Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at


The first elaboration we may propose is a closer scrutiny of the costs of 'Doing Something', and not only to its advantages (that is, to the damages of 'Doing Nothing').To my knowledge the most impressive systematic attempt is the study by Benhaim, Caron and Levarlet (1991) (later BCL). They classify 50 countries (including most of OECD and Eastern Europe, the main Third World countries) by automatic taxonomic methods according to 20 criteria. The result is quite interesting, both when it confirms actual similarities of attitudes in the climate negotiation and when it contrasts with reality.

The BCL Methodology

The first group of indicators includes GDP per capita and the Index of Human Development (PNUD 1988). They are static indicators (by contrast to rates of growth), neutral with respect to population. All other indicators are linked to the energy system: type of energy used, indices of consumption of primary energy, of energy efficiency, of energy reserves, of CO2 emissions, per capita, per unit of GDP, per country.

Note that the last one is not neutral with respect to the size of population, just as energy reserves are not neutral with respect to the surface of the country. Also note that there is no index of 'advantages in doing something' (such as share of peasantry, share of population living at sea level).

Source: Benhaim et al, 1991

Figure7.2 Level of development and pollution intensity

In Figure 7.2 BCL present a classification of countries via principal components analysis. The horizontal axis in the analysis presents an opposition between 'development' (on the left) and 'underdevelopment'. Development is positively correlated to:

In other words, the more a country is developed, the more it consumes energy per capita and thus the more it emits CO2 though the more GHG efficiently it produces its energy.

On the vertical axis, the criterion of 'cleanness' of production is illustrated, opposing GHG-efficient use of electricity at the top to GHG polluting use of carbon at the bottom.

Combining these two axes, a 'virtuous' hierarchy, from the top-left to the bottom-right appears. The 'GHG virtuous' are, on the first line, Switzerland, Sweden, France, then other Scandinavian countries, Canada, Belgium, then Germany and Japan, then the US and UK, Spain...

Further investigation separated out 'open frontier countries' (the US, USSR, China, Brazil) with large populations, as opposed to all others, including Bangladesh.

In a very graphic way this chart isolates, in the (sociological) North West of the world, countries which are both rich and GHG-efficient in the production of their energy: the 'super-virtuous' of European Free Trade Area (EFTA), the 'virtuous' Japan and EEC (less so in the cases of UK and Spain). These countries are ready to implement the precaution principle: they have or can get the technologies, they are already at a relatively low (yet unsustainable) level of emissions.

By contrast, the US appears in the South West of the chart, along with fossil energy wasters: ax-Socialist countries, South Africa and China. In these countries, along with Petromonarchies, welfare is correlated to GHG wasting. They are in favour of what BCL label the blockage strategy. Georges Bush, with his Rio statement 'Our way of life is not subject to negotiation', illustrates this position.

Very different in appearance are the countries at the South East of the 'GHG-virtuous' North West: India, Brazil, Mexico, China, Malaysia. These countries are too poor to be already GHG-dangerous and to be GHG efficient. But clearly they aspire to be as 'developed' as western countries, and consider that up to now these precursors never implemented any precaution principle. These countries are pushed into an accusation strategy: denouncing the responsibility of the North West in the past for the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere, such a strategy contends that it is not yet time to implement a precaution principle in developing countries.

The Concrete Positions in the Debate

If we now cross the two criteria (advantages of 'Doing something' discussed earlier, and costs of 'Doing something' analysed above), the North-South conflict appears now much more complex.

Along the two criteria, the position of the US is clearly in favour of 'doing nothing': the dangers from greenhouse effects are weak, the cost of fighting it may be very high, even if the low GHG-efficiency of their energy production makes the marginal improvements quite inexpensive (as for ax-Socialist countries). The problem is that, from a global sustainability point of view, the improvements required from the US are far from marginal.

Here we have to anticipate what a global sustainability criterion would be. World development would be GHG-sustainable if the total amount of anthropgenic GHG-emissions were equal to the capacity of the world 'sinks' for GAG. A world population of 10 billion (in 2040), the average sustainable quantity of emissions would be 500 kg of carbon per capita. At present, the US production is 10 times this figure ! It is thus perfectly clear that the 'selfish' interest of the US is the blockage strategy (Do Nothing).

The radical accusation strategy seems to be the opposite, and indeed its glamour in a North-South conflict is very attractive: 'You are the culprits, you have to do something'. The problem is that this position is also a blockage position, since it is subordinated to the implementation of a precaution strategy by foreign countries which are in favour of blockage. It is quite appealing for elites who desire to emulate the US model of development (a savage capitalism in an open frontierland) and which are not too much worried by the consequences of the greenhouse effect on their own population. Here it is important to note that international negotiation involves governments, that is elites, and not people. The position of a government may be quite different from its people interests if the political regime is rather independent from a civil society it purports to represent.

Malaysia provides a good example of satisfying these criteria. As the Prime minister Mahathur Muhammad did not hesitate to put it in the Asian Society Forum 1991: 'Democracy, human rights, ecology, union rights, are but obstacles that advanced countries try to put on the road of their future competitors'.

So we have in fact two types of 'Do Nothing' positions: the one of the North (fighting the greenhouse effect is too expensive and useless for us) and the one of the South (fighting the greenhouse effect would unfairly hinder our development, and the results of global warming are irrelevant to us).

But our discussion indicates two classes of potential followers of a precaution strategy. The first one includes the nations which have serious reasons to believe that they would be the first victims of global warming: Bangladesh, Maldives India, Africa, South America. When, moreover, they are countries which are both low producers of GHG (much less than the 'sustainable' 500 kg/capita) and quite GHG-inefficient, they may assume that they have a wide margin for globally GHG-sustainable development: their contribution to the world production of GHG may increase for a while without being a real problem, and their very development will induce a more GHG-efficient production of energy.

Symmetrically, we noticed that there exist northern countries which may think of increasing their GHG-efficiency faster than their production of energy (for example EFTA, France). Producing less than two tons per capita, and evolving towards a 'service society' with a steady population, they may think that the 500 kg target is within their scope. When, moreover, they are countries particularly sensitive to their leadership responsibilities vis-a-vis southern countries, or to the dangers stemming from demographic and ecological turmoil at their southern borders, they may assume that a precaution strategy is relatively inexpensive and really useful. EEC countries are the most representative of this position. Moreover, domestic ecological militancy begins to frame their politics.

So we have in fact two types of 'Do Something' position: the one of the South (we need to fight the greenhouse effect, and we could afford it with some help from the North) and the one of the North (we have the capacities to fight the greenhouse effect and it is in our interests to offer it to the world).

So the North/South divide is crossed by another divide: Do Nothing/ Do Something (see Figure 7.3)

Figure 7.3 Environmental strategies


In the years leading up to Rio, blockage positions could less and less express themselves in a crude way. On the contrary, the years 1990-1992 were punctuated by conferences, reports of IPCC, books, TV programmes, ecologists' mobilizations, stressing more and more clearly the necessity to 'do something'. The debate was less and less 'should we do something?', more and more 'is it so urgent to do something ? and who should take the biggest share of the burden ?'.

The debate on burden-sharing followed two interwoven paths: a technical debate on the sources of GHG emissions and a policy debate on targets and instruments. The interweaving is so tight than it would be counterproductive to isolate the two aspects: in fact, the debate on the sources ('who is the culprit ?') was a debate on targets ('who has to reduce its emissions?').

The WRI-CSE Controversy

That was very clear when, in 1991, in the times of Prep Com II (and of Gulf War II112), Anil Agarwal and Sunita Nerain of the Centre for Science and Environment (New Delhi) launched their polemics against the apparently 'technical' report 1990-1991 of the World Resources Institute, an independent Washington think-tank connected to the US administration. Up to this time, there were few questions about the absolute responsibility of CO2 emitted by industrial countries for the growth of the greenhouse effect. The WRI report (1990) brought two new elements in the discussion.

Humankind. The WRI report allocates these sinks to countries
proportionally to their gross emissions: thus it yields the net emissions by country.

The rating is then unexpected. The contribution of the South is nearly equal to that of the North (which, at the time, included Socialist countries). The major polluters are the: US, USSR, Brazil, China, India

The WRI report was important. Apart from more detailed arguments, it provided a first survey of all GHG emissions, and drew attention to gases other than carbon dioxide. And it identified clearly the sinks, and not the atmosphere, as the global common which was to be 'enclosed', allotted and regulated for the safety of humankind. Yet, in doing this, the report included two major flaws from the theoretical point of view, with very important policy implications.

1. All the gases are not equally subject to the 'precaution principle'. CO2 remains in the atmosphere from 50 to 150 years. Thus the concentration of CO2 in 2050 will depend on the sum of emissions over the proceeding century. By contrast, methane is very unstable and remains in the atmosphere for around three years. The control of the methane cycle can wait. While the 'comprehensive approach' implies as a target the reduction of all GHGs, the precaution principle implies only the reduction of CO2. 2. The distribution of the sinks according to the gross emissions implies a peculiar form of enclosure (or entitlement): it is according to the acquired contribution to global pollution. Since we are at the dawn of an initial entitlement or endowment process 2 la Rawls, it is clear that such a deal is far from fair: the poorest, the less developed, the less accountable for present pollution and the more likely to increase their population, are offered the smallest possibility to increase their emissions!

The reply by Agarwal and Nerain (1991) was devastating and focused mainly on the second point.

First of all, the CSE criticizes the data of the WRI: 1987 was exceptional for forest fires in Amazonia, the emissions of methane by southern cattle are overestimated, etc. But, being unable to propose another quantitative basis for the discussion, the CSE criticizes the two methodological points of the WRI. The comprehensive approach is rejected on the basis of an ethical argument: the production of methane (in food production) is a necessity, the production of CO2 (in industries and car driving) is a luxury. Clearly, such a critique is most appealing in a North-South confrontation, when 'South' means the LDCs (and not the NICs), and their peasants (not their elites...).

More constructively the CSE opposes the WRI allocation of the global common (the sinks for CO2) between nations. Arguing that all human beings are born equals in rights, the CSE proposes an egalitarian allocation, that is an initial endowment between countries proportional to their population at present time. The structure of 'net emissions' changes completely, hence the 'burden sharing' scheme.

This powerful proposition was extremely welcome in the international negotiation. Soon it became the unifying position of the southern environment and development NGOs in the process up to Rio. In North-South meetings between NGOs (the Prep Com III and IV, the Ya Wananchi conference in Paris, December 1991), this position became hegemonic. But it also influenced the governments of Southern Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) which relied upon such NGOs as the International Union for Conservation of Nature for the writing of their national report to UNCED. These more official positions were frequently based on the more academic work of Grubb (1990) in favour of the principle of traceable permits. Hence it became the unifying position of India and all the group of the '77', of China, of UNCTAD. The advantages of the proposal are indeed impressive:

Source: Agarwal and Nerain, 1991

Figure7.4 Allocation of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions (in million tonnes of carbon equivalent) as calculated by CSE

We are not going here to discuss the economics of traceable permits. In fact, once the initial endowment is given, the market for traceable permits would be much like the oil market. The world could experience a situation of 'atmosphere peonage' (with southern countries selling their permits to breath at very low price, in order to pay for their debt), or, on the contrary, the constitution of a strong oligopolistic market controlled by two 'Saudi Arabia of permits': India and China.Up to now, all this is no more than fancy economics, since obviously, by the time of the 1992 Rio Conference, humankind was not ready for such a sophisticated enclosure process.

The Debate on Ecotax

It is not sufficient to distribute permits between nations and fix with them the collective target of GHG-sustainable development: how could states induce the population of their own nation to restrict their emissions ?

Here we enter the debate 'target policy vs instrument policy'. Policies presented in the previous paragraphs are target policies: the CSE distribution of permits fixes a target-amount for each nation, the WRI implies a general and common target for a rate of reduction. Yet the CSE proposal includes also instruments: a market for permits, a levy (a world ecotax) on the excess. That was precisely its constructivist weakness: the negotiation and, worse, the implementation of instruments, imply that the capacity to control and regulate is given to some international body. The very technical capacity to measure the effective emissions country by country is questionable. A body that could organize the market, implement and redistribute the levy, would have to be a real world government....

On the contrary, it seems that a subsidiarily principle could be easier to implement: once the world community has agreed upon a target (differentiated or not according to countries), it would be the responsibility of national states to choose their own instruments. If we accept this subsidiarily divide, it seems that a target policy, possibly mitigated with the traceable permits instrument, is more suitable at the international level (because agents - the states - are tailored to negotiate on norms and quantities, and because they are few enough to organize a market for permits). On the contrary, tax instruments are more suitable at national level, because here the agents - firms and households - are so heterogenous that no market could be organized, and so numerous that no control could be organized on real emissions. But things are not so simple.

On the one hand, in a globalized economy, instrument policy cannot and should not be under the discretionary sovereignty of governments. Neither norms nor ecotaxes nor subsidies are neutral vis-a-vis competitiveness. Either they hinder competitiveness and are rejected by business lobbies, or they foster competitiveness, and are subject to contests at the GATT. And precisely, a market-oriented Uruguay Round was negotiated in parallel with the Rio Conference.

On the other hand, instrument policies may be negotiated at an international level without an agreement on the target and in tne ignorance of what should be the target, hence how far one is from the target policies seem in line with the precaution principle: we don' t know if they are really necessary and sufficient, but if (later) they appear to have been necessary (sufficient or not) then it was a step in the right direction, and if they appear to have been unnecessary, they may have been useful in some other respect (this last argument indicates the possibility of 'no-regret' strategies).

Thus, concrete diplomacy is likely to wind up as some policy mix of targets and instruments at national and international level. The capacity of leadership consists, for a single country or group of countries, to propose such an international regime, both suitable for its own internal policy and acceptable by others in the name of general interest. The Rooseveltian New Deal (between capital and labour) was the expression of this kind of 'hegemony': it was both an internal 'grand compromise', and it was a model for all nations, fostered by the victory over Nazism and by the Marshall and MacArthur plans (Lipietz 1992b).

The only real attempt to reach the hegemony accross the UNCED process came from the European Community. The Rooseveltian ambition of the EC (labelled 'the Environment Imperative') was explicitly expressed in the EC Report to UNCED, and the challenge was presented in a report of the DG XI (the 'Ministry of Environment' of EC) to the Commission (the Government of EC), later adopted by the Commission itself and then presented as a Communication to the European Council:

With the completion of the internal Market, the European Community will be the biggest economic/trading partner in the world with the potential to exercise an important level of moral, economic and political influence and authority. As such the Community owes it to both present and future generations to put its own house in order and to provide both leadership and example to developed and developing countries alike in relation to protection of the environment and the sustainable use of natural resources (...). The willingness of the Community to fulfill its responsibilities offers an important opportunity to fill a current vacuum in global foreign policy and a catalytic role in regard to the Global Climate Convention to be adopted at the UNCED Earth Summit in June 1992.

  1. Concretely, the deal was many-sided.
  2. Rejecting the 'comprehensive approach' of US Administration, the report focused on carbon dioxide.
  3. The developed countries would commit themselves to reverse the growth of their CO2 emissions, so that the level in the year 2000 would be back to that of 1990.
  4. The developing countries would be free to increase their emissions of CO2 as they grew, provided that they would commit themselves to increase their CO2 and energy-efficiency
  5. In order to reach their target, the developed countries would introduce a carbon-energy ecotax. This ecotax would be levied at the national level, it would be budget-neutral (compensated by reductions in other taxes). But the level of the tax would be internationally oordinated, and would progressively reach the level of US$10 per equivalent of a barrel of oil.
  6. The tax would be differentiated according to the CO2-efficiency of the energy system: five dollars for any energy (including CO2-clean ones: nuclear, hydrolic), plus an amount dependent on the CO2 emissions: lower for natural gas than for oil, higher for carbon.
  7. In addition, research and development of CO2 -efficient technologies would be subsidized.
  8. Technological and financial transfers would help the South to match.

The three first points of the deal represent the 'target' part of the mix. They are in line with the South's objections to an early implementation of the precaution principle (and thus to meet Agarwal's goal, if by different means).

The last four points represent the 'instrument' set. The level of tax in year 2000 seems to be approximately in accordance with the emission target, considering the expected level of increase in GDP and the price emissions relationship of the Nordhaus curve. The budget-neutrality is in line with the anti-tax bias of the late eighties, the uniformity of the rate of tax in industrialized countries is in line with the Urugay Round spirit (admitting that less developed countries deserve a privilege) and the choice of a tax as the instrument is probably the most cost-effective. Moreover, the level proposed for the tax makes it a real incentive for economic agents, since it is verified that real differences on price have a serious effect on CO2 emission (Figure 7.5).

Point five reflects the fear that a shift from fossil energies would increase nuclear energy. Moreover, it induces a shift between fossile energies towards the cleanest ones. Points six and seven take into account the importance given to the autonomous increase in energy efficiency, especially in the South (Goldemberg et al 1987).


In sum, the European Commission Communication to the Council represented probably the best obtainable compromise between North and South, about one year before the Rio Conference. More precisely, it implied an alliance between the 'North-Do Something' group and the 'South-Do Something' group of nations, between Western Europe and Southern Asia. Yet this compromise failed.

Carbon emissions (Kg) per unit of GDP ($US) (C/Q)
Source: Godard, 1992

Figure7.5 Carbon emissions and the price of energy

The first reason is that it expresses an hegemonic regime which is still controversial. In fact, it expresses the ecological superiority of the technical paradigm of Japan and Northern Europe (Germany plus Scandinavia), that is the North-West of the BCL chart (Figure 7.2). But this superiority is not yet sufficient to result in a political leadership imposed on the US which would be a loser in this compromise.

Maybe a Euro-Japanese initiative for the implementation of an ecotax could have obliged the US to meet the challenge. But another reason of the failure was the inner weakness of the candidate to leadership: the European Community. In fact, the EC comprises a 'core' with advanced social and ecological compromises (the North of the continent) and an Atlantic and Mediterranean periphery, with 'flexible' capital-labour

19 In turn the superiority of this paradigm relies on a more efficient capital-labour compromise. See Lipietz (1992b and forthcoming).relations and loose environmental regulations (Lipietz 1992a). Only the demographic weight of the core could impose the ecotax to the periphery. But in December 1991, the Maastricht meeting proposed a reform of the European constitution, increasing economic competition within Europe, but submitting ecological and social regulation to the rule of unanimity between governments. Thus, any single government was given a veto right on the ecotax. While some North European countries (in EC and in EFTA) had already engaged themselves in a unilateral implementation of a CO2 energy ecotax, the United Kingdom and Spain did not hide their intention to practice ecological (and social) dumping.

In sum, the carbon-energy ecotax was the first victim of the Maastricht conference. The reaction of the Commissioner in charge of Environment, Carlos Ripa de Meana, was bitter. Next morning he stated to the French newspaper Liberation (10 December 1991):

Maastricht is a real treachery on environmental issues. We are going towards a two-speed environmental Europe. Environment policies, their costs, their regulation will differ according to country. That will be a big joke! We are preaching, we are making sermons on tropical rainforests, we cannot go to Rio with only words about the greenhouse effect!

Ripa de Meana's prophecy was to be fulfilled perfectly. In April 1992, the European Council failed to adopt the ecotax. In May, the International Negotiation Group on Climate Convention adopted an half-empty compromise. Combined with the failure of the biodiversity negotiation, it closed any possibility for the emergence of a strong 'Do Something' alliance on Rio: the Europe-India axis was broken, the Rio Conference turned out to be an ordinary North-South conflict, with a China-India Malaysia axis petrified in an 'accusing' position.

Could we conclude that the Rio Conference and the whole negotiation on climate was a failure ? Not really. In fact, the compromise was half full, and captured many southern requirements and European proposals. Refusing 'eco-colonialism', it was a step forward and a real commitment for the North:

This subtle language (a masterpiece of former vice-general secretary of United Nations, Jean Ripert) allowed the United States to sign without really committing themselves, while Europe proclaimed that it considered 1990 as the benchmark for a programme of reduction.

Where are we now? Not surprisingly, the ecotax is still not implemented in the post-Maastricht European Union. But negotiations are still advancing. Facing a general fiscal crisis (due to the German unification and the recession), the states in Europe are seeking new sources of revenues, as is the US. Tax on gas and ecotaxes are more and more appealing. Moreover, the December 1993 report by a group of economists headed by Edmond Malinvaud proposed the carbon-energy ecotax as a substitute to Social Security taxes levied on labour (Dreze et al 1994).

Thus, in the name of fighting unemployment through a decrease in labour cost, the ecotax is vindicated while governments increase taxes on gas. This implementation of the 'no-regret strategy' expresses the common wisdom that even if it may not be time to put a halt to the tide of cars in circulation and their CO2 emissions, it may still be a good precaution not to foster it. In Hourcade's (1993) terms, the American way of life (Fordism) appears of 'contestable legitimacy'.

Yet, the no-regret strategy, this weakest form of the precaution principle, ignores that it may be later than we think.


Agarwal, A, Nerain, S (1991) Global Warming in an Unequal World: a Case
of Environmental Colonialism
Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi Banuri, T (1992) Decision Making on Sustainable Development in Asia Report to UNESCO, mimeo Benhaim, J. Caron, A, Levarlet, F (1991) 'Analyse économique des propositions des acteurs face au probléme du CO2', Cahiers du C3E, Univ Paris I, mimeo de Campos Mello, V (1992) La puissance du faible. Les rapports Nord-Sud dans les négociations Forêt de la CNUED Mémoire DEA, Univ Paris I, mimeo Commissariat General du Plan (1993) L' économie face a l' ecologic La

Découverte/La Documentation Française, Paris Gay, J P (1984) Fabuleux maïs: histoire et avenir d' une plante, AGPM, Paris Godard, O (1992) La reduction des emissions de gaz a effet de serre au moyen de taxes,

OECD, Paris Godard, O (1993) 'Strategies industrielles et convention d'environnement: de l' univers stabilise aux univers controversiés', Economie et Statistiques n 258-59,

Oct 1992 Goldemberg et al (1987) Energy for a Sustainable World WRI, Washington Grubb, M (1990) Energy Policies and the Greenhouse Effect Royal Institute of International Affairs, Darmouth Habeeb W M (1988) Power and Tactics in International Negotiations The Johns

Hopkins Press, Baltimore Hetch, S (1992) Eco 92 as a negotiation process. The debates in the Americas Report to UNESCO, mimeo Hetch, S & Cockburn, A (1989a) The fate of the forest. Developers, destroyers and defender of the Amazon Verso, London-New York Hetch, S & Cockburn, A. (1989b) 'Defenders of the Amazon' The Nation, May 22 Hourcade, J C (1993) 'Les arguments économiques de la négotiation intemationale autour de l'effet de serre' in COP

Hourcade, J C, Baron, R (1992) Réduire les émissions de gaz à effet de serre au moyen de permis négociables OECD, Paris

International Panel on Climate Change (1992) Climate Change: the IPCC Response Strategies World Meteorological Organization/UNEP

Jonas, H (1991) Le principe de responsabilité: une éthique pour la civilisation technologique Cerf, Paris

Lipietz, A (1992a) La préparation de la Conference des Nations Unies sur l'Environnement et le Développement comme processus de négociation Rapport a l'UNESCO, mimeo

Lipietz, A (1992b) Towards a New Economic Order. Postfordism, Ecology and Democracy Polity-O UP, London-New York

Lipietz, A (forthcoming) 'Capital-Labour relations at the dawn of the 21st century' in J Schor and J You (eds) The Transformation of Capital-Labour Relations: A Global Perspective Edward Elgar Aldershot

Lipietz, A, Radanne, P (1993) 'Energie: élargir les marges de liberaté' in CGP

Marglin, F A (1990) Dominating Knowledge; development, culture, assistance Oxford University Press, Oxford

Marglin, S. Schor, J (1990) The Golden Age of Capitalism. Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience University Press, Oxford.

Nordhaus, W D (1990) 'Economic Approach to Greenhouse Warming' presentation to the Conference Economic Policy Response to Global Warming Rome, 4-6 Octobre

Porter, G. Brown, J W (1991) Global Environmental Politics Boulder, Westview Press

Rawls, J (1971) A Theory of Justice Oxford University Press, Oxford

Roqueplo, P (1993) Climats sous surveillance. Limites et conditions de l' expertise scientifique Economica, Paris

Stoffaes, C (1993) 'Energie nucléaire, economic, ecologic' in CGP

World Resources Institute (1990) World Resources 1990-1991: a Guide to the Global Environment OUP, Oxford

Contents - Previous - Next