Dead Men Left

Monday, January 03, 2005

Kyoto and development

Johann Hari, somewhat improbably, has reprinted a sharp piece on his website concerning climate change. It is, as one of his visitors says, one of the few recent articles on the environment that has explicitly referred to the inequitable distribution of environmental destruction. This isn't a matter of geography: that some countries sit on fault-lines, or that some are marginally above sea-level. This is about how the global economy has distributed its wealth. Hari puts it like this:

The best-known solution is woefully inadequate. The Kyoto Treaty promises a real cut in the world's carbon emissions of just 2 per cent within a decade. The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection found that, in fact, a 60 per cent reduction by 2050 is necessary if we are to seriously reduce the dangers of climate change.

Yet even Kyoto's paltry step in the right direction has been rejected by the SUV-stuffed United States, which pumps out 25 per cent of the world's carbon emissions despite having only 4 per cent of the world's population. Some brave campaigners are taking legal steps to try to force the US to take responsibility. The Inuit - facing the melting of their Arctic environment - are considering lawsuits against major US polluters, as are the people of Tuvalu.

The major industrialised countries, led by the US, contribute very significantly to the factors causing climate change, out of all proportion to their population sizes. The most serious effects of global warming, however, are likely to be distributed amongst those who have contributed least: the less developed world. The economic security of the industrialised North has been bought, thus far, at the expense of the environment. This economic security, in turn, allows those nations to insulate themselves against the worst effects of their environmental depredations. To him that hath, shall be given: the same law that governs the global economy applies here as elsewhere.

The thorny problem, however, is that - as this commentator says - the North cannot legitimately ask the South to forgo economic development: to enforce their poverty as the price of our consumption. Ross Clark continues, though:

Contrary to the many fatalistic leading articles and columns written last week, which marvelled at the awesome power of Nature and encouraged us to believe that we are entirely at her mercy, there is something countries can do to improve their chances of surviving natural disasters: namely to do everything they can to achieve prosperity and the true security that comes with it. A fully industriā€alised Indonesia would have had a transport system capable of getting help to the required areas. It would also have been able to react to the earthquake alerts which were issued by US seismologists hours before the disaster. At the very least it would have had a network of refrigerated mortuaries to cope with the bodies of victims without leaving them to putrefy on the beaches.

It would be fatuous to make these points were it not for the fact that the world's strategy for averting natural disasters increasingly revolves around a policy of stunting the processes of industrialisation. For the past 15 years the governments of most developed nations and most international development agencies have been preoccupied with one threat: that of steadily rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Poor old Kyoto. Clark's unfortunate blindness, however, is to assume that the path of development followed in the North is the sole route to prosperity. This is a very old-fashioned view of national development, in which individual economies, through their own efforts, can pull themselves up to the big league. Walt Rostow, later an advisor to Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War, wrote in the early 1960s of the necessary "stages of economic growth" that all economies were fated to follow. Aleksander Gerschenkron most clearly stated the opposing case that the conditions of initial development can vary wildly; more recent work on the development has stressed how paths of economic growth can be quite divergent. Much of this has concentrated on the small-scale effects of institutions like the Grameen Bank, and the effective mobilisation of local resources - even within individual villages.

These initiatives collapse, however, when overwhelmed by catastrophic events like the Asian tsunami. To put in one good word for Kyoto: amongst all its serious and probably crippling inadequacies, at the treaty's heart is the correct recognition that the natural environment can only be effectively managed on as large a scale as possible. Where the Kyoto agreement falls apart most decisively is in its attempts to overcome the competitive anarchy of global capitalism, through a (too) ingenious pollution trading scheme that theoretically attempts to provide market-based incentives towards emissions reduction. Without effective enforcement mechanisms, and without critical major economies participating in the scheme, it will prove difficult for Kyoto to meet even its minimal targets.

Any long-term solution to climate change has to include both a credible global body able to enforce its wishes, establishing strict targets and ensuring compliance; but it must, in turn, be a comprehensively democratic organisation, as the only sure route to meet the concerns of the less-developed nations. For the immediate future, the various noises from Blair, ahead of the G8 summit, on the environment and global poverty have to be matched by credible action: both to cancel remaining Third World debts, and to act - unilaterally, if necessary - on domestic carbon emissions. It is a tribute to the strength of the anticapitalist movement that it has forced both these issues into the public domain, and tied them together so comprehensively: as we have tragically seen over the last few weeks, without major public compulsion governments in the North have little incentive to act effectively.