The future of climate action: In search of a united global south
Average global temperatures have increased by 1.07° C (0.8–1.3; likely range) relative to the 1850-1900 average—a growing trend that is likely to persist over the next few decades. Preventing further social and economic damage because of climate change requires costly mitigation and adaptation policies and technologies. Developing countries often argue that the wealthier countries should incur these costs proportionally given how, historically, their drive for industrialisation and economic growth was the main source of CO2 that accumulated in the atmosphere. Such a position draws on the principles of equity and fairness, and more specifically, the “polluter pays” notion; the international community agreed on these principles at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development or Rio Summit and formalised the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities.
At the same time, there is increasing pressure on developing countries to cut their own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and collaborate more decisively in tackling climate change. There are at least two reasons for this: The massive economic growth of a few large developing countries over the last three decades (especially China and India); and the domestic opposition in rich countries against GHG emission cuts being prescribed only for the developed world. Therefore, requiring only the wealthy countries to cut their GHG emissions is politically non-feasible and also yields fewer effective results in mitigating climate change.
To be sure, the pressure to cut GHG emissions is stronger on China compared to its compatriots at BRICS, or the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. However, all five countries have strong shared interests on this issue. No large country has achieved high levels of development without burning substantial amounts of fossil fuel. Therefore, promoting growth while working to mitigate (and adapt to) climate change is a relatively new agenda. Developing countries must find a way to leapfrog fossil fuel energy as a development instrument and jump straight into renewable energy sources while expanding energy infrastructure. But how can development and cutting GHG emissions be achieved simultaneously? How should emission rights be distributed? And to what extent should developed countries compensate the rest of the world for past emissions?
At one end of the spectrum of possibilities is the “grandfathering emission” proposal: “prior emissions increase entitlements to future emissions.” From this standpoint, countries will have the right to emit the same percentages of their previous emissions. However, these schemes will end up rewarding rich countries for past emissions and penalising developing ones by entitling them to a relatively small percentage of emissions. This proposal also fails to consider that in welfare terms, the marginal benefit of a raise in income (which are likely to require extra emissions) is larger for the poor. Although “grandfathering” proposals are unfair and politically unfeasible, they are an important reference point of what developing countries should avoid. At the other end is the proposal to cut GHG emissions based only on percapita terms—i.e., individuals will be entitled to a certain volume of emissions. While this proposal is fair for giving equivalent rights to people regardless of nationality and their ancestors’ behaviour, it is politically unfeasible since it will mean massive GHG cuts (and costs) in rich countries.
Moreover, neither proposal tackles the problem of what to do with past emissions; rich countries’ emissions are the main cause of current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, but they have not paid for the negative externalities they produce. While developing countries should seek to become carbon-neutral by the years 2050-60, doing so at the same speed as the wealthy countries will likely not be achievable. Developing countries must pressure rich countries to adopt more robust emission cuts and provide compensations for past emissions, which should be allocated for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. They should also seek to turn the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities into a universally accepted norm.
The study has been authored by Rodrigo Fracalossi De Moraes