Financial Times

Trading the country’s debt for climate change
Environmental Minister takes on the world in a unique challenge

Environmental Minister Champika Ranawaka

Environmental Minister Champika Ranawaka may be a newcomer to the international arena and could be trying to bite more than he can chew on. But no one can blame him for trying and leading the charge for many other undeveloped nations stalled in their development path due to the fault of the richer countries.
His panacea for the country’s debt crisis: Ask developed countries to pay back cash to Sri Lanka for polluting the environment and for being responsible for climate change in what is seen as a debts-for-destruction exchange.

“We have a right to live; a right to develop but that is being blocked by richer nations,” the minister, a qualified engineer, told The Sunday Times FT in a telephone interview. The Minister and his aides have coined the word ‘environmental debt’ and want to take the proposal to the main forums of the world asking richer nations to set off their debt claims from borrower-countries as against the global warming caused by the former.

“Our foreign debt is $1.35 billion but our environmental cost is much higher because richer countries have polluted our environment and we are told to forget development,” he said, adding, “Forget GSP+ or other trade concessions - we should be able to trade off our environmental burden against loans and trade benefits. The US 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 UN Kyoto protocol to reduce carbon emissions as a means of tackling climate change and global warming. 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 standardized rules of trade. A few Sri Lankan companies are involved in this exercise.

Environmentalists tend to agree with Mr 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,” an environmentalist said. Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, Lead Environmentalist Specialist at the World Bank, Colombo, partly agrees saying the Minister’s argument on the cash-for-environmental damage proposal is a good one. “His views are very enlightening and rational,” he said.
Mr Ranawaka, an electrical engineer with a first class degree from Sri Lanka’s main technology University of Moratuwa, has in the past being regarded as a ramble rouser for his nationalist views on the ethnic issue. He believes Sri Lanka’s main Buddhist population and majority Buddhist-led governments have been too lenient and tolerant towards the LTTE. His nationalist JHU is made up of mainly Buddhist monks and is a part of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition government.

However his views on the environment, climate change and global warming comes with a lot of reading and learning on the subject, according to environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene. “His proposals have some sound logic,” he said.

Mr Ranawaka believes the ‘messenger’ is important in taking proposals like the environmental debt to the world and being able to convince the international community. At a recent meeting of South Asian leaders in Colombo, heads of state and their ministers agreed with the Sri Lankan government (essentially Mr Ranawaka’s argument) for 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.

Mr Ranawaka and the Sri Lankan government had been planning to press forward the environmental debt issue along with a Sri Lankan-led proposal for a new Sustainable Human Development Index (SHDI) at the ongoing UN General Assembly sessions, which was recently attended by President Rajapaksa, but the idea was shelved as more time and preparation was needed for such an exercise.

Now the Environment Minister is planning to present the 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,” acknowledges Mr Ranawaka, adding that “a powerful medium is necessary to draw the attention of the international community,” otherwise ‘no one’ will take any serious note. “That’s the way it is when smaller countries made sound proposals.”

In the proposal for a new SHDI, a report prepared by the Ministry of Environment says that the Human Development Index (HDI) prepared by the UNDP since 1990 measures the well-being of human beings. But it ignores the distributional aspects of income, the quality of life of human beings or the detrimental impacts on the environment due to development.

Human freedom in HDI
The report says the HDI also doesn’t take into account other factors that improve human well-being like gender equality, income distribution, human freedom and rights as well as environmental sustainability.
It 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 United States is at 94,” the minister said.

The Ministry report quotes a study by Prof. Richard Norgaard and Dr Thara Srinivasan of the University of California, Berkeley as saying 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. “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 unrecognized or has not been researched up to now,” the Ministry report said.

Indeed, Mr Ranawaka, says when Western nations emit more than their allotted carbon emissions they intrude on ‘our’ 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 in the planet is 2,170 kg per year while we use only 600 kg per person. In the US its 24,000 kg per person,” he said.

Conscious development
While environmentalist Dr Pilapitiya agrees to some extent about the unfairness in the emission levels and the ‘somewhat’ restricted development path for Third World countries, he believes one needs to be practical in the development process. “There is no use blaming one another. That’s too late. We can develop and also be conscious of the environment,” he says. One example where Sri Lankans have themselves to blame is the pollution of the Beira Lake, a showpiece lake in the heart of the capital. A 1997 study found that the Beira was polluted because 17,500 homes in the catchment area had attached their sewage disposal to the storm-water drains that went into the lake.

If these residents collectively paid for the sewage connection it would have cost a total of US$150,000 to $200,000. According to 1997 rates, the cost of cleaning the lake is $19 million. “There is no point blaming others for faults that are of our own making,” Dr. Pilapitiya told The Sunday Times FT. (Feizal)

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