Categories: Climate Article 1

Climate Change and Global Environmental Politics: North-South Divide

Md. Kamal Uddin*
University of Chittagong, Department of International Relations, Chittagong, Bangladesh
*Corresponding author: kamalir@cu.ac.bd

EPL, Vol.47, Iss.3-4, pp.106-114, 2019



Environmental degradation due to climate change has become a global concern. There is no scope for disputes over the impacts of climate change on human species and the planet. Recently, a new debate has come to prominence, with regard to setting standards for environmental protection between the developed and the developing countries, and also in identifying the prime culprit for environmental degradation. The debate between the developed and the developing countries – to identify, limit and minimise the ever-increasing threat of global climate change – is often known as the North-South debate in global environmental politics. Human activities such as industrialisation, consumerism, burning of fossil fuels, tropical deforestation and ever-increasing use of automobiles are strongly connected with environmental degradation as these contribute to the production of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which in turn accelerates climate change. On a general note, the poor developing South has made little contribution to the environmental degradation when compared to the developed, highly industrialised global North. However, the impacts of environmental degradation are multidimensional. Even though both the wealthier and poorer States suffer from climate change, the poorer South is most vulnerable to this entire environmental phenomenon. Therefore, the bigger questions in global environmental politics are: who is supposed to take the responsibility for climate change, who will be setting the standards for controlling the emissions of ever more GHGs, and how can the necessary actions be implemented to protect and control the environment?

The developed countries have a high level of consumption of energy resources because of their luxurious lifestyle. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report states that there are “more than 900 cars per thousand people of driving age in the US, more than 600 in Western Europe and fewer than 10 in India”. In America, there are more than two televisions on average per house; in Liberia and Uganda less than 1 house in 10 has a television. In the richest countries, average per capita water consumption per day is 425 litres, in the poorest it is 67. An industrialised country like the US emits four times more CO2 than China and India, and about 30 times more than Kenya. The average British lifestyle generates more GHGs in two months than a least developed country will take a year to produce. With increasing awareness and increased visibility of the problem, many States have stepped forward to reduce their emissions and take control of the increasing threat of global climate change. It is at this juncture that the responsibility and the contribution of developing and poor countries have become prominent. Many developing States observe that the North is highly developed and therefore it is their primary responsibility to reduce the GHG emissions as they have already produced such huge amounts of GHGs. On the other hand, there should be more flexibility for the South in terms of using resources as it is their right to be developed and as their emission rate is comparatively low. However, the North denies this, highlighting that the factors which differentiate the situations of developing countries with the developed North are not the same but different. For example, according to the developed North, the major factors that differentiate the two regions are poverty, poor environmental education, lack of awareness and development in the South, and that these are primarily responsible for environmental pollution and degradation. Thus, developed countries state that the global South is equally responsible for climate change and should be held equally accountable for the problem. This paper examines the North versus South debate in global environmental politics, and blends this issue with related literature and information, hopefully shedding more light on this seemingly intractable problem.

Understanding the North-South Debate of Global Environmental Politics

The “North-South” divide, signifying the differences between the more industrialised economies of the global “North” and the relatively less developed and developing countries of the global “South”, has continued to be a defining feature of global environmental politics. Generally, the global North includes the US, Canada and Western Europe, the developed part of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The global South is made up of regions such as Africa, Latin America and developing Asia including the Middle East. The former mostly covers the West and the developed world while the latter category largely corresponds with the developing and poor regions. Considering geographical location, developing countries – global South – are primarily located in sub-tropical or tropical ecosystems and the developed countries – global North – occupy mainly temperate and arctic climates and ecosystems. The division between the North and the South based on their economies, political stability, technology, scientific research and other factors are very persistent. In addition to these geographical, political and economic factors, environmental politics and climate change have become a more significant issue of debate between the two regions. The Kyoto Protocol of 19978 (which entered into force in 2005) reinforced the clear division between Annex I (developed countries) and non-Annex I (developing nations) Parties.9 Inequality and justice have been central issues at every major environmental conference since the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Nairobi in 1982, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Rio+5 in New York; and Johannesburg in 2002. At all these conferences, and particularly in the Kyoto Protocol, it was recognised that the developed countries are mainly liable for the present high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity. Thus they are bound to tackle this problem as the Protocol puts an excessive burden on developed northern nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Even so, powerful industrialised developed countries are not willing to accept the responsibility and have refused to curtail their own excesses unless poor nations did the same. Thus, the debate between the North and the South regarding environmental politics has become prominent, intensified and still prevailing.

Moving away from defining the North-South debate as a simple rich-poor divide, Dauvergne suggests that, “the distinction is not only about the different environmental priorities of the North and the South; it is about the different ultimate goals that each seeks from the global environmental politics”. The northern view is that the defining goal of the enterprise is to improve the state of the global environment. The southern view defines the central problem as the uneven, unfair and inappropriate state of the global system and particularly of North-South relations. These two competing views reflect the different “northern” and “southern” perspectives on global environmental politics that Dauvergne considered as the North-South debate.

In the 21st century, the world is still sharply polarised between the industrialised, rich North and the less developed, impoverished South. According to Tuna, “the emergence of environmental scarcities has added a new controversy to the longstanding debate over the structure of relationships between the North and the South”. From the southern point of view, environmental issues are just another means for developed countries to continue to control and exploit the economies of less developed countries, while the northern perspective suggests that environmental threats could be used as an opportunity for global cooperation. The countries of the South have become increasingly intolerant of the world order and wish to be as industrialised and rich as the North. This will, in turn, result in a massive increase in consumption and subsequent further degradation of the environment. Besides, many northern States are not accepting responsibility for the current high level of GHG emissions as being entirely due to their long-term industrial activities. Developed nations of the North believe that the developing South should raise their national standards to the same or similarly stringent levels as theirs. Conversely, the developing countries consider that this requirement is unfair and suspect that this environmental standard is being used by the North to keep the South at a competitive disadvantage. Many southern States and stakeholders argue that if the South is to stay accountable and remain within the standards required by the North, the northern regions should transfer enabling technology and offer financial assistance to the South.

Based on the above discussion, one can infer that the North-South debate, which was grounded on economic division, has become a “blame game” over who is responsible for GHG emissions and for minimising the problem, rather than oriented towards positive action. Neither the North nor the South is ready to take responsibility and be accountable for the degrading environment. The problem is that the North does not want to accept responsibility for the environmental destruction caused by their previous industrial activities, and are putting pressure on the South to be careful about environment degradation. On the other hand, the stakeholders and leaders of the South have been ignoring environmental concerns in many ways. The main focus of the South is to be industrialised and developed. This research is not opposing the need for industrialisation and the development agenda of the South but is questioning and considering the negative cost that such development might bring if proper action is not taken. The stakeholders and the leaders in the South should think about the environmental cost of development and industrialisation, the long-term effect of development on the environment, and who are going to be the victims of environmental degradation as a result of their economic development.

International Climate Negotiations and the North-South Debate

Global environmentalism did not become a political issue until the 1960s. At the very first stage, there were only a few countries which agreed on climate change and its impacts on human life, and most of the other nations neglected the issue. After the occurrence of several natural disasters, the scenario changed in the 1970s. Even countries which did not believe the claims of climate-caused environmental damage and impacts began showing concern for environmental security and protection of natural resources. Since then, several conferences have taken place to address the rising problem of environmental degradation. Some vital questions were raised in these conferences such as, how can nations work to solve ever-increasing global environmental problems, who should take responsibility and stand an active bystander in the debate between North and South and many others.

Primarily, the North-South tension in regard to environmental politics began with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Some classic divides started when Russia boycotted many of the US demands regarding environmental protection such as a ban on whaling, serious protection of other endangered species, restrictions on industrialisation and prohibition of nuclear weapons testing. Then bargaining started regarding consumption. It became clear that rich, developed countries were mainly responsible for bulk consumption of natural resources and in producing huge amount of CO2 gas. The developed North, however, wanted poor countries to cut emissions, stop deforestation and make the other changes which had once lead to the economic development of the North. Additionally, of course, funding would be needed if the developing and global poor countries were to adopt or to implement the demanded changes. The North’s environmental agenda appeared to be intervention and domination over the third world’s economic development. After Stockholm, when UN officials were preparing reports for Rio, the process faced intense confrontation. The planners were preparing a treaty to protect and manage the World’s “Tropical Forests” because they consider tropical forests as a heritage of humankind. The word “tropical” was the focus of confrontation. Brazil and other countries questioned why only tropical forests? Why not all forests? They demanded such a treaty should be extended to all forests and the word “tropical” should be removed. However, this change was not made. Poor countries pointed out that the natural genes or strains grown by the farmers had been harvested by foreign researchers and pharmaceutical companies for free, while the poor nations still have to pay for the seeds that are protected by the patents and licenses registered elsewhere.

On this point, when policy makers refer to developing countries’ “tropical forests” as “heritage of all humankind”, they protect their own biological resources with law and then sell them for profit. Several arguments took place between the developing and rich countries on the protection and utilisation of natural resources. As the meeting drew near, cooperation was improving but the north-south debate was on the floor. In spite of these debates, an ambitious agenda was drawn up of about 800 pages, but the question which remained unanswered was the effectiveness of the framed policies or ideas.

Earth Summit – Rio (1992)
The meeting originally focused on the protection of tropical forests, but the agenda was rejected by many countries with tropical forests (Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia). The developing regions with tropical forests saw the plans as an intervention into their rights and resources by the developed rich global North. Besides, over the debate over biodiversity and genetics the US also refused to sign the Biodiversity Convention at the summit. President Bush believed that it was not ensuring proper international patent and copyright safeguards for American biotechnology. At the summit, the most problematic issue was whether industrialised countries should pay for the costs of policy measures. It became very difficult for the decision makers to meet the $300 billion price tag to implement Agenda 21. Kyoto Protocol The Protocol was another extension of 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was formulated on the belief that global warming exists and manmade CO2 is responsible for it. The Kyoto Protocol gave all States GHG-reduction targets of 8–10 percent. Eighty-four countries, including developed countries like the US and Canada, signed the Protocol although some turned away from it later. The EU agreed to cut its emissions by eight percent below the 1990s emission level, Japan by seven percent, the US by seven percent, Canada by six percent and Russia agreed to stay at its 1990s level. In order to come into force, the Protocol needed to be sanctioned by 55 nations to which were attributed more than 55 percent of world’s total CO2 emissions in the 1990s. The agreement was named the 55/55 target. A further spur of the debate was the claim by the US that China and India should cut their emissions as they were the largest emitters of GHGs. In response, China negated the US argument by stating that its per capita rate of emissions was lower than that of the US. The Chinese representative demanded that the climate change policy should provide more direct assistance to help industrialising countries such as China to adapt faster with the protocols, and developed countries should provide greater technological assistance to poorer countries. In response, the US delegate said that “the climate change convention is about ‘climate change’ and not ‘development’”. In 2001, the US withdrew from the protocol stating that the protocol did not coincide with the US’s interests. In other words, the US was unable to reduce its emission rate due to its industry-based economy. In December 2012, Canada also withdrew from the Protocol. 

UN Climate Change Conference – Copenhagen (2009)
The main debate at this summit was about how to share the burden of reducing emissions and about managing the financial and technological transfer on the basis of equity and justice. During the conference, another divide between North and South arose based on natural resources – fossil fuel producers (exporters v. importers). The summit dealt with issues such as, inter alia, the extent to which the use of fossil fuel should be reduced and the reasons that responsibility for climate change is attributed to the use of fossil fuel.

For the first time in 20 years of UN negotiations and debates, this conference aimed to achieve a legally binding agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2° C. The success of the policy depends on States’ “implementation”, but the effectiveness of the law remains still unclear and unanswered. There have been several other conferences, meetings, protocols, agreements and (more commonly) disagreements on climate change issues over the years. Interestingly, the North-South debate was present on almost every floor, and it still continues, focusing on still unanswered questions like, who are the prime culprits for environmental damage, who should bear the responsibility, and how could the implementation of policies continue effectively. The third world is concerned with the environmental damage, including ozone layer depletion, deforestation, emission of toxic waste, scarcity of sufficient drinking water and many others. Practically, compared with the global North, the South is more vulnerable to environmental damage while contributing less to the causation of this degradation. The South, while urged to meet developmental objectives, points out that developed countries, in light of their high levels of consumption, are responsible for most of the environmental damage. Therefore, it concludes that, for all that they are rich and highly advanced in terms of technological and social development, the global North stands accountable and must take serious responsibility for global environmental problems. As such, it argues that they should provide funding and assist with eco-friendly technologies to develop poorer countries.

Impacts on Global Environmental Politics

While there has been a huge increase in the awareness of environmental degradation, there has been no serious attempt or even discussion of how to bridge the divide between the North and South. The North-South divide is not only affecting the structural inequalities in the global economic system, but also attributing to global environmental issues as both are connected to each other. At the heart of the North-South divide lies the concept of inequality between the two dichotomous blocks. While serious emphasis and analysis of historical economic development is vital to make proper sense of the current international system, structuralism posits that the particular mechanism of inequality and dominance continues to exist today and contribute to the uneven development among and within nations. The difference and relationship between the capital-rich developed Northern regions versus the developing South is not only a defining characteristic, but also the main factor which feeds the casual beliefs and interests of the two blocks and thereby reinforces their dichotomy. Roberts and Parks argue that, “[d]espite, the strenuous efforts of rich nations to separate climate issues, the development concerns of poor nations are not going away”. While the industrialised nations are increasingly recognising the problem of environmental degradation, there exists a serious need to reduce the rate at which they are using up non-renewable resources. Even though the developed world has just over 20 percent of the world’s population, the region consumes over 80 percent of the world’s energy, and thus is responsible for the bulk of emissions of GHGs and ozone-depleting gases into the atmosphere. Many developed nations (North) have developed more stringent environmental standards and believe that the developing countries should also raise their national standards based on western norms. Some may argue that the South should learn from the North’s mistakes and avoid the environmental and economic consequences of unsustainable development. On June 14, 1992, the Rio declaration announced that the right to development must be fulfilled equitably while recognising the environmental and developmental needs of present and future generations. However, contrary to the declaration or policy adoptions, which most countries in the summit try to oblige, the US would not accept any such international obligations or liabilities. Thus, while sustainable development has probably become one of the most frequently used phrases in the environment-based summits, the North-South divide has openly challenged the very idea of “what it would really mean by development”. There are considerable discussions about the North-South divide between wealthier, economically developed nations and poorer, economically developing countries. However, there is little indication that the industrialised countries are willing to give up their position of advantage. There are many aspects of the current round of GATT negotiations which promote free trade and this will disadvantage developing countries. Industrial countries are also seeking to have GATT regulate internal investment policies of national governments. However, it is clear that the tools of economic analysis that were developed during the last 30 years are no longer applicable to all aspects of this changing situation. At present, about 75 percent of all Southern exports are primary products, and about 90 percent of the world’s capital goods exports are generated in the North. To achieve sustainable development and balance in trading, emerging developing countries are bridging the divide by engaging in partnerships with developed countries. However, although initiatives to promote new technologies and industries can be seen as “win-win” solutions, they run the risk of creating incentives for short-term profit over long-term environmental and social sustainability, as land conversion and deforestation increase. Again, inequality in terms of vulnerability is also prominent in the North-South divide. The argument gets more relevant and contested each day as the adverse effects of climate change are mostly felt by the South, and the region is dependent on the North to overcome the environmental challenges. Moreover, there have been different perceptions about what constitutes “fair” with regards to cutting GHG emissions. Since there is a lack of a “socially shared understanding”, there has been disagreement between the two blocks about burden sharing. It is understood that international climate negotiations are not immune from the forces that shape the global playing field and the North-South divide carries the danger of blurring our understanding of the causes and solutions to the impasse in negotiations. Therefore, the North-South lens should be used to serve as a means to inform and enhance our understanding of the issue, but not as an end in itself.

Challenges for the Vulnerable Countries

Based on the reviewed literature and the above discussed arguments, it is clear that both the North and the South have each made their own contributions to climate change; and that the North has clearly contributed the most to present conditions. In this debate, there are two prime contrasting frameworks for analysing the challenges and vulnerability of countries to environmental change: the biophysical, and the political economy. In the biophysical framework, the most vulnerable people are those living in the most valuable physical environments. For instance, drought effects would be associated with low or variable rainfall and sandy soils. The political economic perspective sees vulnerability as the creation of the political, social, and economic conditions of society rather than of the physical environment. At present, the poor and developing countries of the South are the most vulnerable to this form of challenge. Oxfam predicted that the human world would worsen as climate change inevitably hurt crop production and disrupted incomes. It emphasised that the number of people at risk of hunger might climb by 10 to 20 percent by 2050, with daily per-capita calorie availability falling across the world. According to IRIN News, “The World Bank has made a list of the five main threats arising from climate change: droughts, floods, storms, rising sea levels and greater uncertainty in agriculture”. The IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” argues that “the impacts of humaninduced climate change are likely to be felt in poor countries and poor communities first”. 

The IPCC highlights the following regions as being particularly vulnerable: small island developing States; Africa; megadeltas (especially in Asia); and the polar regions. These areas and countries are physically vulnerable because of their location on small low-lying islands or coasts and because of their low adaptive capacity. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2015, Honduras, Myanmar and Haiti were the countries affected most by extreme weather events between 1994 and 2013. In 2013, the Philippines, Cambodia and India led the list of the ten most affected countries. Table 1 shows the ten most affected countries of the last two decades with their average, weighted ranking. The last UN assessment in 2007 predicted runaway temperature rises of 6°C or more by the end of this century. That is now thought unlikely by scientists, but average land and sea temperatures are expected to continue rising throughout this century, possibly reaching 4°C above present levels – enough to devastate crops and make life in many cities unbearably hot. For instance, if we study the case of Bangladesh, it is evident that the country is highly vulnerable to climate change in the world. With the increasing climate change and its negative impacts, Bangladesh will fall into poverty with major economic, social and other environmental threats.

This includes only short extracts from the original article; view in full via the link below.

EPL Climate Article 1