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A Battle for Climate Justice

The recent COP26 summit was dubbed as the “last best chance” to save the planet by keeping alive the 2015 Paris agreement goal of keeping global temperatures below 2.0° C (pre-industrial level). The summit failed to deliver. For instance, one of the major objectives of COP26 was to secure an agreement from developing countries to “phase out” coal. However, the member countries had to settle for a moderate “phase down” of coal as suggested by India. Most western countries were quick to express their disappointment with the watered-down version that was finally adopted in the summit. The political push given by the West to portray developing countries as irresponsible economic actors overlooks their historic and contemporary contribution to the problem. In this context, it is imperative to analyze who is responsible for climate change and why climate justice is an important element, if we want to arrive at a workable solution to limit emissions.

Climate change is now an accepted reality. There is a consensus among world leaders, politicians, policymakers and scientists that the current level of greenhouse gas emissions is unsustainable. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. In the recent past American oil corporations were running a multi-billion dollar disinformation and lobbying campaign to delay climate action and keep the general public in the dark about the potential harms of their products. The Guardian writes,“This has involved a remarkable array of advertisements – with headlines ranging from ‘Lies they tell our children’ to ‘Oil pumps life’– seeking to convince the public that the climate crisis is not real, not human-made, not serious and not solvable. The campaign continues to this day.” The big oil corporations knew exactly what they were doing. According to a leaked report, companies like Exxon and Shell had predicted that by 2060 CO2 emissions would push the planet's average temperature above 2° C pre-industrial level as early as 1982. These oil corporations continued to contribute to the mighty US economy by knowingly putting our planet at stake. Its current share of the US economy is 16%. A study featured in Bloomberg Green has shown that extreme weather due to climate change has accounted for 9.4% of all deaths globally between 2000 and 2019. To put it into context, that is nearly 5 million people every year. If this doesn’t qualify as criminal negligence then nothing else does.

Climate change has manifested itself with brutal force; from wildfires, floods, extreme rain, unseasonal and devastating cloudburst, cyclones, hurricanes, to rising sea levels and droughts. They have taken a huge toll on human lives. Climate change has disproportionately affected poor countries. Our planet is in need of an ambitious action plan to cut down emissions TODAY, not tomorrow. For this to succeed, it is necessary that the plan we arrive on is just and equitable.

Carbon dioxide has a long residence time of roughly 150 years in the atmosphere. This means that what has happened in the past adversely affects the future. Coal is one of the dirtiest fuels. But coal is also what fueled the industrial revolution. Without a cheap source of power, the West would have never been able to sustain its industries and without its colonies, it would have never found markets big enough for its manufactured goods. There is a direct link between CO2 emissions and economic growth. Take for instance, the US economy which was producing 30% of all global emissions from 1890-1960, peaking at 55% during the world war period. The coal guzzling industries of the western countries allowed them to acquire wealth, unabated by the amount of pollution that they were creating. They have left the poor countries to face the consequences of climate change and to fend for themselves.

An analysis by ourworldindata.org has revealed that the US alone accounts for 25% of all historic emissions, the EU-22% and China-13%; while countries that are being held accountable by the West today like India and African countries contributed a meagre 3%. The historical burden of climate change lies with the West. In 1992, the world took cognizance of climate change at the Rio Climate Summit. The developed countries recognized that they had a greater role to play. Consequently, they included The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The developed countries were expected to reduce their emissions while allowing the developing countries more leeway to grow economically and guide them on a more environmentally friendly path by introducing clean technology and financial capital to support it.

However, the present speaks a different story altogether. The developed countries continue to contribute 34% annually to the total emissions leaving the rest of the world, barring China, a meagre 40% leeway. North America is home to only five percent of the world population but emits nearly 18 percent of CO2. On an average, one person in the US emits 16 tons of CO2 while that in India emits just above 2 tons. That is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 8 people in India and 108 people in countries like Uganda. Admittingly the West has made massive emission cuts, but even this should be taken with a pinch of salt. In the name of globalization, the West has outsourced its manufacturing to developing countries. This can be gauged by the stark disparity between production emissions and consumption emissions. This trend of emission transfers started in the early 2000s when China joined the WTO and grew at a rapid pace of nearly 11% every year. This can be contextualized with the rise of China as a major pollutant after it took over the burden of being the factory of the West. China was producing 3.4 gt CO2/year in 2000 and it almost tripled to 10.5 gt CO2/year in 2019. Currently it accounts for 30 % of the global emissions. Even while declaring their net zero targets, some countries don’t count their outsourced emissions.

Dr Sunita Narain, an eminent environmentalist argues that the only thing the world has managed to do in the past 15 years is dilute the Principle of Equity. The words ‘equity’ and ‘historical responsibility’ were erased in the 2015 Paris agreement. It said that all countries would have to act equally irrespective of their historic responsibilities. As a result we have reached a point where the Paris agreement will not keep us safe. The world currently stands at 35.22 gt CO2/year. If we are to stay below 1.5°C, the world will have to limit itself to 1.8 gt CO2/year by 2030. Even if one assumes that all the NDCs will be honored we are still on a course of at least 37.7 gt CO2/year rise by 2030. By removing the Principle of Equity, the climate change agreement is not even ambitious anymore. This has manifested itself in the way wealthy nations have failed to help the developing world tackle the climate crisis. Rich countries have terribly failed to honor their 100-billion-dollar climate finance pledge. The Guardian writes,“Without climate finance, poor countries face a bleak future of extreme weather, water and food shortages, and climate-driven migration, which all threaten to reverse decades of progress in lifting people out of poverty."

However the developing countries are already rising to the occasion. Despite having a marginal historic share in global emissions and small per capita emission levels in the present, they have taken a much greater burden to lower emissions than the West is willing to acknowledge in the interest of keeping the world safe. Since most of their NDCs are conditional to the finance and technology that the West provides, it’s time that the rich countries rise to the occasion and play a greater role in safeguarding our planet.

However the developing countries are already rising to the occasion. Despite having a marginal historic share in global emissions and small per capita emission levels in the present, they have taken a much greater burden to lower emissions than the West is willing to acknowledge in the interest of keeping the world safe. Since most of their NDCs are conditional to the finance and technology that the West provides, it’s time that the rich countries rise to the occasion and play a greater role in safeguarding our planet.

Paranjay Bohra
First Year Undergraduate Student, SRCC

References:

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. 'https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions' [Online Resource]
The Guardian (article) - The forgotten oil ads that told us climate change was nothing. (Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes)

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