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Decolonising climate change: The developed world is responsible for our planet’s climate crisis

Read time: 8 mins
1 Oct 2020
Decolonising climate change: The developed world is responsible for our planet’s climate crisis

[Image Credits: Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

There is nothing to cheer about the bluer skies of the COVID-19-forced lockdown for climate change has not stopped. Just a few days ago, the western coast of the USA, engulfed in massive wildfires, woke up to orange skies. Earlier, fuelled by the hottest summer on record, the Australian bushfires were raging. As you read this, the Brazilian Pantanal, the largest wetlands of the world, is burning at an unprecedented rate. The Arctic is on fire too, destroying large peatlands that stored carbon, now releasing carbon dioxide — the gas that drives global warming. Global heating and the climate crisis is real and here. Who is responsible for this catastrophe?

The world is divided on the answer. The current annual emission may point to developing countries as the source of carbon emission. The developed parts of the world, or the Global North, maybe reminiscing in a déjà vu as they had all ‘been there, done that’. A recent study, using the largest historical dataset of emissions, has shown that today’s economically developed countries of the world are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide, amounting to as much as 92% of the historic emissions. Countries including the USA, Canada, the UK, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and those in Europe, have played a very big role in the climate crisis, which began in the 1990s. The question however is, will they own up, or will they continue to pass the buck.

The study was conducted by Jason Hickel, Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health. Instead of looking at current annual emissions from a region, Jason attributes the responsibility of the climate damages to the total emissions from the region, over a period of time.

Although the Industrial Revolution began earlier than 1850, the emissions prior to that were not significant, nor is it easy to attribute them to modern nation-states. The study focused on using ‘consumption based emission’ data, which accounts for the usage of products that emit carbon dioxide. “If the USA offshores its production to China, those emissions are counted in the accounts of the USA, where the products are consumed,” Jason explains. This data is available via a previous study only for the period 1970–2015. In the absence of consumption based emission data prior to 1970, he was forced to use publicly available territorial data for the period 1850–1969.

By the 1990s, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere crossed 350 parts per million — a globally accepted threshold beyond which the catastrophic effects of climate change become significant. Although the number 350 sounds small, it is enough for a gas like carbon dioxide, which traps heat into the atmosphere, to increase the average global temperature. Today, this number is about 415 parts per million.

The USA tops the chart

The study found that the USA has released 420 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, or a third of the total carbon dioxide emissions, between 1850 and 2015. The European Union, which includes Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and the UK until 2015, has contributed to 25% of the total emissions. China and India, considered developing countries in terms of standards of living, account for 11% and 3% emissions respectively.

Jason calculated that 350 parts per million of total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is equivalent to about 830 gigatonnes of the gas emitted in 165 years, the period during which emissions data was analysed. He then assigned an equal share of this 830 gigatonnes of emission to each person born between 1850–2015, which allowed him to arrive at a fair share of emissions for each country. Subtracting the national fair shares from the actual emissions tells us by how much each country had overshot its share.

The analysis revealed that more than half of the world’s countries –– 108 out of 202 –– have emitted less than their national fair share, gaining ‘climate credit’. Amongst these, India has the largest climate credit, a total of 90 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 34% of the total credit, followed by China at 11%. Bangladesh, which has a high population density, trails them with 5%, along with Indonesia.

Among the debtors, the USA has the largest ‘climate debt’ of 380 billion tonnes, accounting for 40% of the total climate debt. It is followed by Russia and Germany at 8% each, the UK at 7%, Japan at 5%, and France and Canada at 3% each. “The climate debt of the Global North means that these countries have a responsibility to reduce emissions faster than the rest of the world,” urges Jason.

“Developed countries have a higher responsibility on climate action due to historical emissions,” concurs Rishika Pardikar, an environmental journalist. “These are also the same countries which have the capacity for greater climate ambition,” she adds, arguing that they should be leaders of climate action. “Such leadership will also allow less-developed countries, including war-ravaged ones like Afghanistan, more time to improve living standards of their populations.”

In his maiden speech at the Conference Of the Parties (COP) Summit in Paris in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had echoed a similar thought. “The prosperous still have a strong carbon footprint,” he had said, “and, the world’s billions at the bottom of the development ladder are seeking space to grow.” Prof T Jayaraman, Senior Fellow at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, had strong observations on the COP Summit in 2017 held in Bonn, Germany. In an article for the Economic and Political Weekly, he wrote, “The developed countries remained united in diluting or reneging on their commitments to developing countries, particularly on the issues of finance, and loss and damage.”

However, on the 28th of August, 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres again put the onus on India to give up all reliance on coal energy. “Tellingly, he has rarely, if indeed ever, called out the U.S. for its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, or called out the EU nations for their long-term reliance on gas and oil while hiding behind their overwhelming rhetorical focus on coal,” points out Prof Jayaraman, in an article he wrote with Prof Tejal Kanitkar of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

The road ahead

The findings of the study do not mean that the developing countries have a licence to pollute the environment. “The purpose of the study is not to say that India does not have a responsibility to reduce emissions as quickly as possible,” clarifies Jason. “It must. And, it must also tighten environmental laws rather than loosen them,” he asserts.

The reality, however, is very different. India is set to miss its promise of meeting the emission targets of 2022, with 70% of its coal-powered plants playing spoilsport to its international commitments made in the Paris Agreement. In its second term, the Narendra Modi government has been making it easier for corporations to go hunting for non-renewable sources of energy in the forests. The Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020 has come under massive criticism that it favours corporations to cause irreversible damage to the environment and then obtain post-facto clearance or pay monetary penalties.

Developed countries are not abating either. Although science says that low carbon investments can help economies recover, Australia is set to invest in natural gases for future energy production. In a recent virtual summit, the European Union has pressurised China to step up its plans on climate action.

The “process of atmospheric colonisation” of the climate crisis, as Jason calls it, is forcing impoverished parts of the world to demand climate justice. Island nations, which would be worst affected by rising sea levels have raised their voice against countries that are slipping out of their responsibilities. The ‘Save Congo Rainforest’ campaign in Africa, a continent expected to be the hardest hit by the climate crisis asserts that “saving the Congo Rainforest is a Climate Justice issue.”

It may not be too late for accountability and clearing climate debts, say experts. Several mechanisms have been proposed in the past, including the scheme of Climate Finance, in which industrialised countries annually pay money via governmental and non-governmental organisations to industrialising countries. The aim is to facilitate adaptation, or preparation for impending climate disasters, and mitigation, or investing in renewable sources of energy that will reduce the effect of future disasters. The global carbon market, on the other hand, allows direct trade of carbon debt, where developed countries can buy the carbon debt they owe to the developing countries through funding renewable energy projects in these countries.

India should tread this move cautiously. It should increase the demands for the credit owed, and use them to invest in renewable forms of energy, like solar energy, wind energy, and tidal energy. For example, strengthening the International Solar Alliance and urgently investing in solar energy can go a long way. However, without a fair acquisition of land required for these projects, these steps are bound to face stiff resistance and snatch the rights of the socio-economically backward, defeating the purpose of sustainable development.

In prophetic doom, research has long suggested that deforestation and increased contact with wildlife is leading to more infectious diseases in the human population. We are living through a global pandemic potentially caused by frequent contact with wildlife. Even during these times, the developed countries continue to prioritise themselves. A recent Oxfam report states that the same group of countries have secured more than half of the future supply of future COVID-19 vaccines.

It is a challenge to hold developed countries that control most of the world’s wealth, accountable for the planet’s crisis at the cost of those who were not responsible for this. As Jason says, “If our struggle against climate breakdown is not attentive to colonial dimensions––if it is not ultimately a struggle against colonisation––then we have missed the point.” The science is clear, but the geopolitical solutions are not. The onus lies on the developed world.


An abridged version of this article was first publised in  Deccan Herald