Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Time to pay our climate debt

You can't blame developing countries for a lack of ambition when their solutions are much bolder than anything the G8 came up with. Two weeks ago the G8 summit came to a supposedly ‘groundbreaking' agreement on climate change. They were only let down, so the story goes, by developing country governments unwilling to commit themselves to bold enough cuts in their own carbon emission targets.

What actually happened was quite different, but the post-summit spin will be repeated again and again in the run-up to the United Nations Copenhagen Summit on climate change in December.

It should be familiar to us from World Trade Organisation talks over the last decade or more: while rich countries fail to agree on meaningful, let alone ambitious, reforms, larger developing countries are blamed for a ‘lack of ambition'. Indeed one of Government Minister Ed Milliband's key challenges for the year is apparently to get developing countries to "move away from business as usual".

The hypocrisy springs from an inability, or unwillingness, to grasp the nature of the environmental problem. Developing countries do not have primary responsibility for causing climate change, though their prospects for development are seriously hindered by it. That's why countries like Bolivia are proposing real solutions, and ones which terrify Western leaders: you can't, they believe, deal with climate change unless you accept that rich countries are in significant debt to the poorest and embrace the concept of redistribution.

Their argument is simple and based on a premise which isn't disputed. The rich world has gobbled up far more than its fair share of the earth's atmosphere in order to develop. In essence, industrialised countries colonised the atmosphere, in the same way they did other resources.

Those rich countries now owe poorer countries a two-fold ‘climate debt': first for over-using the Earth's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases and thereby denying atmospheric space to those who need it most. Second, they're in debt for the destruction that those emissions are causing.

The solution: rich countries need to ‘pay' through redistributing a fairer share of limited atmospheric space to poorer countries, as well as helping those countries adapt to the mess they find themselves in. Environmental justice is little different from other forms of economic justice - redistribute resources so that those who've lost out from a specific model enjoy the same benefits as those who've done well from it.

But ‘those who've done well' often don't see things in the same way. The limited and hazy agreements made by the G8 go nowhere near a fair distribution of the earth's atmosphere. Right up to 2050, even if an 80% cut in emissions were to be implemented, the G8 will consume far more of the earth's limited resources than they deserve, such is the scale of their current over-use.

The G8 could get away with cutting emissions by less than they should because they are demanding steep developing country cuts as well - recognising the need for overall emissions to shrink. In effect, developing countries would ‘subsidise' the necessary reduction which rich countries should really be taking, thereby preventing the developing world accessing the environmental space they need to build decent standards of living.

The climate debt of the rich world would just keep getting bigger. But rather like the banks who gambled with the future of millions of people, the richest propose that many of their debts to the poor simply be written off.

Payment of the other part of the debt - to help clean up the mess - is even further ‘off track', with tiny amounts of money committed to helping developing countries adapt and develop (or share, through relaxed intellectual property rights) new technologies to help their lower-carbon growth. Instead, proposals on the table to date include large quantities of new loans (so the real creditors become the debtors in economic terms) run through the World Bank, an institution which has championed high carbon growth for decades.

So the battle lines are drawn. Developing countries will not sit idly by while the rich go on consuming their dwindling chances for development and justice. They don't see why they should make the first move - sacrificing their own development before the rich pay off their debts.

That's why Bolivia has received substantial support for its proposals from a range of developing countries. Developed countries will spend the next six months in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit trying to marginalise these countries - doubtless with a good bit of bribery and arm-twisting along the way, helping them to meet the ‘ambition' the rich feel that the poor somehow owe them.

Of course, achieving a just outcome would not be easy. Predicting the future impacts of climate change is very difficult. Moreover, it would mean big changes to the way those who currently run the world live, and more political vision than we've seen for many decades. But the principles are clear: that the polluter pays for the excessive consumption of the rich, not the poor, and that in a civilised society redistribution is a critical way of righting historical injustice.

The developing world has set out its ambitious agenda. It's for us to move away from business as usual if we're to come close to meeting it.