The road to Rio ... and beyond

Climate Change Policy - Global Environmental Diplomacy - The Planetary Interest
February 26, 1999

Few men have burned up more aircraft fuel in the pursuit of saving the planet than Mostafa Tolba. A tireless traveller as executive director of the UN Environment Programme from 1976 to 1992, Tolba is one of the most important founders of a new world order. It is an order built not on treaties to maintain national borders, but to manage the world's most precious resources: the atmosphere, biological diversity and oceans. In a mere 180 pages, he sums up that work in Global Environmental Diplomacy .

As a memoir of a new kind of diplomacy for a new kind of world, it is destined to become an important historical document. His story starts with the Stockholm environmental conference of 1972. This was a curious event. It was held at the height of the first outburst of global concern about the environment, in the wake of Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb and the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth . In formal terms, it achieved little. There were no treaties or conventions or protocols. And within months of its conclusion the first oil shock had set off its own seismic waves. But Stockholm did create the UN Environment Programme and Tolba became its second boss, after the mercurial Canadian businessman Maurice Strong.

The programme was small and wielded little influence - not least because it was billeted in Nairobi, where getting a phone line in or out of the country could be a major endeavour. And Tolba, an Egyptian microbiologist and former government minister, was not the charismatic figure that Strong was. But Tolba was diligent, he had personal credibility - not least in the developing world - and he had vision. He began to develop what one London newspaper called "a formidable reputation as a head-banger" - other people's, rather than his own.

Whereas Strong had little to show for his time, things did begin to happen under Tolba's watch. Beside the bedrock of environmental sciences grew new disciplines: environmental economics and, more closely associated with Tolba himself, environmental law. The evolution of that discipline - in the cauldron of day-to-day diplomacy rather than courts or legal textbooks - is the central theme of his book, which is co-written by environmental lawyer Iwona Rummel-Bulska. Tolba's early themes were regional agreements: on seas such as the Mediterranean, on rivers such as the Zambezi and on lake catchments such as Lake Chad in the Sahel. But he soon took up truly global issues. He grasped the nettle of the ozone layer after scientists expressed the first fears about the threat posed to it by modern chemicals. It took a decade and made few headlines along the way, but the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer proved a milestone.

When, soon afterwards, British scientists made the frightening discovery of the ozone "hole" over Antarctica, the legal mechanism for the Montreal Protocol and its successors to clamp down on production of ozone-eaters such as CFCs was in place. And Tolba's combination of science and diplomacy helped ensure that nobody shirked their responsibility. "I knew the scientific facts behind the need for action, and this helped me in trying to convince governments," he says. The ozone deal was the first truly global environmental treaty, affecting virtually every country in the world and forcing major industrial changes on many. It was perhaps Tolba's greatest triumph.

But there were others. He oversaw the development of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. And he brokered the 1989 Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes. But Tolba had disappointments too. Others sought to muscle in on his new agenda. When scientists began to call for action to halt the emissions of greenhouses gases, another UN agency, the World Meteorological Organisation, sought equal billing. In the end, the enterprise was taken over by the UN General Assembly. Tolba calls this his greatest disappointment. UN headquarters also took the reins for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, installing as summit secretary-general Tolba's former boss, Maurice Strong.

Arguably this shows Unep and Tolba to have been victims of their own success. Under Tolba, the environment had entered the bloodstream of the UN: every agency from Unesco to the UN Development Programme now sees the environment as a central part of their agenda. Not a bad legacy.

The new order bequeathed to us by Tolba is the intended subject of Kennedy Graham and his contributors in The Planetary Interest . Graham runs something called the Project for the Planetary Interest, which gets funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. His contributors, though hardly household names, include former foreign ministers of Japan, Argentina and Russia and a current European commissioner. Together, they address the proposition that we are entering "a new age in which nation-states are compelled to address problems of a global nature, problems that are beyond the capacity of any nation, no matter how large and powerful, to solve (and that) threaten the viability and integrity of the planet".

Graham's gloss, not shared by all his contributors, is that nation-states are not up to the job. Tolba might argue that environmentalists reached this point of understanding in Stockholm years ago. The sense of a dated thesis is accentuated by Graham's choice of an introductory quote from Carl Sagan's 19-year-old Cosmos . New concept? Hardly.

To be fair, Graham does take us beyond the strictly environmental. His contributors range from the "strategic security" of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons disarmament, through the threats to climate and the ozone layer to address global population growth, over-consumption in the US and under-consumption in Bangladesh. And he has gained the attention of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who provides a foreword. But most of the contributions are pedestrian, and Graham offers little in the way of an overview. He concludes in a chapter headed "Thoughts for the future": "We need to identify and pursue the planetary interest, ensuring that our national interests and policies are compatible and our global power confined to what is legitimate." But most of us were there ahead of him. What politician would not concur with that sentiment? He even ends with a photograph of "earth-rise" as seen from the moon. How hackneyed. I cannot help feeling that the Rockefeller Foundation might find better uses for its money.

From the empty prose of Graham to the dense severity of Catrinus Jepma and Mohan Munasinghe. The title of their book, Climate Change Policy: Facts, Issues and Analyses , does not suggest an easy read, and it is not. The sentences are all long. The clauses and abstract nouns proliferate. Its rigorous, systems-based structure does not allow for colourful asides or interesting detours. But this is nonetheless a serious and valuable study that spans a wide range of disciplines, from the atmospheric science of the greenhouse effect to the economics of cost-benefit analysis and the deep undergrowth of decision-taking frameworks.

The authors draw heavily, but not uncritically, on the work of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, synthesising much of what they had to say three years ago in their second assessment - which ran to more than 2,000 pages - in just 300, a valuable achievement in itself. Of course this academic approach to decision taking feels very different from the horse-trading that went on in Kyoto or Buenos Aires when the real deals were struck in 1997 and 1998. I doubt that it will be bed-time reading for John Prescott, chief political broker in Kyoto. (The Kyoto Protocol does not even make it into the text, presumably because the book was completed before November 1997.) But there is much here that the think-tanks that advise the civil servants that advise Prescott and his fellows will recognise. And for an academic trying to chart a course through the complexities of a debate with many decades, if not centuries, to run, it is an invaluable primer.

The authors are especially sharp on the spurious cost-benefit analysis that has done much to disfigure the debate about the virtues of acting to halt global warming. Claims that the costs and benefits of action are pretty much equal, implying there is no urgency for action, are "terribly wrong" they say, in a rush of uncharacteristic bluntness. The twin pillars for action should, it is said, be economic efficiency and social equity. Some economists claim to see no conflicts between the two. But as the authors point out here, "in order to apply efficiency criteria, costs and benefits have to be I expressed in monetary terms. As soon as one starts to do so, equity issues arise."

There are gaps in their analysis. The debate about so-called "flexibility measures" to meet national emissions targets has moved too fast for the authors to be up to date. A vast literature on carbon sinks and emissions-trading is emerging and will need to be explored in later editions. But this book is a worthy, valuable effort at synthesising the policy debate, and it reveals how far the world is moving on from the global environmental diplomacy of Mostafa Tolba.

Fred Pearce is a freelance writer on science and the environment.

Climate Change Policy: Facts, Issues and Analyses

Author - Catrinus J. Jepma and Mohan Munasinghe
ISBN - 0 521 59314 X and 59688 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £17.95
Pages - 331

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