“Unless we have social justice, there are not going to be more accelerated greenhouse gas reductions. These issues are tied together.”, said Catherine Mitchell, a professor emerita of energy policy at Exeter University.
With the latest IPCC report effectively sending out the last warning of irreversible climate change to the world, it has become clear to governments that the time to take decisive action has arrived. However, with a rapidly closing window and the Russia-Ukraine conflict driving up the need to increase fossil fuel capacities, can this be achieved? More specifically, can it be achieved by developing economies with scarce resources to ramp up the race to a low-carbon economy? And who is to blame if they can’t?
The IPCC Report
The latest IPCC report, approved on April 4, 2022, was clear: peak carbon emissions by 2025 or the world will surpass the 1.5C target, leading to unprecedented and catastrophic consequences. The IPCC publishes a comprehensive report every 7 years drawing on the expertise of thousands of scientists across the globe. That makes this latest report the last warning before emissions cross 1.5C — which, according to the report, is “almost inevitable”. There is, however, some sliver of hope: if technologies could be developed to remove carbon emissions from the environment, temperatures could be brought down below this level by the end of the century. This assumption relies, however, on the invention of such technologies.
The report found that, if the world was to stay within the 1.5C target, coal must be phased out of use. This implies that the new fossil fuel infrastructure planned by the UK, US, and Europe after placing sanctions on Russia will put the 1.5C target out of reach. It further found that investment in low carbon technologies is lower than needed by six times. Finally, it made it clear that, in order to achieve the final target, all global industries would have to change dramatically and incorporate green technologies.
The graph below illustrates the rapid ascent of carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) since 1960. What is noteworthy here is that emissions crosses 350 ppm, considered to be the safe level of CO2 ppm in 1990, over 30 years ago. Now, we are well over 400 ppm and are rapidly advancing toward 500 ppm by 2050, which would put the temperature increase at 3C, leading to catastrophic droughts, mass migration, and even the destruction of the Amazon.
Putting on a Socio-Economic Lens
The issue of climate change has always been tilted from a socio-economic standpoint, especially considering that developed countries bear the historical burden of responsibility. But the issue goes beyond just history: as irony would have it, developing countries are disproportionately more affected by climate change today. Poorer, developing economies tend to be the most reliant on natural resources and are already experiencing severe weather events.
According to the Climate Impact Lab, the Global South is also the area that stands to lose the most lives, property, and economic wealth from climate change. In fact, these countries are experiencing climate change at such a pace that their scarce resources cannot match with relief measures — a study published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in 2021 suggested that 46 of the world’s least-developed countries did not have the financial means to “climate proof” themselves.
The Kyoto Controversy
These considerations were acknowledged by the Kyoto Protocol of 1992, which attempted to create an equitable agreement by imposing carbon emission limitations on richer countries and exempting others. However, it reintroduced socio-economic discrimination through the backdoor: richer countries were given the ability to ‘trade’ carbon allowances from developing countries. This stipulation of the Kyoto Protocol ensured that these developed countries were able to continue functioning their economies as per usual by simply purchasing a higher allowance. Indeed, researchers at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi found that the highest-income countries were responsible for two-thirds of emissions between 1990 and 2019. In one scathing critique of the Protocol, researcher Diana Liverman pointed out how these agreements essentially granted “pollution rights” to developed nations and allowed for the commodification of carbon.
Below is a graph of the countries that were not able to meet their Kyoto targets and were still allowed to exceed them due merely to the flexibility mechanisms granted by the Protocol.
Source: Climate Policy
Where to Next?
Despite all this, headlines from the COP26 Glasgow climate conference were excessively harsh on developing countries: they criticized India for saying it would meet emission targets by 2070 only, Nigeria for achieving net-zero by 2060, and the Washington Post even referred to Brazil as a “climate antagonist”.
Considering, however, the perpetuation of the climate crisis largely by developed countries and the ease with which they can fight the crisis as opposed to their developing counterparts, it would be fair to argue that the burden of responsibility to help developing nations fight against climate change falls on the shoulders of developed nations.
This is especially true in the area of aid and, although a pledge was made by rich nations to provide $100 billion in funds to developing countries by 2020 to combat climate change, it ultimately fell through. Without such aid, developing countries will most likely be unable to meet their targets, the IPCC will continue to churn out reports that only fall on deaf ears and temperatures will rise to catastrophic levels.