Debate renewed on blame for global warming

  • 30/10/1992

Debate renewed on blame for global warming Basing methodology on global justice
N S Jodha

THE ESSENCE of the conclusions of the World Resource Institute is aptly reflected in the Gujarati proverb, "What is mine is mine and what is yours is ours." Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain question this conclusion. In the first place, they find that the WRI analysis is quite sloppy, especially with respect to the uncritical use of data about deforestation in the developing world. Outdated and single-year data are used as bases for extrapolating deforestation rates, when annual average rates of deforestation would be more appropriate. Second, a similar lack of precision characterises the use of data on emissions due to fossil fuels and land use changes. Third, the WRI"s assessment overlooks concerns about equity by ignoring historical differences in the degree to which countries contributed to the build-up of greenhouse gases.

As a result, the WRI"s analysis leads to proposals for the unfair redistribution of a global commons of extreme importance, namely the earth"s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and methane through global sinks. In the process, greenhouse gas contributions from land use changes, rice and animal farming are overemphasised, while no distinctions are made between the "survival emissions" of the poor and the "luxury emissions" of the rich.

Finally, Agarwal and Narain are concerned about the potential effect that this flawed but highly publicised report may have on policy makers and others.

The writers propose an alternative methodology that focuses on "global justice, equity, and sustainability". Global sinks for greenhouse gases are allocated in proportion to national populations: the resulting quantities constitute "permissible emissions". Total existing emissions of individual countries are compared with permissible emissions to determine excess emissions. Some of these excess emissions are traded from high emitters to low emitters that have a surplus.

A comparison of WRI"s list of target countries with those identified by Agarwal and Narain is revealing. For example, the WRI calculates that the USA is responsible for 17 per cent of existing net emissions, whereas the corresponding CSE figure is 27.4 per cent. In contrast, China"s share drops from 6.4 per cent (WRI) to 0.57 per cent (CSE) and the shares of developed countries as a whole rise from 52.6 per cent (WRI) to 67 per cent (CSE), with proportionate decreases for developing countries. When the data are adjusted to take account of more accurate information on annual average deforestation, the share of developed countries jumps to 78.5 per cent.

Agarwal and Narain prompt us to re-examine the global warming debate and four important points emerge from such a reconsideration. First, the lack of transparency of the debate tends to limit large-scale and varied participation.

Second, there can be little effective involvement by scientists and others from the South if they lack access to data and methodologies that are available to analysts in the North.

Third, mass media treatment of global environmental issues rarely do justice to scientific issues, partly because they are obscured by highly charged political debate and also because there is heavy pressure to recruit scientific findings to one or other of the contending interest groups. Consequently, tentative conclusions are sometimes rushed into the political arena without adequate analysis.

Finally, worthwhile collective action against global warming is already constrained by persisting uncertainties about changing scenarios, especially at the regional level. Defining the responsibility for emissions is not only a challenging scientific task, but a politically sensitive one as well.

N S Jodha is with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu.

Global climate moves to centre stage
Harold Brookfield

A NUMBER of very real and pertinent issues have been raised by Agarwal and Narain. There has been a growing tendency to give greater emphasis to land use change, especially in the tropics (and) to place more stress on the actual and potential contribution of the developing countries to postulated global warming. The recent WRI report is an influential example of this trend. Accusing the WRI of "mathematical jugglery", Agarwal and Narain add some ingenious data manipulation of their own and conclude, "India can double its carbon dioxide emissions without threatening the world"s climate". This view has the unstated but convenient rider that since the bulk of the world"s population increase is taking place in the developing countries, the advantage of these countries in terms of "permissible quotas" will increase through time.

While the basic flaw in this argument lies clearly in the division of natural sinks on the quite unrelated basis of population numbers, there is justice in the political argument that the real burden of emission control falls, both now and in the short term, on the North rather than on the South. There are aspects of the case against the WRI data that might even be strengthened and one of these concerns the contribution of tropical deforestation and its emissions of carbon dioxide. Together with emissions of methane, derived in large measure from subsistence production, but in truth still subject only to the most notional estimation, deforestation is a principle element in the supposedly large present contribution of tropical developing countries to greenhouse gas emissions.

Surprisingly, Agarwal and Narain accept the WRI estimates of the contribution from tropical deforestation, though they do question the estimates of deforestation rate that are employed. The large degree of uncertainty (of estimate) needs to be stressed, and it is strange that Agarwal and Narain failed to do this.

There is good methodological progress on estimating emissions from deforestation. This is the objective result of good work done with some of the best available data. Interpretation is another matter.

It seems to have been established that modern clearance and interference in the tropical forests have been significant contributors, although there is nothing like the firm quantification that can be given to the much larger effect of burning fossil fuels. Moreover, the absorptive contribution of regrowth remains to be fully evaluated. It follows -- and Agarwal and Narain do not deny it -- that greatly improved management, and reforestation, are in the highest degree desirable for this reason alone.

However, the weight nowadays being given to tropical deforestation cannot yet be justified on the basis of scientific data alone. The problem is political rather than scientific and is becoming increasingly so. Tropical deforestation, in particular, is a cause which governments and the public in countries which have no tropical forests have found easy to espouse. Moreover, one recalls the disarming candour with which the WRI claimed to have found in the "global deforestation crisis" a big, new issue with which to replace the discredited oil crisis of the 1970s. It is hard to gainsay those who assert that some Western politicians, responding to and perhaps even manipulating their own environmental pressure groups, have used the issue to divert attention away from the weak efforts made until now in most developed countries towards the massive emission reductions that are required of them.

Potentially, the greatest of future conflict issues concerns power generation from the huge coal resources of China, which could become a source of carbon dioxide fully comparable with tropical deforestation. A mere doubling of China"s currently low per capita consumption of fossil fuels, would lift that country"s total carbon dioxide emissions well above the present US level by early in the next century, yet to find means of developing China without massive use of its coal is currently inconceivable. It is not without reason that many in developing countries see the emphasis being placed on their actual and potential contributions to global warming as a concerted effort to check their development, or more subtly, to make it dependent on cleaner but costly Western technology. Moreover, Agarwal and Narain make a telling point in arguing that some of the largest developing country emissions, from natural gas and deforestation for timber production in particular, "arise essentially not out of Third World consumption but Western consumption".

Properly speaking, therefore, a share of the carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries might in fairness be added to the contributions of these same industrialized countries. But this is an argument for a change in consumption patterns in the latter countries. It is not to accept Agarwal and Narain"s simplified contention that the growing greenhouse gas contribution of the populous tropical countries should be disregarded until the greater polluters, on a per capita basis, have first reduced their own. Agarwal and Narain risk confusing two issues. To follow their argument to its logical conclusion might be tantamount to saying that household burglars should go scot-free, however big their heists, until the gigantic frauds perpetrated by corporate criminals have first been eliminated! Agarwal and Narain do not say as much, but licence to increase global pollution is implied in their position.Global climate change is a very serious issue, but it is greatly to be regretted that it has become, to so high a degree, the central focus of concern, to the neglect of much else. In so far as this concern reflects the self-interest of the world"s well-off, who seek ways of ameliorating their own climatic future without much sacrifice of their own comforts, there is indeed an element of "environmental colonialism".

Harold Brookfield is with the Division of Society and Environment of the Australian National University, Canberra.

Earth warming debate takes global turn

THE DEBATE about global warming seemed at first to be a debate about the reliability of our science. It developed into much more of a policy debate, although confined almost entirely to the industrialised world.

Now, at last, there are signs of a global debate being mounted, in which the concerns of the developing countries are uppermost, with the publication of a series of important reports and commentaries from the South. The most uncompromising, which views global warming as primarily the responsibility of the developed world, is the CSE report.

They have targetted their assault on the venerable WRI in Washington. The WRI report argues that "what is evident is that responsibility for greenhouse emissions is spread widely around the world. Global warming is truly a global phenomenon, in both cause and potential effect."

It is this claim, to which Agarwal and Narain take most exception. Round One (of the North-South tournament) was played out, with remarkably little media attention, in the conference halls of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) between 1988 and 1990. As these meetings gathered pace it became clear that the developing world could not be kept out of the discussions. What had been a dialogue between club members about what should be done to put the world right, became a global discussion about the conditions for entry to the club. The countries of the South argued that the developed world should reduce its carbon emissions, share cleaner technology with the South and initiate a large-scale transfer of capital from North to South to help the developing world meet the costs of freeing itself from increasing dependence on fossil fuels.

The climate discussions, it was contended, were about trade and development, investment and debt. The developing countries began to argue that reaching agreement about global warming meant renegotiating the terms under which the South "developed". The environment debate had become, in fact, a development debate.

The implied response to this challenge was that if the developing countries wanted to set the agenda, rather than simply act upon it, they should at least assume some responsibility for global environmental problems. One manifestation has been the increased attention given to population increase as part of the global change equation.

It is at this stage that Agarwal and Narain"s report makes its entrance. It is aimed at defusing the population debate (which, interestingly, it mentions only obliquely) and restoring structural development issues to the forefront of the argument about global warming. The view from the South is that we in the industrialised economies should examine our underlying models of production and consumption. I have argued elsewhere that, even within the North, we need to consider these much more fundamental underlying, social commitments. Our failure (in the North) to do so also undermines our very analysis of the problem. The debate about global warming is inevitably also a debate about sustainable development, in which we need to describe what we want to sustain. Is it present or future levels of production or, perhaps, present or future levels of consumption?

Michael Redclift is with the environment section, Wye College, University of London.

WRI global index needs full review

SHOULD the WRI drop its Global Index of net emissions because its scientific validity has been challenged by many experts? Or, should the idea of a global index be preserved, but with the CSE calculations substituting for those of WRI? If an index of emissions is used to allocate "responsibility" for reducing greenhouse gas build-up among countries, it cannot ignore the importance of population size. In its report, World Resources 1990-91, WRI treats equity issues in an ambiguous and deflecting way -- a way that not only does not live up to claims that it is clear, simple and workable, but also cannot even be calculated for many years even where data are available. Its value as a planning tool is suspect.

The WRI Index cannot be calculated because methane concentrations fluctuate too much. According to the time series published in World Resources 1990-91, methane concentrations in the atmosphere increased rapidly between 1965 and 1988. However, they also fluctuated widely from year to year. Such variations cast doubt on the workability of the index. Indeed, the Index seems to have no practical utility for the years 1968 and 1974-78, when methane decreased. Fluctuations of methane concentrations reflect the dominating influence of natural phenomena: annual fluctuations of airborne fractions are not mainly due to changes in anthropogenic emissions. Original data can be contaminated, and its quality lost, through premature aggregation. Scientists are understandably reluctant to accept the WRI Index because it mixes contributions from anthropogenic and natural phenomena instead of trying to separate them. For example, the decrease of methane between 1974 and 1978 is widely believed to the result of the El Nino, an exogenous event.

We should also be cautious about combining emissions from a wide range of sources. It is misleading to lump all the sources of greenhouse gases and even of carbon dioxide together.

Is the Global Warming Potential (GWP) equivalence method, developed by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a fragile basis for a comprehensive approach? Although it has been identified as an alternative to WRI"s Greenhouse Forcing Contribution (GFC) approach, there are many doubts about the relevance of the method itself. Though WRI experts were aware that their approach was scientifically weaker than the GWP approach, they were pleased about having a series of figures that could be used to show that everybody shared responsibility for the build-up of greenhouse gases.

World Resources 1990-91 should not have obscured equity issues of climate change instead of clarifying them, and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was obliged to uncompromisingly criticise it. If the concept of a New World Order is to be democratic, the global climate issue will force the world community to enter a new era of equal rights to natural resources for all people. An automatic financial compensation mechanism should be designed to provide relief to countries whose rights are infringed. There is now a historically unique opportunity to break the international debt deadlock and, hopefully, to accelerate both a population transition in the South and a new ecological ethic in the North.

WRI should drop the Index and scientists, on their part, should improve our understanding of the airborne fraction and help validate the concept of permissible levels of emissions. That concept can accommodate a tradeable permit system as suggested by CSE.

Daniel Thery is with CNRS-CIRED in Montrouge, France.

Environmental colonialism: Term too strong

SO FAR, no conspicuous evidence of the global warming hazard has been observed. To put the issue in Chinese terminology, the "quality" of the problem has been affirmed, but not its "quantity". The assessment of the problems should not overlook the potential effect nor minimise the need to take any action that will make people inactive and unprepared.

Agarwal and Narain suggest correctly that it is important to distinguish between the "survival emissions" of the poor and the "luxury emissions" of the rich. Survival emissions, such as carbon dioxide from human exhalation and the meagre consumption of fossil fuels as well as methane from the growing of paddy rice and the raising of livestock, should not be restricted. Reckless deforestation and other misuse of natural resources, if any, should be stopped, but it still should not be overestimated.

On the other hand, the term "environmental colonialism", used by Agarwal and Narain, seems too strong a criticism of the WRI. Probably WRI is simply overemphasising the deforestation process and the "survival emissions" in the Third World, while tending to minimise the "luxury emissions" of developed countries. Their "one world" is not necessarily empty rhetoric; most probably they do mean it.

The civilisation of modern USA (and, to a lesser degree, all other developed countries) is really marvellous; yet, it seems to rely too much on petroleum consumption. Such a situation cannot last long and the "luxury emissions" will increase from bad to worse if effective action is not taken.

Although we still do not know enough about the hazards from global warming to take any large-scale action, due precaution should be taken before it is too late.

Zhao Songquiao is with the Institute of Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Related Content