Climate injustice: how unfair is climate change and who is responsible?

What is climate injustice?
Climate injustice refers to how certain areas of the world or even communities within the same country, will experience different effects and severities of climate change. The injustice in this, however, is that countries of the lowest socio-economic and political status – those that have done nothing to ignite climate change – are those that will suffer the most from it. Conversely, the wealthy western societies comprised of European, American, British and Oceanic countries that have burned the greatest share of fossil fuels are those whose wealth will support the best mitigation efforts.

Developed vs. developing emissions:
The Centre For Global Development believes developed countries (mainly the Global North) have historically been responsible for 79% of carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions. The Global Carbon Project estimates that 23 wealthy countries are responsible for half of all global emissions, whilst more than 150 countries are accountable for the other 50%.
Some of this information may seem unfair: what about countries in the Global South like China or India? Keep in mind that this data represents historic Co2 emissions which, up until recent decades, have been minimally affected by Asian countries (besides Japan).

According to DW Planet A as of 2021, the average Nigerian produces less than 1 tonne of Co2 into the atmosphere annually; 7 tonnes in China; 10 tonnes in Germany and 17 tonnes in the United States. “In one year, the average American pollutes 20 times more than the average Nigerian.”

Historical emissions context:
The New York Times states, “the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe, […] are responsible for 50 percent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released [over the past 150 years].”
The Industrial Revolution which began in the 1760s in England commenced large-scale fossil fuel burning and damaging industrial activity. As of the 1850s, the United Kingdom (UK) was the largest greenhouse gas emitter “with emissions nearly six times those of the country with the second-highest emissions.” For decades, European and American countries dominated economic growth via the extraction of fossil fuels and industry. Between 1850 and 1960, the world witnessed a steady increase in emissions annually from population booms and industrialisation (particularly in the United States).

Only in rare global events like the end of the Great Depression and World War 2 did emissions occasionally decline. By the 1950s, growth was appearing in both China and Russia. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s emissions also briefly collapsed.
In the inauguration of the 21st century, the rise of the Chinese economy transformed much of Asia into the hub of atmospheric warming.

Miniscule warming, maximum consequences:
It’s worth stressing – whilst developing nations will be most negatively influenced by climate change – this isn’t an excuse for more selfish emissions in the western world either because of ignorance (money will save us) or carelessness (they’re not our problem).
The United Nations (UN) states, “While developing countries have contributed the least to the problem, they are expected to bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, which threatens to jeopardize many of the developmental gains.” Due to both geography and wealth, developing countries – already witnessing drought, hunger and disease – will inevitably face further water shortages, increased malaria and fewer crop yield.

According to the World Population Review, of the 10 poorest countries in 2022, 4 are from the East, 3 are from the West, and 2 are from Central Africa (Afghanistan was the only non-African country listed).
Significantly, already 92% of global Malaria cases arise from Africa, 346 million have faced food insecurity since 2017, and 1 in 3 people are affected by water scarcity. By 2050 – assuming countries meet emission targets and warming estimates are correct – nearly all of Africa will warm by between 2.5 and 3.0 degrees Celcius, with large regions of both the north and south set to exceed 3.5 degrees Celcius. The UNFCCC asserts, “Sea-level increase [in Africa] reached 5 mm per year in several oceanic areas surrounding the continent and exceeded 5 mm per year in the south-western Indian Ocean.” This is between a 1mm – 2mm increase in sea level than global averages. Abnormal sea level escalation coupled with coastal erosion is now affecting 56% of “Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Togo” coastlines.

Furthermore, The World Bank estimates that 86 million Africans will have to migrate within their own country by 2050, which will further jeopardise their recoveries. Moreover, the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that between 2030 and 2050 an additional 250,000 deaths will occur due to “malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress” in Africa. As if that wasn’t enough, yellow fever cases are predicted to climb by 25% by 2050 due to altering temperatures and rainfall patterns.

Climate injustice simply showcased: Africa (home to nearly 20% of all humans) is set to be belted economically, socially and environmentally. How much do they contribute to annual emissions? Less than 4%.

Rising emissions in the Global South:
Between the 19
th and 20th centuries, the burning of fossil fuels has been at the centre of economic booms throughout the Global North. At the same time, countries in the Global South have been left unsupported, impoverished and hungry. Beginning in the 1400s, the Age of Discovery led European colonial power to explore and then exploit the natural wealth of many nations. Subsequently, as The Conversation states, “[for] years the natural resources that southern nations exported to countries like Germany and the United States have been sold at a lower cost than the finished products they import for their own consumption.” What came from this was poverty in the Global South, and wealth and development in the Global North.
Past Northern economic tactics are now spreading throughout the South: utilise the natural resources that are left to burn our way to prosperity. The 2021 research article by Taylor & Francis Online claims that due to “the use of fossil fuels, the Global South has contributed a significant portion of global emissions during the last 30 years, and is now contributing some 63% of today’s total GHG emissions.” Much like the Global North used fossil fuels centuries ago to generate reliable sources of fuel that also generated huge flows of income, it seems the South now wants a piece of that wealthy pie.
Today, however, we live in a world where no one can afford to spew out greenhouse gas emissions as if there would be no consequence.
Whilst the impacts of climate change are loud and clear, it remains a very difficult dilemma for countries like Brazil or India: either abandon current economic growth via extraction and burning fossil fuels in favour of reduced climate change impacts but suffer potential long-term poverty or, continue to burn fossil fuels to support economic growth and prosperity.

What if there was a way to remove billions out of poverty throughout the Global South whilst also supporting their transition to an emissions-free economy? The Global North has the money to push itself outside the mindset of extractivism. Given that for centuries they exploited Southern resources for their economic gain, perhaps it’s their turn to return a favour.

The Global North (blue) vs. South (red) divide.

Paying our ecological debts:
In Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, she discusses a way to support economic development throughout the Global South in a more ecologically-beneficial way. The proposal by economists Tariq Banuri and Director of the What Next Forum, Niclas Hällström, is known as the ‘global feed-in tariff’. Such a proposal would establish an internationally administered fund to help transition developing nations towards clean energy development, bringing wealth, energy and jobs to continents in need. In 2014, Klein’s estimated around $100 billion annually in funds were required “for ten to fourteen years” to effectively provide energy access to 1.5 billion people, whilst fast-forwarding renewable energy transitions throughout the Global South.
The key takeaway here, importantly, is that such funds would come from the Global North from countries and continents like the United States, Australia and Europe to support the Global South. This in short is commonly known as carbon, ecological or climate debts.
The proposal allows the Global South to save billions of people from poverty and establish an economic presence but without frying the planet. The Director General of one of India’s largest environmental organisations, Suita Narain, believes that African or Asian countries must “develop differently. We do not want to first pollute and then clean up [like in the Global North]. So we need money, we need technology, to be able to do things differently.”

Bishop Theotonius Gomes via The Diplomat claims, “Climate change is frightening, but our efforts together to address them will be proof of our responsible leadership of our planet. The responsibility to drive climate-friendly action forward and pay for a fair proportion is with those countries that have the most power to bring about change.” Even China in recent years has demanded climate finance to developing nations from the wealthy in order to avert climate chaos.
One of the only ways we can collectively halt the worsening impacts of climate change whilst improving the economies of the Global South is lots of money. Money, though, is something of scarcity – this is where the Global North must come into play.

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For centuries, much of the Global North has extracted, burned and consumed its way to economic superiority. Yet, little did we know that this growth would ultimately place ourselves and the Global South in such disastrous conditions. Unfortunately, much of the North American, European, Australian and British societies have become entangled in their own climate policy arguments and emergencies, that too often we forget about the extreme effects felt amongst those in South America, Asia and/or Africa. Climate change, sadly won’t teach individual nations a lesson based on their scale of destruction. Instead, the changing precipitation levels and altering seasons will affect the poor and most vulnerable the greatest.

It must be stressed, however, that climate change will ultimately inflict damage on everyone. Wealthy or poor, house or homeless, tradie or surgeon, Jamaican or Canadian. It is now up to the international community to begin establishing global policies that truly minimise the fossil fuel market, that incentivise ecological debt, and that see the rights of Indigenous people exercised to stand in the way of exploitative practices. Global equality, in a sense, requires coming together to halt climate change.

Released on the 5th of August 2022. -KJDJ
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