SHOULD DEVELOPED COUNTRIES TAKE PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY FOR TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE?
Whereas mitigation efforts on climate change have gained massive attention across the globe, their failure reflects the political challenges associated with climate change. Notably, climate change is a global problem that cannot be tackled by efforts from a single country or small group of countries. Additionally, climate change poses long-term effects that may not be perceived adequately at present. This paper argues that tackling climate change should not be the responsibility of developed countries alone. Present generations should collectively pursue mitigation policies to preserve the environment for the benefit of future generations.
The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is the basis for the formulation of emission reduction targets in most countries (Kline et al., 2018). The formulation generally focuses on the historical contributions of developing and developed countries to climate change. Developing countries account for approximately 39% – 47% while developed countries account for about 53%-61% to the increase in permafrost degradation, upper oceanic warming, and global air temperature (Wei et al., 2016). The Center for Global Development (2015) suggests that 63 percent of carbon emissions around the globe are from developing countries. Furthermore, developing countries are expected to account for 97 percent of carbon emissions in the future (Fischer, 2009). In a 2001 address by the former President of the United States of America George W. Bush, he acknowledged the fact that the country produces approximately 20 percent of carbon emissions. Nevertheless, he also noted that the rest of the emissions were provided by other countries, especially developing ones.
Ward and Mahowald (2014) indicate that developing countries are likely to surpass developed countries in the emission of aerosols to the atmosphere by the year 2030. Presently, four jurisdictions of the European Union, India, China, and the United States contribute over 50 percent of aerosols to the environment. According to the former president, the challenge of climate change requires 100 percent from all countries across the world.
The implementation of the Kyoto Protocol has failed due to unequal burdens imposed on the signatory countries and the adverse effects on national competitiveness. In addition, the effectiveness of collective mitigation to climate change involves mutual commitments from developing countries. The United States has ignored the Protocol since it does not require commitments from developing countries. Instead of participating in what the country perceives as flawed international policy and for fear of suffering potential economic losses, the United States prefers to undertake a bilateral approach to climate change (Schenck, 2008). Carbon emissions present global harm to all countries irrespective of whether they are developing or developed, thus requiring a collective action from all emitters.
The game of shifting blame for climate change to developed countries is likely to lead to a tragedy of the commons, whereby the developing countries may overindulge in the exploitation of the environment to the detriment of the entire world. All countries need to take measures to combat the overuse of the atmosphere through internal regulation of at-risk public resources comprising of the commons. The impact of these efforts can increase through collective responsibility across countries.
For collective action to be effective, it is essential to address the issue of equity in regards to free-riders and inequitable distribution of costs and benefits. Furthermore, securing active collective responsibility requires incentives for all countries to participate fully. Free-riding involves some countries bearing no costs for collective action yet enjoying the benefits from the same. Notably, countries taking part in climate change negotiations focus on their respective economic self-interests and gaining strategic advantages in the international economy. Some nations seek to accrue benefits for reduced climate change without contributing to the cost of the same. For instance, China is party to the Kyoto Protocol but does not operate under any formal commitments for the reduction of GHG emissions since it falls in the category of developing countries. This free-riding is quite disturbing to other countries because China ranks as the largest coal producer and the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. Regardless of being party to the Protocol, China still maintains its coal use practices and keeps establishing more coal-fired power points. The country does not have any formal obligations under the Protocol for cost sharing on climate change even though it continues to receive benefits. The tendency of developing countries to free-ride on the climate change responsibility by developed countries is caused by perceived unfairness in the Protocol.
There is no justification to assign responsibility to parties without a clear assessment of liability in proportion to fault or causal responsibility. In this regard, holding countries entirely responsible for GHG emissions rates by individuals is not justifiable. In general practice, the average per capita emissions form the basis for assessing national responsibility for climate change, without clearly distinguishing between individuals above and those below the averages. By imposing the liability of climate change on entire countries instead of individual emitters, the nations will ultimately transfer the burden to all the citizens through taxation. Countries will be compelled to use tax revenues in the formulation and implementation of mitigation activities; the tax revenues do not focus on the causal contributions to climate change by the various taxpayers. Thus, the tax rates for climate change focus on the income categories of citizens instead of the causal responsibility of citizens. From individual moral responsibility perspective, the general tax cuts tend to be unfair to residents from high-polluting countries who have made efforts towards minimising carbon footprints at their personal level.
The concept of collective responsibility for climate change across countries is merely for administrative convenience purposes (Vanderheiden, 2011). For instance, the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by the United States would imply the country to incur mitigation burdens on the ground of its carbon emissions without a focus on how the response would trickle to industry sectors, groups and individuals. Such a model does not put into consideration the fact that more than 15 percent of Americans are poor despite the country ranking as the richest in the world. From this perspective, it becomes unfair to label all citizens in developed countries as advantaged and place higher expectations to them on climate change responsibility.
Developing countries have been raising claims that developed countries should bear the responsibility of climate change. The rationale behind their argument is that historically, developed countries brought the climatic catastrophe through the process of industrialisation. Furthermore, developing countries claim that climate change poses a greater danger to less developed, developing counties tend to experience a greater burden of poverty as well as existing inequalities. Such claims are quite hypocritical because developing countries are presently accounting for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions and they are likely to surpass developed countries.
An argument for differentiated responsibilities to climate change has been that developed countries should take the sole responsibility in curbing the use of carbon fuels and achieving strict carbon emission targets while developing countries should be less restricted due to the mere fact that they are “late developers.” Furthermore, according to a study by Princeton University researchers, responsibility for the reduction of global carbon emissions should be spread across individuals instead of countries. It is essential for rich people in developing countries to take responsibility for emissions. According to these scholars, the emitters of greenhouse gases are individuals. A national and collective international framework should be established to prosecute the individuals who cause high emission of greenhouse gasses. While the United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon (2012) argues that developed countries should take responsibility for climate change since they are early developers, it would be imprudent to pursue such an approach, which will allow developing countries to free-ride in climate change efforts while producing a significant percentage of carbon in the atmosphere.
Rather than focusing on the past activities that resulted in climate change, it is essential to look into the present and the future of the world. Forecasts indicate that with the first half of the 21st century, greenhouse emissions from developing countries may be higher than from developed countries. This prediction implies that developing countries need to pull up efforts towards the reduction of risks of climate change. Despite most developing countries portraying reluctance to accept binding emission goals and pushing for developed countries to take action alone, it is evident that some developing countries have undertaken steps to reduce the growth of their national greenhouse emissions. Most of these developing countries are not focusing on climate mitigation but rather, a cocktail of efforts seeking to address local environment, security, or economic concerns.
A study of the energy resource, demographic, economic and regional diversity of six countries namely Turkey, South Africa, Mexico, India, China, and Brazil indicates there are common concerns driving countries to reduce the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. The common concerns for these countries include improved air quality, energy security, and economic growth. Accordingly, the activities undertaken by these countries for the achievement of the above goals among other targets have resulted in the reduction of the overall carbon emissions by approximately 300 million tons with the past three decades. Without the mitigation activities, the annual carbon emissions from the six countries would be about eighteen percent higher than their current state.
South Africa has been pursuing strategies for alleviation of poverty in the country. More than one-third of households in South Africa do not have access to electricity. Nevertheless, the country has established measures to promote natural gas imports and to close subsidies to its carbon-intensive coal liquefaction industry (Chandler et al., 2002). As with most other developing countries, South Africa faces the obstacle of lack of rigorous studies on the future energy use and the emission of greenhouse gases.
The rate of carbon emissions in Turkey is expected to escalate from 57 million tons as of 2000 to approximately 210 million tons in 2020. The country’s energy-related carbon intensity is quite high compared to the average of other western developed countries. Turkey is characteristic of undisciplined energy use partly due to the soft budget constraints over energy inefficient and intensive industries. The country can focus on sustainable solutions through planned privatisation of enterprises for purposes of modernising efficient operations and closing energy-intensive ones. Besides, the country can promote energy conservation and reduce the growth of emissions below the current average by eliminating energy price subsidies.
Brazil accounts for 91 million tons annual emissions. The rate of emissions is quite low compared to what the country would produce in the absence of rigorous measures to promote the use of biofuels and energy efficiency (Chandler et al., 2002). These measures seek to reduce the import of energy and to diversify energy supplies. The government provides tax incentives to citizens who buy low-powered engines, which are quite affordable to the middle class. These low-powered engines contributed to 2 million tons of emissions in the year 2000. According to predictions, Brazil is likely to cut down carbon emissions to approximately 45 million tons by the year 2020 if the country encourages energy efficiency, cogeneration, renewable electricity, and alcohol fuels. Deforestation also plays an essential role in climate change as it leads to the emission of approximately twice the carbon as compared to the energy sector. The Brazilian government, to a great extent, tends to encourage the growth of carbon emissions from the forestry sector.
China has made significant progress in the reduction of its emission rates through afforestation, use of natural gas instead of coal for fuel, the improvement on energy efficiency, and slower population growth (Chandler et al., 2002). The country has drastically reduced its emissions within the past three decades at an annual rate of 250 million tons, which accounts for one-third of the country’s current emissions. The country is likely to reduce the emissions by extra 500 million by 2020 if it continues to formulate and implement policies on environmental protection, efficiency, and economic reforms.
Lastly, India has drastically reduced its carbon emissions over the past decade through programs on renewable energy, enforcement of the laws on clean air by the courts, and economic restructuring. The country saw the reduction in carbon emissions by 18 million tons in the year 2000 (Chandler et al., 2002). These tons account for five percent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions. The country has the potential to mitigate an additional 120 million tons of emissions in the next decade through the implementation of programs on afforestation, improvement of power transmission, switching to the use of natural gas instead of coal, and improvement of efficiencies in both demand and supply of energy.
Notably, there are many developing countries already implementing policies and programs to reduce the growth of greenhouse emissions. These efforts focus on the broad imperatives for the alleviation of poverty, overall development, energy security, and protection of the local environment. Furthermore, developing countries tend to experience challenges in regards to the unavailability of data, which obscures the identification, and realisation of their mitigation potential. Another significant obstacle is the lack of adequate human capacity for analysis of the future of energy and emissions, identification of opportunities for mitigation, cultivation of investment opportunities and execution of economic reforms. The countries have a significant role in ensuring public control in the prevention of the emergence of energy-intensive industries in the private sector. Mainly, governments in developing countries experience challenges in the realisation of emission targets due to issues of lack of the rule of law and transparency, which tend to impede technology transfer and investment for purposes of emission mitigation.
Thus, instead of shifting the blame of climate change to developed countries, it is prudent for both developed and developing countries to strengthen policy approaches at the national and international levels to ensure the promotion and creation of a cocktail of mitigation activities. Furthermore, countries can secure an individual and collective approach to reduction of emissions through policies for the continuous development of market reforms, strengthening of multilateral and bilateral efforts for improvement of environments for investment and provision of incentives for investment in climate-friendly projects. Additionally, developing countries can work towards capacity building to ensure effective capitalising on natural synergies between the respective countries’ development priorities and climate change (Schenck, 2008). These efforts can actualise through formulation and implementation of policies to address national environment needs such as reduction of deforestation and improvement of air quality.
Instead of free-riding on the efforts of developed countries towards climate change, developing countries can explore alternative paths to prosperity. Countries need to focus on promoting economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, both developing and developed countries can avoid economic, social, and environmental costs associated with dependence on fossil fuels. For instance, the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project has devised a pathway for Australia to realise zero carbon emissions and an economic growth rate of 150% by the year 2050. Furthermore, research conducted by the World Resources Institute indicates that at least 21 countries across the globe have experienced annual reductions in emissions while promoting their economic growth since the year 2000. Notably, several developed countries in East Europe have experienced drastic economic growth over the last two decades. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, several developing countries have experienced a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining growth in their gross domestic product. The developing countries highlighted by PWC include Mexico, South Africa, India, and China.
Both developing and developed countries need to ensure cooperation towards the sustainability of humankind by maximising social development and inclusion while minimising the environmental impact. The need for sustainability is the drive behind the United Nation’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals for purposes balancing human prosperity while protecting the planet. These goals require all countries, irrespective of whether they are developed or developing to take urgent measures for combating climate change. Furthermore, the Paris Climate Agreement requires developing countries to balance climate change and economic growth. In this regard, all countries must commit to a collective responsibility to reduce the rise of global temperatures in line with Sustainable Development Goals. Perhaps, developing countries may face challenges in the adoption plans for reduced emissions due to their prioritisation of such issues as poverty eradication and economic growth rather than decarbonisation. Most countries grapple with the challenges of lack of resources and inconsistencies in data on energy, as well as inadequate financial and technical expertise. Developing countries need to navigate these challenges in the interests of the whole world. They need to create long-term strategies for zero-carbon emissions in line with the unique circumstances of each country to reduce emissions while maintaining growth (Argyrious, 2015). These problems should be addressed to unlock financial flows need for shifting toward an equitable, just and environmentally responsible future.
The achievement of climate change in line with the Sustainable Development Goals will require all counties, sectors, and emission sources to shift towards a global carbon market. Reduction of carbon emissions should be a shared responsibility for both developing and developed countries. Even if developed countries took up the responsibility to bring their emissions to zero, their efforts alone could not adequately mitigate the climate challenge problem. Whereas several countries have pledged to reduce the emissions by at least 8% in 2020, there is a need for collective responsibility by all countries across the globe.
In conclusion, the responsibility for climate change should be taken up by all countries irrespective of whether they are developing or developed. The politics surrounding the country or group of countries supposed to take up responsibility is quite tricky. Even though developing countries are still struggling with the eradication of poverty and propelling of economic growth, this does not mean that they should free-ride on the shared responsibility with developed countries to continue emitting greenhouse gases at the expense of environmental conservation. Developed countries are responsible for industrialisation from the historical past. However, developing countries are currently contributing to a significantly high percentage of greenhouse emissions and aerosols in the atmosphere, and there is the likelihood of the rate of emissions by developing countries increasing to 97 percent if proper mitigation strategies are not adopted. The blame game will not help if we need to achieve sustainability for humanity for both the present and future generations. Furthermore, the efforts of developed countries will not be enough if developing countries continue with carbon emissions.