Nepali Times
Kyoto to Kathmandu


Hetauda - Rising industrial emissions of carbon dioxide are heating the world and accelerating natural climatic warming. This global warming is threatening to melt ice caps, flood low-lying areas, and cause increasing disruption to global weather systems. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find scientists or politicians who dispute this. At the Kyoto environment summit four years ago, the industrialised nations agreed, in principle, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to a figure seven percent below their 1990 output.

But, when the world community convened in Germany last month to adopt the Kyoto protocol and ratify its environmental treaty, they discovered one notable nation which does not take global warming seriously. Who was it? The USA, the most polluting nation on earth.

What then, are we to make of the Kyoto treaty? Will it avert the threat of global warming and a global environmental crisis? What are the immediate implications
for Nepal?

Firstly, the so-called environmental crisis needs explanation. History is littered with cities and regions that rose to power on the abuse of the environment and consequently fell into decline. There is nothing new in this, but the current pace of economic and technological expansion in the industrialised Western world has brought about an unprecedented scale and intensity to this cycle, resulting in the first global economy. Transnational corporations and national governments have created a new dimension to the location of labour, where whole regions and communities have become dispensable components in a universal economic system. The fate of an individual, community, region, or even state, can be decided by decisions taken thousands of miles away-Japan's recent whaling controversy is a case in point.

At the same time, modern economic thought promotes the "no limits" view of economic growth. An approach to life that seeks fulfilment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth, and a wealth that has been primarily gained through a particular attitude to the environment. Industrialists mine the land and make a personal profit, whilst releasing pollutants into the public sphere of the environment, relieving themselves of any costs involved in cleaning up after their operations. The Industrial Revolution of Great Britain for example, was built on a devastating record of environmental abuse. It released a torrent of pollutants that contaminated its people, its land, its sky and its rivers; the Bagmati is nothing compared to some of this. But it also produced marvels such as ships that could navigate the world's oceans, and in so doing, made Great Britain the strongest power in the world for well over a century.

But, as environmental intangibles have increasingly forced themselves into economists' considerations, they, too, have seen that the environment is increasingly showing signs of stress. In Kathmandu, the burden of solid waste disposal and exhaust emissions in particular is clearly beyond the current carrying capacity of the Valley. This is our everyday reality, and it is evidence of the so-called environmental crisis, which indicates that the activities of human beings are reaching a point where we will no longer be able to maintain our present patterns of behaviour and continue to support our current global population.

So what are we to make of the Kyoto treaty? On the positive side, it has been ratified, and gives hope that there will be more international environmental co-operation. The rest of the world managed to unite despite-and almost because of-the actions of the USA, which shows we need not always bow down to its superior economic strength.

On the negative side, despite a growing body of scientists calling for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of up to 60 percent, the compromises that have been made in order to save the treaty from collapse have meant that for the 30 most industrialised nations, the seven percent cut put forward in the Kyoto protocol has in fact been reduced to approximately two percent. The major reason for this is that Australia and Canada, among others, have been able to count forests and farmland as carbon sinks (trees and plant that soak up carbon dioxide). By doing this, they have reduced their requirement to curb actual emissions, though the science on carbon sinks is far from conclusive. Ultimately, the treaty's success and the future of the planet's environmental systems still strongly depend upon whether it can eventually get the US involved. At present the US remains firmly on its own, obsessed with the idea that it can use the dollar to buy itself out of trouble. In the Kyoto negotiations it has consistently argued for the concept of buying "carbon credits" from countries such as Russia and Ukraine, whose industrial collapse over the past decade means they have accidentally passed their Kyoto reduction targets. The USA wants to grant these economies a credit equivalent to the extent to which they have exceeded the reduction set by the treaty. It then wants to buy these credits and put them towards any target of its own. In so doing, it does nothing to improve the state of the environment, but merely buys non-existent "saved" emissions. For the moment, it will not do anything to not curb its gluttonous ways.

What are the immediate implications of the Kyoto treaty for Nepal?
While the signing of the Kyoto treaty is a momentous event, for countries like Nepal heading out into the arena of international development, the USA is unfortunately not on its own when it comes to bullying tactics. At the recent International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in London, Japan engaged in a campaign to buy votes in support of commerical whaling from many of the world's poorest countries with offers of development aid. Masayuki Komatsu, head of Japan's fishing agency said, "We see nothing wrong in using Japan's vast economic power to persuade other countries to vote against restrictions on hunting whales. It is only natural that Japan should use the tools of diplomacy and overseas development aid to influence members of the whaling commission." As these American and Japanese "tools of diplomacy" testify, the path for Nepal is strewn with obstacles and will often involve compromises.

But what the Kyoto treaty states clearly is that we have finally accepted that global warming exists, that it is of utmost concern to us all, and that curbing emissions is the only approach that will definitely halt the process. There will, as a result, be increasing opportunities for developing nations to invest in solar and other renewable energy sources.

Nepal can avoid the industrialised nations addiction to burning fossil fuels, and in the process be able to bypass development's "dirty" phase by avoiding a number of the heavy polluting process this stage involves. The lesson is clear, keep it small and get the energy to the people who need it, keep it clean and invest in alternative energy sources such as wind, water and solar power.
In anticipation, anyone fancy a raft-ride down the Bagmati?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)