On the final day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in the midst of a last-minute US-induced deadlock, the attendees in the stadium-sized plenary hall at Montreal’s Palais des Congrès erupted in a rare standing ovation. At a conference otherwise mired in legal language and snail-paced progress, the thousands of international delegates took to their feet to greet a real live climate-change rock star. Bill Clinton humbly took the stage and implored countries to look at climate change differently—as an opportunity rather than a struggle. “Every country’s got this challenge,” he said, “How are we going to meet it? By a serious commitment to a clean energy future, that’s how. We can create jobs out of wind energy, out of solar energy, out of biofuels.”
Clinton’s message was partly about strengthening economies but it was also about approaching climate change from a different angle and seeing solutions as part of a global plan. Clinton is not the only person to advocate a holistic approach. Many people from developing countries have stressed the importance of tackling global warming and its effects as just one part of a basic development strategy, and some of their representatives stepped forward at the Montreal conference with new ideas about how this can be done. While many of the objective successes of the conference had more to do with procedural minutiae, Montreal may end up being remembered as the birthplace of a new kind of global development.
The Climate Change Conference came at a pivotal point in the development of a worldwide response to global warming. The Kyoto Protocol went into effect earlier this year, officially starting the race to cut carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world to at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012; but the pace has so far been sluggish. Emissions are up in many countries (Canada emits 24 percent more CO2 that it did in 1990) and programs designed to help the cleanup such as the Clean Development Mechanism—a scheme to bring environmental development projects to developing countries—are slow starters.
But many believe this conference will kick-start the process started in Kyoto eight years ago. “The breaks have been released, the program is going to move forward,” says Bill Hare of Greenpeace International, “and that is the most powerful signal that the world community can send about its interests to solve this problem.”
The Montreal talks have been hailed as successful by environmentalists and politicians alike because they tighten up Kyoto, getting it in good shape for the tough work ahead. The Marrakesh Accords, adopted early-on at the conference, set out rules governing everything from the detailed workings of the carbon markets to guidelines on how countries should report their progress in lowering emissions. There’s also a separate system for punishing countries that fail to keep their Kyoto commitments: under the freshly adopted scheme, countries who exceed their emission targets would commit to still deeper emission cuts during a yet-to-be-determined follow-up period. Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki criticized this enforcement plan, saying it has “no teeth” with which to keep countries on track. He argues there’s no real incentive to cut back now if penalties just get pushed into the future, especially since the politicians currently making decisions probably won’t be in office when it’s time to face the consequences.
The issue that really pushed the talks forward was also the most politically divisive: the question of what future commitments can be made to reduce emissions after Kyoto expires in 2012. In an effort to get the discussion moving, conference president Stéphane Dion started two parallel sets of talks; one solely for signatories of the Kyoto protocol and another under the more general Framework Convention, which all countries have signed (including the United States). Members of the Canadian delegation said the idea was to engage countries like the US and China, who are unwilling to take on targets but still have useful ideas to contribute.
It’s important to note that these discussions weren’t actually about future commitments; rather, they were discussions about having discussions about future commitments. Nevertheless, in the final days of the conference Dion’s strategy seemed to be failing. A very general proposal to “explore and analyse” future actions was shot down by the US. The move was hardly shocking. US delegation member Harlan Watson had already expressed his country’s position very clearly: “We are not a part of the Kyoto protocol and we do not support any such approach under the convention for future commitments.”
The US did agree in the end, but only after tacking on a provision that the talks would occur “without prejudice to any future negotiations, commitments, process, framework or mandate.” Jennifer Morgan of the World Wildlife Fund criticized the American stubbornness: “The administration just doesn’t seem to get it. They don’t understand that the world is suffering from climate change.”
Of course, the Bush administration claims that it does get it, and that it merely disagrees with the solution chosen by the international community. But Salimata Wade of the Senegalese group Environmental Development Action in the Third World argues Western countries like the US don’t take the issue seriously because they have less to lose than developing countries. “Rich, developed countries are not very interested by desertification or biodiversity,” she says, “because they are not the countries who have the most biodiversity and they are not the ones who face desertification.”
Developing countries—especially African ones—have more to lose than just ecological biodiversity. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning at the conference that the increasing severity of climatic change will have disastrous effects on human health, particularly in developing countries. Dr. Maria Neira of the WHO’s head office in Geneva explains the risk: “Every year, six million deaths are caused by diseases like malnutrition, malaria or diarrhea ... already the burden of infectious diseases is such that another challenge to the already-stretched health systems around the world is simply unacceptable.”
Wade says that climate-related health problems are just the beginning. Climate change, she explains, could spawn mass migration into cities and provoke armed conflicts over increasingly scarce natural resources. And once the problems start, they will quickly multiply: “I think that the problem will get worse with urbanization because of the situation of people in places where there is not enough infrastructure or services accessible to the poor, who are the most vulnerable.”
Wade argues that these complex problems often have relatively simple solutions, such as collecting more data about the spread of diseases in specific areas to help prepare for potential outbreaks. This knowledge tends to be lacking because the requisite resources are hard to come by. “Sometimes the solution exists,” she says, “it’s just a matter of implementing it.” Part of the problem is a lack of political action on the issues—but even more fundamental, Wade says, is the need for holistic approaches that tackle root causes by investing broadly in development.
Halfway around the world, the needs may be different but the conceptual approach is very similar. Two small developing countries—Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica—have proposed an innovative idea to use the Kyoto system to help fund development strategies: they would like developing nations to be compensated for preventing tropical forests from being logged. This idea takes advantage of forests’ natural role as “carbon sinks,” the term used to describe their ability to absorb harmful carbon dioxide gas through the biological process of photosynthesis. Scientists estimate that the process of deforestation is responsible for nearly a quarter of the Earth’s carbon emissions, making it the second-largest contributor to global warming after the burning of fossil fuels.
“We need to keep our forests,” says Robert Aisi, Papua New Guinea's Ambassador to the United Nations, “but we need to give people the incentive to do so because the incentive right now is to cut. That’s the reality of the situation.” Papua New Guinea wants to fight fire with fire, or, in this case, economics with economics. The incentives would come from within the Kyoto system in the form of Certified Emissions Reductions (better known as carbon credits). This is the tradable currency which lets market economics guide the game of emissions reductions. Countries and companies that can cut emissions relatively cheaply (by introducing new technologies, for instance) will get credits they can sell to those who find it expensive to change their dirty ways. The credits that developing countries would gain through avoiding deforestation could be sold internationally, reimbursing lost revenue from forestry and helping wean small-scale loggers off their destructive livelihood. The ultimate idea is to link forest preservation with economic development.
Dr. Virgílio Viana works in the Brazilian government and runs a project to try to stop people from cutting down the Amazon rainforest. One of the key elements in his program involves increasing the value of non-timber forest products through tax breaks and subsidies. “The idea is very simple,” he says, “If people are making money with the forest standing, they’re not stupid—they are going to conserve the forests.”
The Papua New Guinean and Costa Rican proposal is important because it comes from the countries themselves, which currently have no obligations under Kyoto to limit their emissions. The developing world has so far been reluctant to take on strict targets for reasons of equity—it was primarily Western industrialized countries that spewed out the carbon dioxide now threatening the planet in the first place. But this proposal represents developing nations’ growing acknowledgment that the issue is important and action is needed.
Perhaps the most significant feature of avoided deforestation is that it treats the climate change project as an opportunity for development and growth, rather than an obstacle—what Clinton called a “whole new way of thinking.” While the steps taken in that direction at the Montreal conference may have been small, they were also deliberate and well-received. And they may turn out to be merely the beginning of the path toward a new kind of global environmental development.