by Abid Aslam

Washington, 3 Oct 99 (IPS) -- Rich countries say poor ones owe them money but their own 'carbon debt' is three times greater than their financial claims against borrowers.

"We constantly think of the world's poorest countries as being in debt to us and, as a result, force them to adopt draconian economic austerity measures," says Andrew Simms, adviser to the British charity Christian Aid. "But these debts are dwarfed by the huge and rising carbon debt owed by rich countries to the global community," argues Simms, principal author of a new report pointedly titled 'Who Owes Who?'

Industrialised countries are wreaking environmental havoc upon the earth - and particularly its most destitute citizens - through their "reckless use of fossil fuels (which) has helped create the spectre of climate change" through global warming, the report says.

Wealthy nations thus are running up a 'carbon debt', because "countries that are using more than their fair share of the climate, and adding more to the damaging effects of global warming, are running up a debt to those countries that are using less than their fair allocation."

Highly indebted poor countries are accumulating credits of up to 612 billion dollars - compared to their conventional, financial debt of around 200 billion dollars to wealthy nations, the report asserts.

That estimate is based on carbon dioxide reduction targets set by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as prevailing estimates of the economic value and costs of emitting the greenhouse gas.

"The atmosphere can only absorb a certain amount of greenhouse gases before disruptions begin, so their emission needs controlling," the report says. "As, each day, industrialised countries delay action on the 60-80 percent cuts that are needed, they go over-budget." What's more, "according to our projection of sustainable carbon use per person, the United States currently uses 12 times the allowable amount" and Britain, six times.

The result of all this excess is "a storm cloud that hangs over everyone's future" but most menacingly over the lives of people in poor countries vulnerable to natural disasters related to climate change. These include:

* Small island states in the Caribbean, the Maldives and the Marshal Islands.

* Low-lying delta states, including Bangladesh, Egypt, China and Vietnam.

* Drought-prone states, mostly in the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and countries south of the Sahara.

Yet, these are among countries chalking up carbon credits rather than debts.

"Contrary to popular perceptions, some of the poorest countries on earth are also the most economic users of energy," says the report. "Comparing the amount of dollars of economic output generated for every kilogram of fossil fuels used commercially, demonstrates clearly that the least developed countries are nearly twice as efficient as all the industrialised countries combined."

So much so that, applying the same approach used to measure rich countries' excesses, "a country like Bangladesh...could increase emissions over ten times. Tanzania could increase its carbon use by over 22 times and for the Sudan, a 15-fold rise would be allowed," the report says.

Rich-country demands for debt repayment from these countries are illegitimate in light of the industrialised world's huge carbon debt - and therefore should be cancelled, according to Christian Aid.

The non-governmental organisation has campaigned for cancellation of unpayable Third World debt for a decade. In that time, it has seen an increased demand on its resources to assist in the aftermath of climate-related disasters - including ever-worsening floods in Bangladesh and last year's Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged Central America.

That, says Simms, is what led the charity to try to make a connection between debt and climate change - two issues not normally seen as related.

The report faults conventional approaches to debt for permitting industrialised countries to "stand in judgment over much poorer countries who have comparatively insignificant conventional, financial debts."

Finally, Christian Aid takes rich countries to task for seeking to queer the climate-change pitch by insisting, for example, that countries' carbon dioxide quotas be set in proportion to the size of their economies rather than of their populations.

That stance reflects the short-term interests of industrialised countries, the report notes, but "you cannot argue for one person's right - entrenched in an international agreement - to claim a larger share of the world's natural resources than any other."

"Our survival depends on equity," concludes Christian Aid, "The North has a case to answer."

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .