Issue Report: Developed countries obligation to combat climate change

Do developed countries have a higher obligation to combat climate change?

This debate is the topic of the March 2009 Global Debates competition put on by The People Speak, an Initiative of the United Nations Foundation. Global warming is the result of the massive emission of C02 and other greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels throughout the industrial revolution, beginning in the 19th century. In attempting to address and solve global warming, many have asked whether developed nations – which led the industrial revolution and are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere – should bear a greater responsibility for combating climate change. This debate has been stimulated in large part by the Kyoto Protocol, which exempted developing nations such as China and India, from the same emissions-reductions obligations as developed countries. The principle underlying Kyoto is known as “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which continues as a centerpiece principle for those calling on Developed countries to assume a greater responsibility. China, India, and other developing countries call for recognition of this principle, while many developed countries argue that conditions have changed as developing countries have begun to industrialize and pollute more rapidly in recent years. There are many questions involved in this public debate. Are industrialized nations to blame for emitting massive quantities of green house gases into the atmosphere during the industrial revolution? Does it matter that they were unaware of the consequences of their emissions and global warming throughout most of the industrial revolution? Does this make them less culpable and thus less obligated to resolve the crisis? Can global warming be effectively combated if developing nations are considered “less” responsible for fighting it? Should large developing countries such as China and India be held to a lower standard than larger developed nations? What would this mean for fighting global warming? Should all nations be expected to contribute as much as they are able to contribute, which would mean that some developing countries would contribute less but not necessarily because they are less obligated? Should the predecessor of the Kyoto Protocol be based on the conclusion of this debate – holding all nations to the same standard or holding developed and developing nations to different standards? What is most fair? What is best for planet Earth? Overall, should developed countries be more obligated to combat global warming?

Differentiated responsibilities: Do states have a "common but differentiated responsibility"?

Developed/developing have common but differentiated responsibilities

The Rio Declaration from The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development states – “In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”[1]

Developed emit more per capita; more obligated to cut rate

Emissions per capita are much higher in developed countries (20t per capita in the US) compared to developing ones (less than 4t per capita). This means that individuals in developed nations are more responsible for causing global warming, more responsible for continuing global warming, and so more obligated to cut emissions and solve the problem. These individuals must, therefore, pressure their governments to take greater action on their behalf.

Contraction/Convergence equalizes per capita emissions, burdens wealthy

Contraction and Convergence is a good proposal for addressing the imbalance between per capital emissions around the world. It holds developed countries responsible for cutting their per capita emissions (contraction) and meeting developing countries in the middle (convergence). Developing countries are fairly allowed to continue to develop and increase per capita emissions to a level equal to developed countries “in the middle”. The obligation, in this case, falls more heavily on developed nations to reduce their emissions.

"Obligations"/"equality" distract from solving climate change

The idea that some countries are more responsible than others to cut emissions and fight global warming misses the point – global warming is a collective, global problem that can only be successfully combated if every country puts its wits and resources fully behind resolving the crisis. Developed and developing countries are equally responsible to resolve the crisis. Developing nations should swallow their legitimate frustrations with developed nations for causing global warming, and focus their attention on helping form a collective solution.

Seeking equality of emissions fails to cut overall emissions.

If developed nations are forced to cut emissions and developing nations allowed to increase per capita emissions – with both meeting in the middle – the ultimate result is that developing-country-increases cancel out developed-country-reductions. Overall emissions would be kept constant and not reduced. In fact, because developing nations have larger populations, meeting in the middle on per capita emissions could result in even higher overall emissions. Contraction and Convergence, while it might be “fair”, would not help solve the principal issue involved – global warming.

Equality of per capita emissions does not work when states specialize.

In modern international capitalism and free trade, states specialize in areas in which they have a comparative advantage. This may mean that some states specialize in manufacturing and some in services, industries with far different emissions. Attempting to hold these specializing states to the same per capita emissions levels, therefore, does not make sense. It would require that all states have the same share of all industries, which is neither economically or environmentally desirable.

Blame: Are developed states more to blame for climate change, so more obligated?

Developed countries caused global warming, they must fix it

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu – “It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of Developed Countries and their high per-capita emissions…Developed countries bear an unshirkable responsibility.”[2]

Developed countries hypocritically reprimand developing states.

It is hypocritical for developed countries to complain at developing countries for polluting more heavily at present, when this is exactly what developed countries did long ago to achieve their great wealth. This overall sentiment is reflected in a statement in 2007 by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – “The wealthy countries are very smart, approving protocols, holding big speeches on the need to avoid deforestation, but they already deforested everything [in their own countries].”[3] Furthermore, it should be noted that it is only through this heavy industrialization that developed countries are now in a position of wealth and know-how that offers them the luxury of going “green”.

Developed states did not initially know they were causing warming.

Developed nations did not always know that they were causing global warming by burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This knowledge only began to form in the 1980s and 1990s, over a century after the industrial revolution had begun. It is inappropriate, therefore, to hold developed nations morally accountable for starting the industrial revolution and causing global warming; they knew not what they were doing. And, once developed economies were dependent on fossil fuels, it was not possible for them to immediately act on their knowledge and stop using fossil fuels – particularly when not everyone accepted the science behind global warming. It is, therefore, wrongheaded to “blame” the developed world for global warming and saddle them with the “punishment” of a greater obligation to combating it.

"Blame game" distracts from solving global climate change

The idea that some countries are more to blame than others for causing global climate change may be true, but it distracts from the more important and just cause, which is for the world to come together to solve the problem.

Solution: Does greater obligation for developed nations help solve crisis?

Developed states emit more; their steps have higher impact

"UN: Rich Nations Must Lead Fight Against Global Warming". eNews. November 27th 2007

“The [UN] report criticized Washington for not imposing nationwide mandatory cuts on industrial emissions. […] Stating the fact that the world’s richest countries are also the biggest carbon emitters, the report said the US has to take the lead by cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 in addition to contributing to a new 86-billion-dollar annual global fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change. […] The report said the 19 million inhabitants in New York state have a higher carbon footprint than 766 million people living in 50 least developed countries.” Therefore, developed countries are more obligated to cut emissions because such cuts will have such a higher bang for buck in solving climate change.

High emitters, not developed countries, are most obligated.

It doesn’t matter whether a country is developing or developed. This is not the factor that obligates a country to take up a “higher” responsibility for combating global warming. Rather, countries that emit the most – whether developed or developing – contribute more to global warming now and so have a greater obligation to combat global warming now. China and India are obvious example, and they should not be held to lower standards.

Large developing states have warming-obligation to cut population

Developing nations, particularly China and India, are responsible for nearly catastrophic population growth. This is one of the greatest risks to global warming, as developing nations industrialize and the means to pollute disseminate rapidly and broadly across massive populations. In this regard, developing nations have, at least, an equal responsibility to cut their emissions because of their potential to emit catastrophic amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Leadership: Do developed states have a greater obligation to use their leadership?

US is responsible to lead in fighting global warming

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. – “It is essential for the U.S. to take action. The rest of the world looks to the U.S. for leadership [but] the perception round the world is that the U.S. has not been very active in this area. [… And, this would] undoubtedly reestablish confidence in U.S. leadership on critical global issues.”

Developed states are responsible set model of "green" economies.

Developing countries are not capable, with their limited resources and know-how to develop, on their own, the best “green” model for their societies. Developed countries have a responsibility to act first and set an example that developing countries can follow.

US is responsible to lead in fighting global warming

China and India are very concerned with their development and their capacity to compete with the developed world. With significantly greater poverty and instability, they have far less flexibility to tamper with their competitiveness with developed nations on the global economic stage. They will only go “green” if the developed world goes green first, assuring them that their competitiveness will not be jeopardized. In a position of greater economic flexibility, developed countries must take the first step. Only then will developing nations follow.

Largest states are responsible to lead on climate change.

US, Japan, China, Germany, India, and Brazil are among the largest and most powerful countries in the world. This list, and a larger list of G20 states, includes both developed and developing nations. China, India, and Brazil are the most notable large developing nations in the G20. Due to their size, economic power, and emissions (now and in the future), they share an equal responsibility to fight global warming. For the same reason, they share an equal responsibility with developed nations to apply their leadership role in their respective regions to lead the fight against climate change. If they do not, surrounding countries – fearing a loss of competitiveness in particular – will not take strong actions to combat global climate change. Therefore, it is important that all of the most powerful nations in the world – developed or developing – lead their regions in the fight on global climate change.

Resources: Are developed states more obligated with more resources?

Developed states have more available money to fight climate change

Developed states obviously have more wealth to employ in combating global warming. These more able countries have a responsibility to employ their available financial resources toward fighting global warming. Developing countries also have this obligation to commit as much as they can, but because they have far fewer available resources, their obligation and commitment will simply be smaller. Developed nations are uniquely obligated to employ these greater available resources in the fight on global climate change.

Developing states live in subsistence, lower "green" obligation

Developing countries employ almost all of their resources on subsistence living, while developed countries spend much of their resources on luxury and excesses. When this is the case, developing nations cannot be expected to contribute equally to fighting global climate change.

Developed are responsible to commit "green" technologies

Developed states have more applicable technologies and know-how for the fight on global warming. They are uniquely responsible to commit these resources toward the fight on global warming. They are also responsible to transfer them to developing countries, which cannot effectively fight global warming without these technologies first.

Developed states are doing everything they can on climate change

Developed countries typically are much more energy efficient than developing countries. This is an example of how they are already taking major steps to combat global warming; steps which developing countries are not taking. They have no further obligation beyond these steps.

Large developing nations are wealthy enough to lead on climate change.

China, India, and Brazil are all part of the G20, as mentioned in the above section. This means they are among the twenty wealthiest nations in the world. As a result, it is wrong to assume that they do not have enough money to spare in the fight on climate change. They have plenty of resources, through a broad tax base, to make major state investments in “green” technologies. They are just as obligated as developed states to commit these significant, available resources.

If poor are most effected, they should be willing to invest.

Poor states are indeed disproportionately effected by global warming. Investing available resources in combating global warming is, therefore, an imperative of developing nations. It goes hand-in-hand with – instead of taking away from (as argued by the affirmative side) – efforts to combat poverty, disease, and social disruption.

Greater resources of developed countries does not obligate them.

Developed countries do not have a greater obligation to combat global warming as a result of them having more resources. It would be generous of them to contribute more. But, it is not a greater obligation.

Economics: What are the economic pros and cons of this motion?

Developing nations need room to develop without emission restrictions.

Developing nations need room to develop industry and grow, just like developed nations were allowed to do in their industrial development. Heavy emissions regulations constrain such growth and are unfair as such.

Going "green" in developed nations is not burden, but opportunity.

While it may be the case that developed countries are “obligated” to take the lead on global warming, this should not be considered a “burden”. Increasing energy efficiency and establishing technical and capital dominance in the emerging global green industry is a potentially game changing opportunity for developed nations. Developed nations should, in this manner, rejoice in any perspective taken by developing countries such as China and India that the developed world is somehow “burdened” by taking the lead in this new massive “green” industry. It would give them a head start in establishing their economic dominance in the industry. At a minimum, developed nations should not be concerned about any economic costs associated with their “higher obligation” to combat global warming; it’s a good investment in a promising industry.

States should contribute equally to combating climate change.

It is true that developed states will contribute more resources and money on absolute terms, simply because their wealth is greater. But, they have no obligation to contribute more money and resources as a percentage of GDP. This should be roughly equal across all states.

Developing states want lower standards for economic advantage

Pete Du Pont. "Bali Who?". Wall Street Journal. December 19, 2007

“Under cover of fighting global warming, developing countries try to slow America’s economy. […] Developing nations don’t want to be limited in any way, and they do want to slow down the economic growth of developed nations so they can gain economically.”

Developed nations create demand that propels developing states.

It is not economically beneficial for the world to stick developed nations with the obligation to use more of their resources to combat global warming. The reason is that the wealth in developed countries is precisely what runs the global economy and creates demand for the work performed by developing nations.

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