Climate change and poverty

Climate change and poverty

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When negotiations over the post-Kyoto climate change regime resume in December, the issue of ‘common yet differentiated responsibilities’ is certain to generate some intense debate. Beyond the conflicts caused by the deferring interpretations of the actual wording – repeated so often that it has become the mantra of international climate change discourse – ‘common yet differentiated responsibilities’ is a problematic approach to negotiations on several other levels.

First, the definition of differentiated roles (or responsibilities) in dealing with climate change is suggestive of a moral and ideological paradigm that is not always compatible with climate preservation policy. Even if they differ in the interpretation of roles, most people seem to agree that developing nations have a “right” to grow and develop much in the same way that developed nations have. And the Kyoto protocol tried to protect this ideal by limiting or eliminating the need for commitment on the part of developing countries, regardless of their level of industrialization – a mistake that largely contributed to the protocol’s poor performance. At this point a difficult moral question is raised: Should developing countries really be allowed to grow in the traditional, carbon-intensive way without any commitments to environmental preservation? And where should the line be drawn between right to grow and develop, and responsibility to care for a common (endangered) resource? The most logical (and least morally questionable) answer seems to be the promotion of sustainable development – economic, environmental and human –in regions where the resources and knowledge are not yet available. However, outside of the exceptional unilateral action plan (you can check out other EU plans here), all mentions to this issue so far have been vague and uncommitted.

A second question is derived from the first one, and it relates to the very impractical categorization of countries into developed and developing, which does not fully grasp the variance in industrialization levels (a key marker of a country’s contribution to global atmospheric CO2 concentrations) currently dividing the developing world. Emerging economies, of which the most obvious examples are China and India, are currently emitting GHGs in parallel with, and sometimes more than, developed countries. In contrast, several developing countries in Africa and South America are in the lowest emissions rank, emitting between 0 and 45 megatons of GHGs in 2000 (you can find emissions levels for all countries here). In these countries, where the effects of climate change tend to be felt most severely, climate change and development are understood quite differently. This brings us to Baumert, et al.’s (2005) sound assertion that the biggest restraint commitments should come from the biggest emitters (who also tend to have the biggest economies), regardless of their development status.

The possibility of seeing these much needed commitments being agreed to in Copenhagen on the part of countries like India and China is contingent on the commitments that their competitors, mainly the U.S., are willing to submit to. Former UK premier Tony Blair, interviewed by China Daily on Aug. 20, admitted that for China, as well as for the U.S., going into Copenhagen with a clear agenda and a readiness to commit (as opposed to Kyoto, 12 years ago) is a matter of “willingness” and “determination.” (Blair touches on various relevant issues – feel free to comment on any of them at the end of this post.) Thinking of all the opportunities we’ve missed to enact change since Kyoto, I have to wonder whether the “will and determination” of poorer countries, who lack the economic resources and political leverage to lead environmental preservation efforts, has also been “differentially” evaluated over the past 12 years. Here’s hoping that this time around, in Copenhagen, responsibilities actually translate into commitment and accountability, and that the COP15 is not just another round of talks, debates and drafts that will never be materialized.

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