We All Share Responsibility

Although climate change has been brought about largely by development in industrialized rich nations, it will impose the most hardship on the poorest countries, argues Chandrashekhar Dasgupta

A family leaves their submerged house on a country boat through flood waters in India (photo: AP)
A family leaves their submerged house on a country boat through flood waters in India

​​In the recent months, torrential rains and floods have taken a heavy toll of lives and rendered homeless tens of thousands of families in rural India. This is not climate change but the onset of a benign monsoon, the answer to the prayers of a billion Indians.

However, human suffering on such a scale raises an important question for all those concerned about climate change: If a developing country is so vulnerable even to normal seasonal variations, how will it cope with the impacts of climate change – floods and droughts, sea level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, cyclones or typhoons?

Most people in developing countries eke out a living as subsistence farmers. They are far more vulnerable to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns than city dwellers engaged in industry or commerce.

Obstacles to adapt to climate change

Unlike farmers in countries well endowed with financial and technological resources, peasants in developing countries will find it difficult to adapt to climate change by switching over, say, to new drought-resistant seeds or crops, efficient but expensive water-conservation technologies such as drip irrigation or simply shifting to new urban occupations.

Low-income countries do not have adequate resources for building the housing and other physical infrastructure needed to afford protection against floods or cyclones. The world's poor will be the principal victims of climate change.

For the poorer countries, accelerated economic and social development holds out the only hope of adapting to climate change with any degree of success. Without rapid economic growth, they will lack the financial resources required for adaptation.

Without rapid social development in fields such as education and public health, their workforce will continue to be deficient in the skills and mobility required for adaptation to climate change. Accelerated development is the key to successful adaptation in the South.

Sustainable and accelerated development

The prospects of future generations will be seriously jeopardized if the present generation in developing countries fails to achieve rapid growth. For poorer countries, sustainable development is synonymous with accelerated development.

Yet, affluent countries press the poor to accept a very different approach. They urge the developing countries to strike a "balance" between development and climate-change mitigation.

Their argument is that the industrialized countries are unable, or unwilling, to reduce their own greenhouse-gas emissions on the scale required for limiting climate change within a certain range.

Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, developing countries should curb their rising greenhouse-gas emissions, even at the cost of slowing down development.

The proposal fails to meet the tests of efficiency as well as equity. By slowing development, the proposal would undermine the efforts of poorer countries to build up a capacity to adapt to climate change. It would increase the vulnerability of developing countries to the impacts of climate change. It is thus a deeply flawed response to climate change.

Nor would it bring new benefits in respect of mitigation. No one questions the desirability of moderating emissions originating in developing countries. The real question is, who pays for it?

Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the countries listed in Annex II – broadly corresponding to members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – are required to meet the incremental costs of mitigation measures in developing countries.

Financial burden for the developing countries

The proposal now advocated by these countries would shift all or, at least, part of the incremental costs to the shoulders of the developing countries.

This proposal does not expand the scope for mitigation measures in developing countries; it simply shifts the financial burden from affluent countries to poorer countries. In the process, it increases the vulnerability of future generations in developing countries.

This brings us to the question of equity. Climate change is caused not by emissions of greenhouse gases as such but by excessively high emissions of these gases. Indeed, the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is essential for life on our planet.

Human activities have generated greenhouse-gas emissions at least since the discovery of fire, but these did not interfere with the climate system until recent centuries.

It was only after the advent of the Industrial Revolution that the ever-increasing combustion of hydrocarbon fuels – coal, petroleum and natural gas – caused emissions and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to exceed limits compatible with a stable climate.

Responsibility for greenhouse-gas concentrations

The industrialized countries are responsible, historically and currently, for the excessive atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.

Each inhabitant of our planet has an equal right to the atmosphere, but the industrialized countries have grossly exceeded their fair share. Annual per capita carbon-dioxide emissions are around 20 tons in the United States, 8.5 tons in the European Union and only 1 ton in India.

If all countries had the same per capita emissions as India, climate change would not have occurred. Apart from being responsible for climate change, the industrialized countries also possess the financial and technological resources required for a global response. Their capabilities are much greater than those of developing countries.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is based on the principle of equity, reflecting the "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" of the industrialized and developing countries.

The former are required to stabilize and reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. The latter are exempt from this requirement, and the convention specifically states that "per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and … the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs."

Climate change and sustainable development

Most OECD countries also have a commitment under the convention to transfer financial resources and technology to developing countries to cover the incremental costs of mitigation measures implemented by the latter.

This does not mean that the developing countries have no mitigation commitments under the UN Framework Convention or its Kyoto Protocol. Both accords incorporate a set of common commitments applicable to industrialized as well as developing countries.

These include an obligation to "formulate and implement… programs containing measures to mitigate climate change." Developing countries are expected to implement measures that do not involve incremental costs, i.e., measures yielding mitigation co-benefits, though they are primarily designed to promote national development priorities.

Developing countries are not required to take measures involving incremental costs, unless the industrialized countries meet these additional costs.

Any future agreement on climate change must fully conform to the framework convention, which correctly reflects the relationship between climate change and sustainable development. This relationship may be summed up in three propositions:

  • For poorer countries, sustainable development means accelerated development. Slower growth rates would condemn future generations in these countries to face the impacts of global warming without significant adaptive capabilities.
  • To make their fair contribution to climate-change mitigation, developing countries should adopt all feasible measures delivering mitigation co-benefits at no additional cost. There is considerable scope for win-win initiatives involving no diversion of resources from development priorities. Developing countries should also seek opportunities for implementing more ambitious mitigation measures if industrialized countries are prepared to meet the additional costs.
  • In view of their responsibility for causing climate change as well as their financial and technological capabilities, industrialized countries should sharply reduce their own emissions and provide necessary financial and technological support for mitigation measures in developing countries.

    Chandrashekhar Dasgupta

    © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

    Ambassador Chandrashekhar Dasgupta led the Indian delegation in the negotiations for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi.


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