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Supermarket shelves offer a choice of two light bulbs: the standard incandescent type and the compact fluorescent type. In Bangladesh, the price difference is 20 taka compared to 450 taka. The fluorescent type will last at least 10 times as long and consume one-fifth of the energy. Overall, savings from investing in the fluorescent bulb could be 70 to 80 percent.

Most of us are familiar with this shopping dilemma. If the household budget is healthy for that week, we might invest in the more expensive bulb and look forward to long-term savings. But typically the lack of ready cash means we settle on the option that requires the smallest capital outlay.

A similar situation presents itself when countries face decisions about investments in energy, transport and industrial and agricultural systems.

Now, as a result of the current phase of negotiations under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, developing countries may get the chance to make long-term investments in infrastructure that will meet the needs of their people in an energy-efficient and climate-friendly way.

The Clean Development Mechanism is one of several ways industrialized countries have negotiated for some flexibility in meeting their commitments under the Convention’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

In return for financing sustainable development through technology transfers and capacity-building in the developing world, industrialized nations gain permits to pollute at levels above those agreed to in Kyoto. Collectively, industrialized countries set a target of 5.2 percent reduction below the 1990 level of greenhouse-gas emissions, to be achieved in the period 2008 and 2012.

Getting commitment and momentum behind the Kyoto Protocol’s targets and mechanisms is an important first step in the process of addressing the threat of global warming.

The stakes are high. To assist, UNEP has been running a series of national workshops to help government, private sector, scientific and community players in developing countries understand the complex scientific, economic, legal and technical issues that underpin the current round of negotiations.

The climate-change convention’s ultimate goal is to stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous, human-induced interference with the climate system.

Signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it recognizes that poorer nations have a right to develop, but that following the same process as the industrialized world would spell disaster for the environment.

Developing countries, particularly small island states and low-lying ones, have the least ability to adapt to changes in climatic patterns and rising sea levels and therefore the most to fear if the Kyoto Protocol does not enter into force.

Many have completed inventories of their greenhouse-gas emissions, formulated abatement strategies and developed portfolios of investment projects.

Bangladesh, for instance, has identified projects such as energy-efficient power generation and waste-recycling industrial development; transition to efficient domestic-lighting, cooking and refrigeration systems; conversion of its filthy two-stroke auto-rickshaw fleet to four-stroke engines; and the development of much-needed mass transit systems.

UNEP and its partners are also looking at projects that could help vulnerable countries adapt to changing climatic conditions as part of their strategies for economic development. These might include coastal-zone protection, the creation of breeding grounds for fish, the expansion of irrigation agriculture, public-health measures, new agricultural crops and management methods, and natural-disaster risk management through land-use planning and building codes.

For now, though, such schemes are mere pipe dreams. They will remain just that unless the flow of technological and financial assistance can be turned on.

The complexity of the negotiations lies not just in the different vulnerabilities of countries to climate change, but in cold, hard economics. A dozen countries control 95 percent of conventional carbon resources, and 15 of them are responsible for three-quarters of the world’s annual carbon emissions.

Some watchdog groups observing the climate-change negotiation process have suggested the CDM could easily become a “carbon-dumping mechanism”: Without adequate benchmarking and technical standards, it could spawn the introduction of inappropriate technologies to the developing world, while letting more polluting countries off the hook. Others fear it will just substitute for already dwindling overseas development assistance, with meager benefits flowing to just a few, larger nations.

Progress must be made on these funding and technical issues at the 6th Conference of Parties to the Convention, which started Monday in The Hague, and which is attended by environment ministers and other delegates from 180 countries. If a beneficial collective outcome can’t be agreed on, then a crucial opportunity to integrate economic and environmental policy at the highest level will have been lost.

UNEP’s vision is of a transformed global economy able to meet the needs of all people while safeguarding the environment — not quite as simple as changing a light bulb, but a pathway that needs to be thoroughly explored at The Hague.

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