per cent of the total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990.
The significance of this figure is that if the US, which alone accounts for 24 per cent of
global emissions, does not join, almost all other industrialised countries must do so in
order to meet this condition. To date, 40 parties have ratified the protocol, including
one Annex-I Party, Romania.


The Marrakesh
meeting continued in the same vein as the previous COPs with various countries and
groupings bargaining hard for their own interests. Their main goal was to minimise their
quantified GHG emission reduction targets by ensuring adoption of mechanisms and
“compensatory’ provisions which would allow offsetting actual GHG emissions
against other “achievements.”

Two great
sticking points at COP-7 were methods to determine compliance with the protocol’s
obligations and the nature of penalties for default, as well as the issue of carbon sinks
and how they could be used to offset GHG emissions. The former was resolved in the
time-honoured manner of international negotiations, in a way which will invariably favour
the more powerful by giving more time to lobby and twist arms as was done during the WTO
negotiations at Doha, namely to put off the actual decision till after the protocol
entered into force, perhaps at COP-8, when the devil in the details would be sorted out.
The latter was tackled by the COP simply giving in to Russia’s blustering demand to
double its sinks allocation or risk a Russian walk-out which could have spelt doom for the
conference as well as the protocol. At Bonn, parties were given country-specific caps on
the tonnes of forest, pasture or scrub they could claim as sinks to be offset against
emissions or traded as credits. At Marrakesh, Russia demanded that its allowance of 17
megatonnes per year be increased to 33 megatonnes and, under threat of not ratifying the
Kyoto protocol, obtained this huge concession.

However, even
with the sinks and all the other “market-mechanism” loopholes, GHGs from
industrialised countries are estimated to be as much as 10-15 per cent of the targeted
reductions right away, a fact which should not be brushed aside in hardline
environmentalist “Kyoto cynicism.” If the US too comes on board, global
reductions could be substantially higher, but this seems to depend on whether President
Bush remains in office after 2004. However, given the scale of GHGs emitted by the US, if
it continues to ignore world opinion and pump out GHGs at ever-increasing rates, the
“market mechanisms” and other loopholes could make the protocol increasingly
marginal as a globally sustainable environmental instrument.

Of course, even
if the full 5 per cent reduction from 1990 levels, as mandated by the protocol, were
achieved without the use of any loopholes, the impact on the climate would be small, a
point made for different reasons by both the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists.
But no one seriously expects the protocol to be an end in itself. It is estimated that
60-80 per cent cuts over present levels, which may take 40-50 years, may be required to
ultimately reverse the trends which have already set in and whose effects will be felt
only a few decades from now. So the Marrakesh treaty is indeed only a beginning of a long,
arduous process which is as much to do with political economy as with the environment.


political-economic issues played out at Marrakesh, as indeed they have throughout the
climate change negotiations, is both interesting and instructive.

The G-77 group
of developing countries and China supported completion of work left over from COP-6 and
opposed raising of new or additional commitments by developing countries. The least
developing countries hoped that developing countries, and especially LDCs, would benefit
from meaningful technical and financial assistance to modernise their industries to enable
later compliance with reduced emission norms.

The deal being
worked out early on at Marrakesh was accepted by most regional groups including the
G-77/China and the EU. But the so-called Umbrella Group (a loose alliance of some Annex-I
Parties including Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia and New Zealand) did not join the
emerging consensus. The disputed issues included eligibility requirements and bankability
under the mechanisms. But a package deal was later agreed to.

As the
world’s largest exporter of coal, Australia has a long history of, and a substantial
economic stake in, the burning of fossil fuels. Quite apart from its long-standing
position alongside the US in global environmental negotiations, Australia saw itself as
being a major potential loser of the emission cuts quotas. Russia too is a major exporter
of natural gas and has enormous reserves of crude oil in Siberia. For a nation struggling
to regain its place among the world’s leading nations, fossil fuels may have a lot
more to offer than a global warming treaty. In the post-Soviet era, Russia has been
battling through a hard transformation to a market economy. Russia thus found itself in
quite a delicate situation at Marrakesh, but also positioned quite advantageously in
another way.

Because of the
collapse of the Russian economy in the recent past, it has already more than achieved its
emission reduction target for 2008-12! It can now sell the difference under emissions
trading rules as so-called “hot air.” When sinks entered the equation at
Marrakesh, it did not take Russia long to realise that if they could also count their
forests against their protocol target, there would be even more “hot air”
available to sell to carbon-guzzling rich countries like Japan. The environmental group
Greenpeace has even coined a term for this: “laundered sinks.” Given the
arithmetic, and the need for the COP-7 to keep Russia on board, Russia used its economic
weakness as a bargaining lever, pushed its blackmail and came away the big winner at

The European
Union had already made far-reaching concessions in Bonn last July, enabling industrialised
countries to meet their emissions-reduction targets with a minimum of economic pain and
moving them as close as possible to the US position although in vain. While the EU was
earlier opposed to using sinks to offset emissions, they withdrew from this position thus
opening up the Protocol for more enthusiastic participation by Australia, Canada, Russia
and Japan. The EU’s position in these international negotiations is also a
recognition of the considerable popular pressure in favour of global environmental
regulation, such pressure manifesting itself in the presence of Green parties in
government or otherwise in public prominence in several European countries.

joining in with other countries at Marrakesh is important in many ways. Tokyo’s
subsequent ratification of the protocol now appears quite certain. Apart from being a key
US ally which stayed with the US till the latter decided to abandon the Kyoto protocol at
Bonn and which can still exert considerable influence on the US as well as several other
countries, Japanese ratification will significantly improve the prospects of the protocol
becoming international law, since Japan accounts for nearly 9 per cent of the 1990


As stated
earlier, for all its weaknesses and compromises, the protocol as worked out at Marrakesh
is a good beginning, but nowhere near the environmental treaty which the planet and its
inhabitants require. As of today, the basic idea of GHG emission reductions has been
stifled by powerful political-economic interests so much so that market mechanisms and
carbon trading have become more important than the reductions themselves. Governments have
shown themselves to be susceptible to industrial and corporate lobbies and, in the long
run, the only way to bring about environmentally sustainable development will be through
public pressure forcing their representatives to give priority to popular rather than
corporate or ruling class interests.

In the short and
medium terms, the problem faced by most developing countries, and by common people in all
countries, is the opaqueness with which such issues are posed and negotiations carried out
at international conferences. These meetings are dominated by well-briefed and supported
delegates of advanced countries, industry lobbyists, large and often corporate NGOs and
other specialists, so much so that the real issues are soon lost in a maze of legalese. If
the climate negotiations were complicated before, they were almost completely
unintelligible at Marrakesh. Several delegates from poor countries and small island states
confided that the linguistic gymnastics made it nearly impossible for them to contribute.
How to keep ordinary people properly informed, so that they could form informed opinions
and press their representatives to accept and respect these, is going to be a crucial
issue down the road.

countries, and progressive forces here, would also have to be on guard against the many
dubious internationally sponsored projects that are sure to mushroom as an offshoot of the
protocol. “Afforestation,” tree plantation and other dubious
“greening” projects to built sinks in the name of climate change mitigation are
likely to flood in. In India, corporate houses and industry associations are also likely
to follow the example of their US counterparts by trying to pooh-pooh the effects of GHGs,
resist introduction of more environment-friendly technologies and hide behind the leeway
(not license) given to developing countries. Constant vigilance and enhancing public
awareness are going to be the key watchwords in the years to come.

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