Who pays the biggest price as the world burns?

Who pays the biggest price as the world burns?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the nuances of fighting climate change, especially in terms of individual choices. I’ve still been thinking about these ideas and, recently, at my actual job, I’ve been working on some pieces about palm oil and environmental issues. This blog isn’t about palm oil specifically, but the greater implications of tackling climate change globally, across countries and economies that are at vastly different stages of development.

Since the banned Iceland ad about deforestation due to palm oil went viral, everyone has been up in arms about palm oil farming. There is a lot to be said about sustainable palm oil practices (as I was writing about at work), but, from a global perspective, I think the politics of addressing climate change between nations is fascinating and important.

Much of the palm oil backlash has been concentrated in the UK and US, whereas almost all palm oil production is concentrated in countries in the tropics. 55% of all palm oil is farmed in Indonesia and 30% in Malaysia. After some major multinationals and the EU announced measures to reduce their palm oil consumption, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments responded negatively, accusing Western nations of stunting their economies.

The thing is, climate effects are rarely localised. The planet warms all over. So when the US, UK and other industrialised nations pumped carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases into the atmosphere and jumpstarted climate change in order to rapidly develop our industries, everyone is now feeling the effects, even the nations with the lowest emissions. Then, when we realised we’ve done irreparable damage to the climate, wildlife and all our natural resources, we decided to impose similar standards and changes on everyone else to, legitimately, prevent the damage getting even worse, even though they haven’t yet had a chance to reap the social and economic benefits of industrialisation. You can see how this might be hard pill to swallow.

Lots of climate change measures have been criticised by developing economies for exactly this reason, where they have accused the US and other Western countries of not only preventing the valuable demographic and economic shifts that allow healthcare, income and quality of life to rise but also expecting these same developing countries to share the burden of preventing further negative environmental impact.

It’s important to address climate change, obviously. However, there are real challenges to implementing policy at a global level, changing the carbon-spewing processes that underpin modern life and getting other countries to buy into fundamental economic shifts when they’ve yet to see any lasting benefits from all this destruction in the first place. Without grappling with those issues head on, it will surely be hard to make meaningful, sustainable change. In order to get the Indonesian and Malaysian governments on board with reducing palm oil consumption, wealthier nations need to appreciate the troubling economic situation that puts these countries in.

The worst part is that it’s a lose-lose situation for developing economies either way. The flip side to climate change affecting the whole planet indiscriminately is that, despite being responsible for a tiny fraction of the emissions, many low-polluting countries will be affected badly by climate change. A report by HSBC shows that Pakistan, the Philippines and Bangladesh are some of the most vulnerable to climate change. None of these countries are major players in the carbon emissions game, but regardless 25 million people in Bangladesh will likely be at risk by 2050 due to rising sea levels. It seems deeply unfair that many of those who did most of the damage are unlikely to pay the biggest price.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has said that developing countries would need $93 billion dollars per year to meet their climate commitments. OXFAM International thought this number might increase to $500 billion per year by 2050. The IIED also shares that less than a third of dedicated climate aid reaches the intended countries and this is when the numbers are still around $100bn. It seems like spending a cool half trill on fighting climate change in other countries every year is going be out of the question for practically everyone. To compound this problem, most of the countries most vulnerable to climate change have their economies resting on the very industries they would need to cut to reduce emissions or that are particularly affected by climate and weather disasters. It’s a mess and it’s unfair and we do need to be protecting the planet because everyone will suffer if we don’t but it seems so cruel that, as per usual, the poor will pay the price of the global rich ploughing through the Earth’s resources like there was no tomorrow (which, given those actions, there might not be – oh, the irony) and now expecting everyone to devote resources and energy they don’t have to solving the problem.

China addressed this head-on by urging rich countries to support poorer nations in their climate change efforts (admittedly while dodging questions about their own continued status as a developing country at the same time). China presents its own set of questions. It is still largely considered to be a developing economy, despite being widely accepted to be either the largest or second largest economy in the world, depending on which GDP measure you use (yes I just read and loved a book all about how GDP is a flawed metric but it’s all I’ve got right now). However, it is the world’s biggest carbon polluter. It does attempt to make up for this by also having some of the largest, most advanced climate change prevention strategies and programs in the world, though they are still not large enough to make a meaningful dent in China’s colossal emissions. In David Pilling’s book on GDP and the costs of unrestricted economic growth, the Growth Delusion, there is a whole chapter dedicated to China’s environmental wins and sins. He concludes that China somehow manages to be both a ‘black superpower’ (regarding it’s heavy coal burning) and a ‘green superpower.’ He says that “it could kill the world, but it could also save it.”

Most developing countries are not in this position, and they can neither kill nor save the world by themselves. Most smaller nations are being killed by the world while trying valiantly to contribute to saving it, despite often not having the infrastructure or financial resources to do so. The only reason the US, UK and other big developed countries are able to create and implement such expansive renewable energy programs is due to the years they spent burning coal in the first place.

I don’t think there’s an answer here. Life isn’t fair; we already know this. The rich burned the world and are now stating that the poor must get on board with saving it, even at the expense of their citizens. Well, it’s all the expense of their citizens – the economy is set back or the country sinks into the sea. What a choice, eh?

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