A few months ago, I wrote a blog called ‘Who pays the biggest price as the world burns?’ all about the tension between who has primarily polluted the planet and who will pay the biggest – or any – environmental price, regardless of their specific contribution to the climate crisis. Since then, I have done a lot of reading about climate change and environmental activism, and have discovered that, unsurprisingly, a number of older, more experienced people have also considered this question. In fact, the idea that the biggest polluters should shoulder the brunt of the burden for paying for a greener, cleaner planet has been part of climate negotiations since they began toward the end of the 20th century. This surprised me, as I feel like these ideas are rarely part of mainstream climate conversations, though perhaps I’m overestimating how much climate change discussions have developed in recent years. But as the UK and US start to address the massive social and economic changes we will need to make in the coming decade to prevent environmental catastrophe, it seems odd to never mention that, along with funding enormous shifts in infrastructure, energy and transport, we also need to find the money to support developing countries cope with our changing planet too.
As Amitav Ghosh points out in his book The Great Derangement, there is a promising theory which asserts that India, China and other countries that are now major polluters were only held off by imperialism in the 20th century. Rapid industrialisation and the usage of steam to create power happened at a time when the European powers and America had already colonised large swathes of Africa, Asia and the rest of the world. Not only did this new technology allow the ruling powers to further cement their rule in foreign countries, it was also reliant on colonialism in the sense that European rulers across the world would send valuable natural resources and money back to Europe, actively avoiding bringing new processes and technologies to their territories in favour of funnelling it all back to headquarters. It is surely no coincidence that after WW2, when many imperial powers retreated, that India, China and other previously colonised countries started to industrialise rapidly. Indeed, many believe that the onset of disastrous climate change was significantly postponed by imperial rule, a sobering and odd thought. When many rapidly developing countries demand support and reparations to deal with the cost of going green (even more so for countries that are still significantly underdeveloped compared to Western economies), they are essentially arguing for lost time. It turns out that there was only a finite amount of burning allowed before the Earth started to fight back. The West used up most of that fossil fuel bandwidth and now the rest of the world is pissed.
However, some are using the situation to try and improve their lot in life. In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein shares an interview she did with Angélica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia’s representative to the UN Climate Council. Bolivia is enormously dependent on its vast glaciers for drinking water and irrigation – and those glaciers are shrinking by the day. Despite doing little to cause the climate crisis, many Bolivians are poised to suffer the consequences. Navarro Llanos’ idea was to declare Bolivia a ‘climate creditor’ and demand financial compensation for the environmental and economic damages that the West has caused in Bolivia (among numerous countries around the world). The money would go toward to dealing with climate-related issues and supporting Bolivia’s development along a green energy path.
As I made clear in my previous blog, poorer, less culpable countries don’t have a choice. The Earth warms everywhere and no one is exempt from the effects of a hotter planet (though, in a cruel twist of fate, it may well be the communities who contributed the fewest emissions who are most at risk as sea levels rise, both due to geography and poverty). This means that regardless of the stage of development, all countries must position themselves to develop with a clean, green economy as the goal. Gone are the days when anyone can rampantly pollute the atmosphere without at the very least knowing that they are unsustainably destroying the planet as they do so. If Bolivia is going to have to enact expensive renewable energy programs, why shouldn’t the US and UK pay for it? It’s mainly our fault, after all.
Klein says that, as she listened to Navarro Llanos, she started to understand her vision of how the climate crisis may push us toward a fairer planet. In order to not only curb the negative impacts of global warming, but also create sustainable, renewable energy and economies for everyone, we will need the rich to support the poor in developing clean electricity and water sources. Ultimately, if we are able to organise, climate change may push us to share our resources in the hope of creating a better future for everyone. As much as this seems like a pipe dream, we are barreling closer and closer to the point at which it is no longer an option if we want to keep humanity going.
Of course, there is considerable diversity among the world’s climate creditors. Many countries, like Bolivia, are likely to be extremely dependent on foreign funding in order to cope with the climate crisis. Particularly poor economies that have barely industrialised will be looking to a sense of responsibility (and perhaps guilt) to spur rich countries to create a better world for all. But in the case of the bigger climate creditors – most notably India and China – the incentives shift. Both India and China, though not as rich (per capita) and stable as the US, are developed enough to be able to do serious damage to the planet over the following decades if they don’t curb their emissions. As Obama said, if China and India imitate the US model of emissions, “we’ll be four feet underwater.”
These major nations still feel like they’re playing catch up and in order to get them to stop, especially as China is poised to overthrow US hegemony, they will likely need to be incentivised to give up all that growth and development in the name of sustainability. While India may now be one of the world’s biggest polluters, it still has hundreds of millions of people living without electricity, which is an altogether different situation to the US or UK, who also continue to pollute. India will need investment in order to bring higher living standards to its citizens in a green way, and this will need to come from the very nations that these growing superpowers are chasing, as the West pays its climate debts to those it held back and left behind.
These ideas are slowly gaining traction among developing countries and the global community. In 2006, Ecuador pushed for compensation for not drilling in Yasuní National Park, a pristine section of rainforest that is sitting on $7bn worth of crude oil. Given they had barely contributed to emissions, it seemed fair for Ecuador to be compensated for not taking those sweet petro dollars and leaving the oil in the ground, with any money given going (in theory) to support the country’s transition to clean energy. Given that 195 countries ratified the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, which included a section on “common but differentiated responsibilities,” you’d think that the global rich would be more willing to hold up their end of the deal. However, these ideas have struggled to gain meaningful traction, showing how difficult it is to hold the most powerful to justice. In 2016, the Ecuadorian government announced they had started drilling, to massive protests from citizens.
Efforts are being made to hold rich countries to account and set up funds that will support developing countries in their transition to clean energy, but these ideas are still struggling to take off in a big way. As so much major growth over the next decade is projected to be in Asia, addressing the issue of climate debt needs to be a core issue for environmental activists. We must find ways for developing economies – for everyone, ideally – to curb their emissions without significantly compromising the living standards of their citizens. If coal is what it takes to turn the lights on in Shanghai, then coal is going to get burned in epic quantities. It is only by building a cleaner, greener, sustainable world that we are going to get through this. And we are only going to do that if we face up to our past, take responsibility, and support those who both need and deserve it.