Cutting greenhouse gases is a two-way street
The world's governments are trying to finish an agreement on how to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce the threat of global warming.
While the spotlight has been on competing proposals for cutting emissions in industrialized nations, the question of the developing world's role still needs to be addressed and understood.
Unfortunately, fossil-fuel interests continue to cloud the issue by perpetuating two myths: that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol will unfairly force industrialized countries to take the brunt of responsibility for reducing global warming, and that developing countries will recklessly increase their emissions as they pursue economic growth.
The most egregious example of this misinformation is typified in a statement last week by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, who told a reporter: "Not one of the 134 developing countries has even indicated any willingness to voluntarily abide by any of the protocols."
In fact, even without binding, quantitative commitments to limit emissions under the Kyoto treaty, developing countries have undertaken many initiatives that have dramatically limited their already small share of greenhouse gases. Some developing countries have voluntarily imposed policies and measures at least as progressive or more so than those in the industrialized nations.
A new study by an international consortium of nongovernmental organizations, called "Confronting Climate Change," details the measures that 14 developing countries are taking to cut their share of global- warming pollution.
Thailand, for example, set aside 1 percent of consumers' electricity bills and a tax on fuel imports to fund energy-efficiency projects focused mainly on reducing demand. While these projects were designed to save about 1,400 billion watt-hours by 1998, the actual savings was 50 percent higher. The entire project conserved 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, the amount produced by a mid-size coal-fired power plant.
In my own country, Indonesia, the capital city of Jakarta has had tolls on its main city thoroughfares since the 1970s, and now all major city freeways and beltways are tolled, discouraging car use.
Furthermore, the city has also implemented a policy that forbids private cars with fewer than three passengers from entering the business district corridors in the morning rush hours, cutting traffic by as much as 40 percent.
Jakarta also has initiated vehicle-emissions testing and promoted fuel-switching from diesel and gasoline to natural gas.
The result is breathtaking. In just 10 years, natural-gas consumption in the transportation sector has increased exponentially, from less than 53,000 gallons in 1988 to almost 4.5 million gallons in 1997. This and other transportation policies have conserved roughly 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
These are but a few examples from dozens in the study. Unfortunately, little of this information is widely known to the rest of the world, particularly to the handful of US politicians who continue to block progress on an effective climate treaty.
Meanwhile, developed nations have for decades enjoyed the economic benefits of using technologies that create greenhouse-gas emissions (which remain in the atmosphere today) and so bear the first responsibility for mitigating the damage. And even as their per-capita emissions continue to rise, those benefits give the industrialized world the financial capability to lower its emissions trajectory today, to achieve significant per-capita reductions in the future.
In fact, in 1990, out of the 21 billion tons of global emissions, 14 billion tons were emitted by only one-fifth of the world's population, living comfortably in the developed world. The remaining 7 billion tons were emitted by the other four-fifths, living far less comfortably in the developing world.
On a per-capita basis, each of the 1.4 billion people living in the relative prosperity of industrialized countries was indirectly responsible for about 10 tons annually in 1990, while each of the 4.6 billion people in the developing world emitted about 1.4 tons.
Each citizen of a developed country, then, produces about seven times the amount of greenhouse gases of each citizen in the developing world.
Developing countries would prefer to think that the problem with their perceived "lack of participation" stems from misinformation rather than antipathy.
Yet, until the communication divide is bridged, neither side will trust the other, and real progress on global warming will elude us. The problem of climate change now facing the world is larger than any it has ever confronted. It demands cooperation, not confrontation, and understanding, not ignorance. It's time to get past the myths.
Agus P. Sari, a member of the Indonesian delegation to the climate negotiations in The Hague, is executive director of Pelangi, an environmental think tank based in Jakarta, Indonesia.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society