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SRI LANKA: Trading Debts Against Carbon Credits?

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Oct 6 2008 (IPS) - Little Sri Lanka wants developing countries to be able to trade their debts against the environment destruction and climate change attributed to the developed nations.

Piloting the idea is Sri Lanka’s environmental minister Champaka Ranawaka, a maverick politician who may be taking on more than he can chew by trying to rally undeveloped nations around the concept of ‘environmental debt’ owed by the richer countries.

“We have a right to live; a right to develop, but that is being blocked by richer nations,” the minister, a qualified engineer, told IPS in an interview. Ranawaka and his aides want to take the idea of environmental debt to the main forums of the world and convince the richer nations to exchange their debt claims from borrower-countries against environmental damage caused.

“Our foreign debt is 1.35 billion US dollars but our environmental cost is much higher because richer countries have polluted our environment and we are told to forget development,” he said. “Forget GSP Plus or other trade concessions – we should be able to trade off our environmental burden against loans and trade benefits. The U.S. has already exploited our resources and retarded our development. Now they must pay for it.” Currently the only form of payback to developing countries for carbon emissions by richer countries is the carbon trading mechanism developed under the United Nation’s Kyoto protocol. Carbon trading is a market-based mechanism for helping mitigate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Carbon trading markets bring buyers and sellers of carbon credits together with standardised rules of trade. A handful of Sri Lankan companies are already involved in this exercise.

Environmentalists tend to agree with Ranawaka’s rational views on the environment, but believe it would be a huge uphill task to convince the international community to accede to such a proposal. “He may be irrational in his views on the ethnic conflict but he is well read and intelligent on the environment and on many other issues,” one environmentalist said.

Sumith Pilapitiya, leading environmental specialist at the World Bank, Colombo, agrees, saying the minister’s argument on the cash-for-environmental damage proposal is sound. “His views are very enlightening and rational,” he said.

Ranawaka, an electrical engineer with a first class degree from Sri Lanka’s main technology university at Moratuwa on the outskirts of Colombo, has in the past been regarded as a rabble rouser for his nationalist views on the protracted ethnic conflict on island.

Ranawaka believes that Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese-Buddhist population and governments dominated by it have been too lenient and tolerant towards Tamil militants fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority community. His National Heritage Party which is made up mainly of Buddhist monks is a part of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nationalist, coalition government.

However, his views on the environment, climate change and global warming come with a lot of reading and learning on the subject, according to Jagath Gunawardene, who is counted among Sri Lanka’s leading environmentalists. “His proposals have some sound logic,” he said.

At a recent South Asian summit in Colombo, heads of state and their ministers agreed with the Sri Lankan government [essentially Ranawaka’s argument] on the need for environmental justice and protection. “Earlier at an international meeting in India, such an assertion was not accepted,” he said.

All eight countries in the South Asian region, including India, represented at the meeting by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, agreed that climate change justice should be demanded and that the atmosphere should be shared by all equally. “This was a great international victory for us because on the one hand we cannot develop as a country and on the other, the damage caused by climate change affects the whole world, not just the developed countries,” the minister added.

Ranawaka and his government were planning to press the environmental debt issue along with a Sri Lankan-led proposal for a new Sustainable Human Development Index (SHDI) at the U.N. General Assembly sessions. But the idea was shelved for want of preparation.

Now the environment minister is planning to present his proposal to an international climate change meeting later this year. “The messenger [the vehicle and method to be used] in presenting the proposal is important,” says Ranawaka. ‘’A powerful medium is necessary to draw the attention of the international community. That’s the way it is when smaller countries make sound proposals.”

In the proposal for a new SHDI, a report prepared by the ministry of environment, says that the UNDP’s Human Development Index, prepared since 1990, ignores the distributional aspects of income, the quality of life of human beings and the detrimental impacts on the environment due to development.

The report says the new SHDI will include the ecological index, climate change index, poverty index in the HDI. “If you include the three new indices in the HDI, the SHDI shows Sri Lanka at 24 whereas the U.S. is at 94,” Ranawaka said.

In its report the ministry quotes a study by Prof. Richard Norgaard and Dr. Thara Srinivasan of the University of California, Berkeley, to say that the environmental damage caused to developing nations by the world’s richest countries amounts to more than the entire Third World debt of 1.8 trillion dollars.

“The study suggests that, to some extent, the rich countries have developed at the expense of poor countries. The high living standards of the population in the west have been maintained by drawing from the ecological resources of the developing countries and this fact of environmental debt has been largely unrecognised or has not been researched up to now,” the ministry report said.

According to Ranawaka, when Western nations emit more than their allotted carbon emissions they intrude on sovereignty because countries like Sri Lanka are then deprived of the right to emit the permissible level of carbon while developing. “If someone pollutes our environment, we have a right to be safeguarded. The permissible carbon emission level per person on the planet is 2,170 kg per year while we use only 600 kg per person. In the U.S. its 24,000 kg per person,” he said.

Environmentalist Pilapitiya agrees that there is unfairness in the emission levels and the ‘somewhat’ restricted development path for Third World countries, but he believes in the practical. “There is no use blaming one another. That’s too late. We can develop and also be conscious of the environment,” he told IPS.

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