Op-Ed: Global Warming Creates Rift Over North-South Waters

Global Warming Creates Rift Over North-South Waters

Elliot Diringer; Malik Amin Aslam
Elliot Diringer is director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Malik Amin Aslam is executive director of ENVORK, a research organization based in Islamabad, Pakistan

Los Angeles Times – Home Edition

July 13, 2001

The diplomatic uproar over U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol has played largely as a drama between Europe and the United States. Yet there’s a deeper worry: deteriorating prospects for ever enlisting the rest of the world, in particular developing nations, in the fight against global warming.

President Bush contends that any climate agreement binding the U.S. but not developing countries like China and India is unfair.

It is true that annual greenhouse gas emissions from developing nations will soon rival those of the industrialized nations. But the president’s notion of fairness obscures physical and geopolitical realities that are far more complex.

First, global warming is not the product of gases put in the atmosphere today, yesterday or even last year. It results from the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases over a century or more. A fair approach starts with an honest accounting of who is responsible for these emissions; that is, who has benefited most from the soaring energy use and industrial output that produced them. The answer is no surprise. Experts calculate that nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere over the past century as a result of human activity originated in industrialized countries, nearly a third in the U.S. alone.

This legacy was understood a decade ago when nations set out to negotiate a global climate agreement. That is why the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change signed by President Bush’s father at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro commits developed countries to “take the lead in combating climate change.” They have yet to deliver on that. Until they do, developing countries will not take on binding commitments of their own.

That is not to say that developing countries are not acutely aware of the risks posed by climate change. Indeed, they face a far graver risk of flooding, drought, disease and crop failure and the forced migrations that could follow. For some, particularly small island countries, survival itself may be at stake. And these nations cannot easily divert scarce resources to build sea walls or otherwise “adapt” to a warming climate.

Still, although not prepared to commit to binding limits, many developing countries are taking steps to reduce or avoid emissions, including market reforms, the phase-out of fossil-fuel subsidies and dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. Although these changes are more often motivated by concerns other than climate change, they have the effect of slowing the growth of emissions.

Take China. Through the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, China’s emissions grew just 8.4%–a rate one-third lower than that of the United Sstates. From 1997 to 1999, China’s emissions dropped a remarkable 17%. The latest U.S. data, meanwhile, suggest a surge in emissions despite a slowing economy. It is no longer so clear that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter any time soon.

Steps to further curb greenhouse emissions can pay multiple dividends for developing countries. They can help combat smog and other local environmental threats, for instance, while encouraging sustainable development. There are benefits for industrial countries as well. Big profits can be made promoting clean technology to help developing countries meet their energy needs.

This commonality of interest is no guarantee that developing countries will move quickly or aggressively, just as compelling science and moral obligation are no guarantee that industrialized countries will do as they should. Sovereign nations will take real, sustained action only when bound by legal commitments. And no international climate agreement can be truly effective unless, in time, commitments extend to major developing nations as well.

But President Bush’s strategy–rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, committing to no concrete measures to reduce U.S. emissions and equating the near-term responsibilities of the world’s wealthiest and poorest nations–only delays the day when developing countries are ready to even contemplate binding emissions limits. Through his actions and words, the president is deepening the rift between developed and developing nations, a rift that will be far more difficult to bridge than the one between Europe and the U.S.

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