The climate change divide
What prevents cooperation on climate change? In my previous column, ‘Failure on climate change’ (Feb 21), I tried to address this question by highlighting that collective action problems frequently arise because the Westphalian state system is inherently not conducive to global cooperation. However, we cannot ignore global economic inequality and how it impedes international cooperation in environmental protection.
Since the early 1990s, many developing countries have been reluctant to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, and their position remains unchanged. Negotiations on climate change are unlikely to move forward unless we address the issue of global inequality in international environmental regimes. Developing countries look at efforts to combat climate change as restrictions that reduce their ability to grow economically. On the other hand, the developed world is not ready to move forward unless poorer countries play their part.
This problem has stalled negotiations in every conference on climate change since the early 1970s: the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Nairobi in 1982, Rio in 1992, Rio Plus 5 in New York, Johannesburg in 2002, Copenhagen in 2009. Even the Paris Climate Conference 2015 failed to find a concrete solution to climate change. At best, it was an exercise in empty, feel-good promise-making.
Many scholars argue that negotiations on international environmental politics are being shaped by major states’ self-interest, bargaining power, and their ability to coerce weaker states. In 1992, more than 130 countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreeing to “protect the climate system… on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. Yet, the developed world, later, refused to help poor countries and did not offer any financial incentives.
Since then, different approaches have been discussed to deal with the problem of inequality. The developed world supported ‘grandfathering’, which required all nations to reduce their emissions incrementally from 1990. The Kyoto Protocol was based on this approach. Another approach – ‘carbon intensity’ – required voluntary efficiency changes to reduce emissions. This approach was aimed at maximum economic growth with very few carbon emissions.
Some developing countries like China and India favour other proposals like ‘historical responsibility’ and per capita ‘contraction and convergence’. The ‘historical responsibility’ approach places the entire responsibility of reducing emissions on the developed countries since they were historically responsible for the large amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to the per capita approach, countries with relatively lower consumption of fossil fuels will still be able to grow while countries with higher consumption of fossil fuels will have to significantly cut their carbon emissions. However, we have not seen any significant progress due to the lack of consensus.
While climate change is generally termed as everybody’s problem, some countries, which have not caused the problem, are suffering heavy damages. The data collected over the past few years indicates that people in Asia, Africa and Latin America are suffering from global warming-caused droughts, storms and floods. This inequality of vulnerability to climate change has made the negotiating atmosphere hostile. Any kind of global cooperation is impossible in this situation because climate change impacts are fuelling the politics of resentment between the perpetrators and victims.
Another major impediment is the disagreement over the current state of efforts to clean the atmosphere. While the developed world expects developing countries to do more and rein in their carbon emissions, the US and several European countries still remain major pollutants. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries (Annex I) committed to making average 5.2 percent reductions in their carbon emissions below the 1990 levels by the end of 2012, but the goal could not be achieved. This led to a serious credibility problem. Developing countries are not willing to cooperate because they know that the developed world is not doing anything to fix the problem which is of its own making. The past few decades are witness to the fact that these distributional concerns have hindered progress on the issue of climate change.
The fact that negotiations to prevent global warming are situated in the broader context of north-south environmental relations makes the problem of inequality more serious. Developing countries feel that they do not have much say in the governing structures of international economic institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which discourages them from cooperating on environmental issues. Many experts agree that when the developed countries disregard the weaker countries’ position in international economic regimes, less-developed states reciprocate and show reluctance in cooperating with international environmental regimes.
The major question is: who will take responsibility for the majority of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? The rapid growth of population over the next few years in the developing world will make it more difficult for poorer countries to play their role in reducing emissions.
While the developed world will have to take the lead sooner or later, any widespread cooperation in climate change will not be possible unless the developing countries (non-Annex I) also recognise the necessity of significant reductions in carbon emissions and embark on the low-carbon development path.