Climate Change Treaty Concluded: Good News or Hot Air?

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 patterns.

The 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 politics.

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.


How 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 Marrakesh.

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.

Japan’s 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 emissions.


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.

Developing 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.