The following article, which was written whilst the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Buenos Aires was still in progress, takes issue with the US demand that there should be 'meaningful participation' by developing countries in cutting down greenhouse gas emissions. The fact is that these countries have already voluntarily done their part in reducing such emissions.


Buenos Aires: Developing country participation was one of the most controversial issues at the meeting here of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).

This topic was not on the agenda. The Group of 77 and China had rejected any move towards involving developing countries in legally binding emission commitments. The FCCC and the Kyoto Protocol did not require them to commit to emissions limitation. Instead, they were allowed to increase emissions owing to their development needs.

This common knowledge, however, did not stop the US delegation from insisting on developing countries' engagement in 'voluntary' commitments on 10 November 1998, even though such commitments would not be 'voluntary' at all.

And a handful of US Congressmen, all of whom had received heavy campaign contributions from the US energy industries, at a press conference on the same day put on a display threatening the US Administration with harsh retributions if the US signed the Kyoto Protocol.

The Parties to the FCCC recognised that industrial countries' current commitments under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol were insufficient to prevent dangerous climate change. Still, most of these countries were failing to meet those less-than-ambitious commitments.

With a fifth of the world population, industrialised countries are responsible for about two-thirds of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. They are also responsible for the largest part of historic emissions and consequent build-up of greenhouse gas concentrations.

But, since Kyoto, the United States has demanded 'meaningful participation' from 'key' developing countries as a prerequisite for US ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. The rapid increase of greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries is projected to equal and exceed those from Annex I Parties in a few decades (though even then, per capita Annex I emissions will continue to dramatically exceed those of developing countries).

The US demand is based on the mistaken assumption that under Kyoto, Annex I Parties disproportionately bear the burden of reducing emissions, while developing countries are 'free-riders' that do nothing to curb their current and future emissions.

Actually, the great majority of developing countries have already done their part in global efforts that lead to achieving the ultimate objective of the Convention. These efforts reflect the principle of equity and recognise the 'common but differentiated responsibility' stipulated in the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. They raise key questions, however, such as: What is the global emissions budget needed to meet the objective of the Convention? How and according to which time-frame is that budget to be allocated?

The Convention expressed its objective -- the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations -- in qualitative terms. As long as the stabilisation level and its associated allowed emission profile was not quantified, there was a subjective element to the setting of emission limitation targets.

Once concentration levels and time-frames were specified, allowed global emissions consistent with this could be specified. These global objectives could then be fairly and equitably distributed amongst countries, taking into account their per-capita contribution to past greenhouse gas build-up, the population size of each country, and the structures of their economies.

Even before negotiation of such a global emissions control regime, developing countries were already participating through voluntary actions (not commitments). In fact, developing countries had already contributed significantly to mitigating climate change, and continue to do so. Many of these countries relatively have done as much, if not more, in this regard than have most industrialised countries to date. These voluntary actions were not legally binding, and were motivated by economic and public health as well as climate benefits.

Thailand's appliance energy efficiency labelling project, for example, is an excellent case of voluntary action. The massive advertising campaign by the electric utility in Thailand (which makes the utility the largest advertiser in the country, bigger than Coca Cola) has helped to more than double the average efficiency of new appliances.

In Indonesia, all highways are tolled to alleviate congestion and pollution, and the city centre of the capital, Jakarta, is restricted to cars with at least three passengers (as is the case in Singapore). These transportation sector measures in Jakarta alone have reduced carbon emissions of the sector in Indonesia by at least 5% from what they would have been.

These kinds of voluntary actions, while not legally binding, should be expanded and encouraged, and viewed as 'meaningful participation'. Now it was time for industrialised countries, notably the US, to demonstrate their true meaningful participation, by immediately ratifying and fully implementing the Kyoto Protocol.

Five Republicans (Reps. Dan Burton, James Sensenbrenner, Jo Ann Emerson, Joe Knollenberg, and Ken Calvert) and sole Democrat Ron Klink held a press conference threatening the Clinton Administration with harsh retributions if the US signed the Kyoto Protocol during the Buenos Aires meeting.

They alternately displayed ignorance of the science of climate change (professional 'sceptic' Fred Singer even made a surprise appearance at the end of the press conference), and selfish, isolationist expressions of the US right to cheap fuel and electricity.

The six, part of the Congressional delegation, called the treaty 'fatally flawed', citing the lack of meaningful developing country participation and grossly overblown harm to the US economy. Representative Klink went so far as to declare that the treaty would lead to the 'de-industrialisation' of the US.

Recent polling by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and others had shown overwhelming public support in America for climate protection and growing dissatisfaction with congressional stall tactics that hindered implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Clearly, these members of Congress were out of touch with the 79% of Americans who would support domestic action to prevent climate change. An alternative view, strongly supporting the treaty, was provided by Congressmen Kucinich of Ohio and DeFazio of Oregon, who were excluded from the anti-environmental Congressional press briefing.

When one takes a look at who was giving political donations to the six 'just say no' members of Congress who held the press event, it suddenly becomes clear why they had a blind spot on the science and why they opposed the Protocol.

In the 1997-98 US election cycle, these same members received over $486,290 in campaign contributions from fossil fuel and energy-related industries. Overall, these industries contributed over $40 million to US federal elections in 1997-98, with nearly 75% going to the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, while many had voices here, one group -- the indigenous peoples -- that will be particularly affected by climate change, had no voice at all.

Climate change has particular adverse effects for indigenous peoples, in particular those living in tropical rainforests. To start with, there are the causes of climate change, particularly oil exploration. Secondly, the impacts of climate change will lead, among other things, to changes in the composition of forests, and an increased number of forest fires.

Additionally, the Kyoto Protocol itself could have negative effects on indigenous peoples, in particular if forestry projects become eligible under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Even if other problems associated with forestry projects, such as perverse incentives, could be resolved, local people would face increased competition over forest resources as others try to gain access to these financial flows.

Given the fact that, in most countries, indigenous peoples have not yet acquired enforceable rights to their traditional territories, it is somewhat unlikely that they would benefit from the CDM. Instead, it may add to current pressures.

Whereas indigenous peoples are recognised as a major group in Agenda 21 and have their own working group in the Biodiversity Convention, they have so far not been involved in the Climate Convention.

Whether forest projects become eligible under the CDM or not, indigenous peoples should be given the resources to participate in the Convention process, build up a position, and be heard. Furthermore, effective participation of local communities has to be a requirement for all CDM projects in order to meet the aim of sustainable development. - Third World Network Features

ECO is the conference newsletter published by non-governmental groups at the fourth convention of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which took place in Buenos Aires.