Western World’s Climate Debt to the Poor

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Although rich, industrialized countries are the biggest contributors to global warming, is it the poorest nations who suffer its worst effects.

At the end of this year, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen for the most important climate conference since the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The meeting, which is seen by many as the world’s last chance to avoid the worst effects of global warming, will put forward a new international framework to help combat climate change beyond 2012.

But while rich nations are busy negotiating new targets and cuts in CO2 emissions, what is critically missing from the talks is a real commitment to helping developing nations cope with climate change.

Although rich, industrialized countries are the biggest contributors to global warming, is it the poorest nations who suffer its worst effects. As a result, the Kyoto protocol holds rich countries legally responsible for providing the financial support to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Currently, this is not happening. According to the Guardian (UK), over the last seven years developing countries received only 10% of what was promised them by rich countries to tackle climate change and this trend looks set to continue if there are no clear targets set or enforcements put in place. Developing nations are arguing that the money currently provided does not cover the cost of dealing with climate change and this will have to change before an agreement can be reached in Copenhagen, this December.

Denying Climate Aid

In a warming planet, developing nations face increased flooding due to rising sea levels, droughts and the spread of diseases due to rising temperatures, as well as conflict over dwindling resources, food shortages and even disappearing islands. In March 2009, EU leaders gathered to discuss the kind of financial help the poorest nations would require in the lead up to Copenhagen, but failed to make any firm financial commitments.

Tom Sharman, ActionAid’s Climate Justice Coordinator, argued that the industrialized world was failing to address the most urgent needs of those developing nations on the front-line of climate impacts. He also noted that if “the governments are serious about a just solution to the climate crisis” then they would need to “start repaying their climate debts.”

Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, calculated that rich nations would need to contribute around US$100 billion each year to developing nations. On June 26, Brown said: “If we are to achieve an agreement in Copenhagen, I believe we must move the debate from a stand-off over hypothetical figures to active negotiation on real mitigation actions and real contributions.”

Whilst such political leadership is admirable, the annual US$100b falls well below the US$267b that African nations proposed in April and the1% GDP from rich nations that the G77 is asking for.

Even so, the G8 has reportedly accepted the need to “urgently and substantially” scale up their financial resources for mitigation and adaptation although firm commitments are, once again, still forthcoming.

Repaying Climate Debt

Global warming also raises the risk of epidemics and armed conflict in the developing world.

But why are rich, industrialized nations even expected to pay climate aid? Well, the short answer is that these very nations are the biggest contributors to global warming which is ravaging the poorest countries of the world. Stephen Pacala, the director of the Princeton Environmental institute, calculates that the world’s richest 500 million people- who make up about 7 percent of the global population- are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, the worlds poorest 50 percent are contributing only 7 percent of emissions.

A recent report by the World Bank also highlighted that four of the world’s poorest nations top the list of countries at most risk of the main threats of climate change such as droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels and greater uncertainty in agriculture. For example, Bangladesh which is already struggling with the devastating effects of cyclones and rising sea levels faces the highest risk of flooding with subsequent implications on its agriculture.

In 2007, cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh killing over 10,000 people whilst in May 2009, cyclone Aila killed over 300 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. In fact, charity organization Oxfam International suggested that 26 million people across the world have already been displaced because of climate change.

Global warming also raises the risk of epidemics and armed conflict in the developing world. According to Christian Aid, if temperatures keep rising more than 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could die due to diseases directly attributable to climate change by the end of the century.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development also warned of the risk of violent conflict in the Middle East over dwindling water resources as well as in South Africa. The report explained that “Climate change–by redrawing global maps of water availability, food security, disease prevalence and coastal boundaries–could potentially increase forced migration, raise tensions and trigger new conflicts.”

Hopes for a Fair Deal

Climate change clearly has a detrimental impact on vulnerable nations, many of whom also face an uncertain future. Oxfam reports that: “Even if world leaders agree the strictest possible curbs on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the prospects are very bleak for hundreds of millions of people; most of them among the world’s poorest.”

Facing such a cocktail of actual and potential risks and dangers, it seems reasonable that the poorest nations are asking for funds to help protect themselves. And considering that most of the damage has been done by the developed nations, it seems reasonable that they should make a fair and firm commitment to pay their ‘climate debts’.

Furthermore, without this aid it is difficult to see how developing countries can cope with climate change and also take the negotiations in Copenhagen this December seriously. As Tom Sharman of ActionAid remarked, without climate aid commitments for the poorest nations “there’s no chance of a deal in Copenhagen that will safeguard the livelihoods of all of the world’s people, for both today and tomorrow.”

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