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Shares in the sky

‘Developing countries do not have adequate resources to meet their human needs,’ the Prime Minister told assembled delegates. ‘Climate-change mitigation will bring additional strain to the already-fragile economies of the developing countries and will affect our efforts to achieve higher growth rates to eradicate poverty speedily.’1

After Vajpayee’s speech, the Americans rushed to support the Indian Prime Minister’s view that the South was still too poor to start cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. ‘We do not see targets and time-tables as realistic for developing countries,’ Paula Dobriansky, the head of the American delegation, assured reporters.2

Environmental groups and other observers were left scratching their heads in bemusement. Dobriansky’s statement was the exact opposite of previous US policy on the subject, which had demanded immediate Southern participation in any treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, as far back as 1997 the US Senate had passed a unanimous resolution forbidding the country’s Government from signing up to any agreement that didn’t include developing countries.

So why the abrupt change of heart?

Unfortunately the US position had nothing to do with concerns about poverty and everything to do with backroom politics. The Indian Government’s position – which was supported by other members of the developing-country negotiating bloc known as the ‘G77 and China’ – was a slap in the face for the European Union, which had wanted to start discussions about how the inadequate Kyoto targets could be tightened up in the long-term future. The US was simply trying to widen the split between the EU and the South, and had switched sides to help cement the deadlock.

The North-South row almost sank the Delhi conference altogether and reflected a growing divide in climate negotiations. The big worry for many in the North is that whilst Kyoto mandates a small five-per-cent cut for the industrialized world by 2012, it allows unlimited emissions growth from the South. China and India both have huge coal reserves, and Southern emissions are rising rapidly. Indeed, it has recently been calculated that even if the North stopped all greenhouse-gas emissions tomorrow, Southern emissions alone would be enough to tip the planet into climatic disaster by 2020.3

On the other hand, Southern leaders have long pointed out the glaring inequalities of current emissions – not to mention the ‘environmental debt’ accumulated by the industrialized world, which has got rich on the back of two centuries of fossil-fuel-driven development. What right, they argue, do Europeans (with a per-person average of eight tonnes of CO2 per year) have to lecture Indians (with just one tonne per person) about pollution?

Environmental groups and observers were left scratching their heads in bemusement

The disparity is greater still between some poorer countries and the rich North: the average Bangladeshi is responsible for 100 times fewer fossil-fuel emissions than the average European. Somali emissions per person are an incredible 4,000 times less than that of Europeans.4 So wouldn’t forcing India, Bangladesh and Somalia to sign up to a global treaty to cut greenhouse-gas emissions simply set existing inequalities in concrete and prevent the South ever climbing out of poverty?

According to the Indian Prime Minister, it would. But in his speech to the Delhi conference, Vajpayee had already hinted at the solution. ‘We do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per-capita rights to global environmental resources,’ he asserted.5 And it is this proposal – for per-capita rights to the atmosphere – which could contain the seeds of a truly equitable and sustainable global climate treaty.

Fair shares

Per-capita rights have long been advocated as a solution to climate change by the London-based Global Commons Institute in its ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (C&C) model. C&C has three main steps. First, an international target would be set for how high atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations could be allowed to rise while still averting the worst effects of climate change. Second, a global budget would be set for how far global emissions need to contract for the world to come in under this target. Last, this budget would be allocated amongst the world’s nations on the basis of their populations – in recognition of the atmosphere being the common property of all humankind, to which every person has an equal right.

This last point – the ‘convergence’ – could obviously not be expected to happen immediately given current disparities of wealth and emissions patterns between North and South. Instead, it would take place via a period of adjustment, with the aim of equal per-capita emissions at a fixed date in the future. Throughout the whole process, countries which consumed more than their allocated share would be able to buy unused shares from under-consuming countries: the market flexibility of trading would be essential to ease this transition.

This trading would not only lead to a massive transfer of wealth from North to South as rich countries bought emissions permits from poorer ones, but would also encourage the South to develop along a more sustainable path rather than following the energy-hungry development model of the North. Basic economics, however, demands that trading can only be carried out after property rights to the atmosphere have been established. Current emissions-trading schemes dodge this point by unfairly allowing corporations and rich countries to sell emissions credits to which they have no right. For example, it has been suggested that Britain – which could be on course to overshoot its Kyoto targets – should sell its ‘credits’ to a worse-performing country and pocket the cash: an absurd proposition given that the average British person still consumes 10 times more than the average Indian – and yet Indians would get nothing. For years C&C’s emphasis on equity was seen as hopelessly unrealistic. Aubrey Meyer, the South African-raised musician who originated the C&C concept, was once told by American delegates ‘We won the Cold War. Contraction and Convergence is Communism.’6 Meyer’s response has always been to assert that the equity aspect of C&C ‘is not there for idealistic reasons’. Instead, ‘it is pure pragmatism’ because a per-capita-based system would be the only model to which all the world’s nations would sign up.7 It recognizes the equal right of the South to development whilst at the same time accommodating the demand of the North – and especially the US – that any climate treaty be truly global.

As the mess at the Delhi conference proved, and as many have begun to realize, the only alternative to C&C is likely to be a ‘guesswork’ approach which involves endless horse-trading and short-term treaties which quickly fall apart. Adopting C&C need not mean ditching Kyoto either. Instead, when the Kyoto mandate runs out after 2012, an equity-based regime can be installed as the long-term successor.

Perhaps, in the absence of a firm greenhouse-gas target and a universally-accepted treaty to achieve it, we would all be able to ‘muddle through’ somehow. But then perhaps we wouldn’t, and a divided world would descend into a nightmare of climate-driven chaos and conflict. Contraction and convergence presents the best guarantee that this nightmare scenario never comes about.

See: www.gci.org.uk for more on Contraction and Convergence.

Mark Lynas is a freelance writer based in Oxford. His book High Tide: News from a Warming World will be published by Flamingo in early 2004. Contact: [email protected]

  1. Terry Friel, ‘India rejects pressure to do more on greenhouse gas’ Reuters, 31 October 2001.
  2. Amy Waldman, ‘At climate meeting, unlikely ally for the have-nots’ New York Times, 1 November 2002.
  3. Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming (Seven Stories Press 2002), p.60.
  4. World Resources Institute, Emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacturing (2001).
  5. P Sunderarajan, ‘India: Why should we do more to cut greenhouse gases?’ in The Hindu, 31 Ocotober 2002
  6. Aubrey Meyer, Contraction and Convergence: the Global Solution to Climate Change, Schumacher Briefing 5, (Green Books 2000) p.68.
  7. Ibid, p20.

Obstacles

Action

Alaska’s global warning

Wilson Sam crouches in his hide, shotgun at the ready. Every few minutes, flocks of cackling geese fly overhead – close, but just out of range. Disappointed, he stands up, stretches and points to the grass and bushes around the hide. ‘See all this area – this used to be a big lake. That’s what made it a good geese-hunting spot, with all the water. Now it’s not good any more, because the lake’s all dried up. Now it’s all just rough grass and willows, and the geese don’t like that.’

An Athabascan Indian elder from the interior of Alaska, Wilson has seen a lot of weather changes in recent years – which, according to scientists at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, are almost certainly early signs of global warming. The state has warmed by an average of 2°C since the 1950s and a massive 4°C in the interior during the winter months. Mountain glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate and many of the southernmost spruce forests are dying because of a plague of bark beetles driven on by the rising temperatures.

Around Fairbanks, Alaska’s second city, roads are buckling and cracking as the frozen ground beneath them gives way. On one street all the houses lean at crazy angles because the permafrost they are built on is melting. Inside one of them, Vicki Heiker and her daughter Jessica have got used to living on a slope. ‘In my room all the furniture has to go at one end or it’ll fall down.’ She laughs and shows the living room: ‘The bookshelf over there is supported by the couch. See those glass ornaments? One leg of the table is supported by a book, the other by some wood, the other two are on the floor. If it wasn’t like that they’d all crash off.’ Jessica puts a tennis ball at one end of the room and it rolls towards the door, gathering speed as it moves. ‘And when you spill something you’ve got to clear it up fast or it’ll get away from you,’ she smiles. But things are getting steadily worse. Extending outwards from the kitchen window is a large crack. Several houses have already been demolished, and Vicki’s could be next.

A similar threat from a different source faces the residents of Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village in western Alaska, which is built on a low barrier island facing the Bering Sea. Robert Iyatunguk knows the danger better than anyone. He’s erosion co-ordinator for the village and has watched it get steadily eaten away by the sea. He says the problem is two-fold: at the same time as global warming has triggered stronger storms and higher winds, the sea ice which usually protects the coast in winter has been forming later and later – leaving the island’s sandy base increasingly vulnerable. During the last emergency, in 1997, nine homes had to be moved at the height of the storm. Four more were lost over the cliff. ‘We’re in imminent danger here,’ he says as he inspects the crumbling bluffs on which one house now sits precariously. ‘Every year the waters are getting higher and higher, and if we get another big storm this place is going to be wiped out in a matter of hours.’

Back at his home in the tiny native village of Huslia, Wilson Sam sits in his kitchen and ponders on the meaning of the changes. His house is modern, with running water and electricity, but hunting still provides most of the family’s food. ‘Back when we were kids, it was cold – really cold. It was worse than 60 or 70 below, and it lasted for days sometimes. In them days it was so cold that you can’t use the clothes we have nowadays, you had to have fur coats. And now we didn’t hardly see 40 below all winter. Maybe one day, but the rest of it was 20 or 25 below. That’s a big change.’

Wilson’s wife Eleanor remembers something, and looks up from the goose she is plucking. ‘My old grandpa, before he died, he made a prophecy in the Indian language. He said that it was going to change, that the cold weather is getting old. He said the cold weather’s going outside.’ She looks outside at the bright sunshine, where the snowmelt lies in puddles on their yard.

Africa's hidden killers

‘Rows of children lie on small beds, slowly passing away from preventable diseases like TB, malaria and pneumonia’

‘The problem with taking a blood sample for your malaria test is that the cockroaches may eat it in the night,’ announced the nurse. ‘Ants are an even worse problem. The place is infested with them.’ Siavonga Hospital, on the shores of Lake Karibe in southern Zambia, is suffering. ‘We have to put patients with TB in the same room as women who are giving birth,’ says one of the four Cuban doctors who battle to run the place. They also have to charge fees for their healthcare and patients have to provide their own medicines, syringes and clean needles. What if they can’t afford to pay? The doctor shrugs. ‘What do you think? They die.’

People are dying. Quietly, but in huge numbers, all over Zambia. Not because of some accident of nature but as a direct result of economic policies imposed by faceless Western planners. For over 20 years the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been forcing Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on the bankrupt countries of Africa, blind to the havoc they are causing. Almost every country on the continent has succumbed.

‘If you want to see the impact of structural adjustment,’ says Emily Sikazwe, director of the antipoverty group Women for Change, ‘go to University Teaching Hospital.’

UTH is the city’s biggest, where those who can’t afford private healthcare end up. In a packed ward near the main entrance a man writhes in bed. ‘I’m dying,’ he moans while his wife stands helplessly by his side. Emaciated figures shiver under sparse bedclothes. Families crowd around, many of them on the floor, bringing food to the sick to supplement the meagre hospital rations of beans and maize meal.

Enter the children’s ward and the smell hits you like a wall – a musty, medicinal odour. Rows of children lie on small beds, slowly passing away from preventable diseases like TB, malaria and pneumonia.

On the other side of the building is a cleaner, neater ward where half the beds stand empty. This is the fee-paying section where families who can pay a 100,000 kwacha ($40) deposit can buy a slightly better chance of life. In World Bank language, this is ‘user-responsive healthcare’.

Esnart Banda and her daoughter: working for pennies in the local market she can afford only one meal a day for her five children.

Mark Lynas

Meanwhile in Misisi, one of the 20 or so shanty ‘compounds’ that ring Lusaka, Masauso Phiri stands outside the windowless concrete shed that is his house. Next door an old man nearly died of starvation – luckily he was saved by the return of his son from the Copperbelt. Mr Phiri, like many of his neighbours, has heard of structural adjustment. It was because of structural adjustment that he lost his job as a security guard and one of his children – a three-year-old boy who died of pneumonia in 1996.

‘I know it is meant to put the economy on the right track but to me it seems to make us suffer,’ he says.

Four out of five people in Misisi are unemployed, part of an army of jobless created when economists from the World Bank and IMF decided that Zambia’s public sector was ‘bloated’ and that companies would benefit from the tonic of privatization, an ‘opening’ of markets to international competition. The Zambian Government boasts that it has the speediest privatization programme in Africa. But half the companies sold are now bankrupt.

In their desperation people turn on each other: crime is soaring in the compounds around Lusaka. I attended the funeral of one old woman, shot in her house by ‘bandits’ as she tried to prevent them entering. In the darkness outside her house male friends and relatives sit around the fire in quiet contemplation. They will spend the night there, in the cold, just sitting, talking and remembering. Inside the house women wail. The robbers took nothing. The old woman had nothing to take.

‘SAPs cause poverty,’ says Emily Sikazwe. ‘And poverty has a woman’s face.’ Women shoulder the main burden of providing for families and girl children are the first to be withdrawn from school when a father loses his job. Women like Esnart Banda, a widow with five children who makes about 2,000 kwacha ($0.60) a day selling vegetables in a market near Misisi. Most days she can only afford one meal for her children, even though the youngest is suffering from TB. Her kids join the 40 per cent of Zambia’s child population suffering from chronic under-nutrition.

In the midst of this chaos what remains of the nation’s wealth is being plundered. ‘They say if you perform well there’ll be a flow of foreign direct investment,’ says Fred M’membe, editor of Zambia’s daily newspaper, The Post. But all investment is not necessarily good. Take Shoprite, the South African supermarket chain that is colonizing the country on the back of a massive government tax rebate. Shoprite has laid waste to the economies of entire towns, undercutting local traders and putting stores run for generations by one family out of business. To make matters worse, Shoprite buys nothing locally. Their tax-free produce – even maize and potatoes – is trucked in from Zimbabwe and South Africa. Meanwhile Zambian maize rots in the fields because the farmers who grow it cannot find a market.

‘Africa can only develop with the participation of its own people,’ says Emily Sikazwe. People-centred development: that’s the idea Zambian citizens’ groups are focusing on in their newly launched Campaign Against Poverty. They are demanding that Africans be allowed to participate in deciding how their countries are run. But if IMF and World Bank economists are to respect this demand they will have to leave their plush offices in Washington. They’ll have to visit Lusaka, Nairobi and, if they’re serious, University Teaching Hospital and Misisi. And for once, they’ll need to listen to what people there say.

*Mark Lynas* works with Oneworld.net in Britain. He visited Zambia last August.