A depletion of faith

  • 14/10/1995

SEPTEMBER 16 this year, as recommended by the United Nations General Assembly, marks the first International Day for Preservation of the Ozone Layer -- the thin layer of gaseous stratospheric ozone which screens most of the sun's ultra-violet radiation. Eight years ago, on this day the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was adopted.

The world's rich countries are responsible for the most of the serious abuses of the planet's ecosystems and, therefore, have an obligation to finance their repairs. The Protocol stipulates that the developed countries must finance the transition to ozone-friendly technologies in the South. In the post-Rio period, however, finance is perhaps the most daunting limitation on our collective capacity -- national and international.

The involvement of the developing countries depends largely on an unqualified acceptance of this obligation. The Protocol and its financial mechanism, called the Multilateral Fund, is perhaps the best case study available to assess the effectiveness of recent environmental treaties. In terms of proving its efficacy, the Protocol is presently offering us a mixed bag. The recent reports of the Expert Assessment Panels indicate that it has gone some way in effectively curtailing ozone depletion. Scientists have predicted that even if all the countries implement the Protocol, the ozone layer will continue to deplete until ad 2000, and gradually attain its pre-1970 shape only by ad 2050 or so. That calls for continued international cooperation in the near future. The most important component of this cooperation is to ensure that the developing countries have access to money and ozone-friendly technologies and substances.

The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation (wmo) recently reported that the area with severely depleted ozone over Antarctica this year covers about 10 million square kilometres -- about the size of Europe -- and is twice the size recorded in 1993 and 1994. wmo claims that without the Protocol in operation, Europe and North America would be receiving over 35 per cent more ultraviolet radiation by now.

Another parameter for measuring the efficacy of the Protocol would be in terms of the financial aspects of the treaty obligations. But the developing countries are sceptical about the size of the Fund and have complained about the barriers in actually securing the pledges of the donor countries.

The need for funds will grow because of the increasing number of ozone depleting substances (ods) being added to the Protocol. The most recent case is of methyl bromide, considered important for agricultural purposes in developing countries.

Even worse, when the task of implementing an agreement is contingent on a North-to-South transfer of finance and technology, there should be no politics of power, inequity and pressure. But the reverse is the stark reality.

India and China had regarded the financial and technological promises of the North as major concessions, and inducements towards becoming signatories. However, India has so far failed to obtain either finance or substitute technologies from the Fund. Only China and Malaysia have so far received minor doles from an otherwise tiny kitty.

In any case, the politics and process of technological transition has revealed a gross neglect of the principle of equity. India has submitted proposals seeking funds to the tune of US $2 billion, but received about US $12-15 million only.

While the Indian NGOs and industry have made serious efforts to bring into sharper focus this inequitous arrangement, the Indian government has been reluctant to take a lead in shaping the agenda either for a re-negotiation or a review of the Fund's operations.

The installed capacities of some of the Indian producers is large enough to make the idea of exports to other Third World countries attractive. But an amendment proposed by the North (moved by Australia) sought to prohibit the developing countries from exporting ods. Aimed at cornering the global ods market for Northern multinational companies, the proposed amendment goes against the very spirit of the Protocol, and shakes the confidence in the negotiation of future environmental treaties. India managed to get this amendment pushed aside at the recent Geneva meeting, but it has learnt an important lesson about the subtle ways in which trade related measures, largely unanticipated in 1987, can get pushed.

The 7th meeting of the parties to the Protocol, slated for late November in Vienna, promises to be one of considerable significance, and should provide an opportunity for the developing countries to adopt a pro-active stand.

A monograph prepared last year for United Nations Environment Programme (unep), titled Protecting the Ozone Layer through Trade Measures, concludes that the Protocol is effective because it contains provisions ensuring fair and effective implementation, including trade restrictions. But the test of an agreement is not just in its provisions alone. Equity aspects are equally important in engendering compliance, positive management and promoting global environmental democracy.

However, in its operations, especially from the viewpoint of developing countries, the Montreal Protocol has been far from effective. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the lukewarm attitude of industrialised countries, in terms of committing financial resources to manage the problem, has, regrettably, had the negative effect of distorting the capacity building efforts of developing countries.

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