UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — If the debate about climate change took place on a football field, it would be the industrialized countries versus the developing countries. And until now, only the industrialized countries were equipped with top-of-the line gear.
But a new $4.8 billion project, directed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), may help even the balance. For the first time, global monitoring stations, which gather data on a range of pollutants that contribute to global warming, have been placed in developing countries. Six are in some of the most remote reaches of the world, from the deserts of Algeria to the hinterlands of the Chinese-Tibetan border.
"The network will sensitize the developing countries to the issue of climate change and reinforce the point that they need to be involved," says Phil Reynolds, a senior program adviser at UNDP. "Showing them how crop yields could be hurt by certain pollutants ... may drive home the point that no country is exempt from this debate."
Some climate watchers view the UNDP project as largely symbolic.
"Involving them in the science is interesting and important," says Christopher Flavin, senior vice president of World Watch Institute in Washington. "But the science is very sophisticated and with few exceptions, they [developing countries] would not be able to participate anytime soon since they lack the resources."
Monitoring climate change involves years of data gathering, so these six new stations will only have limited usefulness, Mr. Flavin says. The station atop Mt. Kenya will provide a snapshot of how the atmosphere looks today, for example, but won't be able to give a picture of how it has changed. And knowing how the climate has changed is crucial to environmental debate.
This debate will reach a climax next week when scientists and diplomats gather in Kyoto, Japan, for an international conference on climate change. They will try to set binding national limits on ' emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases believed to cause global warming. It has been five years since the world last discussed climate change in Rio de Janeiro. The treaty signed there, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, called on countries to stabilize greenhouse-gas emissions at 1990 levels. But the treaty carries little weight since it only calls for voluntary cuts.
Most scientists agree that the earth's surface temperature has risen nearly one degree Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. Scientists warn that rising temperatures would cause fiercer storms, rising seas, and dying forests and coral reefs. Scientists also agree that climate change would most severely affect the developing world, where four-fifths of the world's people live.
But many developing countries argue that steps to slow climate change will hurt their chances of economic progress. They point out that industrialized countries account for about 60 percent of annual CO2 emissions, with the United States alone accounting for 20 to 26 percent. But climate experts say emissions in developing countries will equal those in industrialized countries by 2035.
"Developing countries will have to find a way to develop economically, while conserving the environment," says Michael Zammit Cutajar, executive secretary of the UN Framework for Convention on Climate Change.
Most climate analysts agree change will only come if developing countries are equipped with environmentally friendly technology to provide alternatives to burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
This may prove to be more realistic than trying to hammer out an agreement in Kyoto, says John Topping, director of the Climate Institute in Washington.
"We won't get reductions by sending UN monitoring forces into China, India, or Kansas," he says. "People aren't going to change something unless they can do it cheaper. It would be far more productive to focus on making alternative energies cheaper than fossil fuels.