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Who is responsible for tackling climate change?

Industrialisation has lifted many out of poverty - but also contributed to climate change
Industrialisation has lifted many out of poverty - but also contributed to climate change

Climate change is an established problem that threatens everyone, though the threat is often shared unequally. Why then has it proven so hard to agree a plan to tackle it on a global scale? Guest blogger Stanley Ellerby-English explores how climate change intersects with global inequalities, and where responsibility lies in tackling the problem.

Since it began in late 18th century Europe, industrial production has spread around the world and reshaped human society. It has created rapid technological progress and led to general improvements in quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. However, there is now almost universal acceptance that the increased levels of carbon dioxide and other so-called 'greenhouse gases', which accompany industrialisation, are also leading to changes in the earth's climate.

Action needed

The main effect has been that the sun's radiation is unable to exit the earth's atmosphere as it is trapped by greenhouse gas particles. This has already led to an increase in average temperatures around the world, which in turn is leading to changes in climate conditions more broadly.

In 2009 experts from countries around the world agreed that action should be taken to prevent a rise of more than 2°C when compared to the pre-industrial average. Unfortunately, no plan to accomplish this was never agreed and now it is becoming clear that we are unlikely to achieve this goal.

These changes won't look anything like Hollywood's vision of a world completely covered in water or a rapid ice age across the northern hemisphere. However, sea levels will almost certainly rise further as the ice caps melt and weather is already becoming more extreme. Increasingly, people are focusing on how to adapt to these changing conditions, but this is only serving to highlight global inequalities.

Mother and baby from Tacloban in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan Nov 2013
Climate change is already causing extreme weather conditions
around the world – making it an urgent issue to address

Some more vulnerable

Whilst every country will be affected by climate change, richer countries, such as the Netherlands, will be able to invest in technology to help mitigate its effects. In contrast, poorer nations, like Bangladesh, do not have the resources to soften the impact of the changing environment.

The sad truth is that limited resources make people in these countries more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and less able to adapt to them. The devastation created by storms in Southeast Asia and the regular famine caused by droughts in sub-Saharan Africa are just early examples of a trend that is likely to continue.

Bearing in mind the widespread harm climate change will cause to people around the world, the lack of co-ordinated action is worrying. As is so often the case, this has little to do with human inability, and is instead the result of political and economic dynamics. Not least of these is the divide between the countries that historically created the problem and those that need to act to solve it.

The current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are largely the result of industrial growth in the relatively wealthy countries of Europe and North America. This process drove improvements in quality of life for people in these countries, so it is unsurprising that many others have since followed this lead.

Young woman farming, FSP Tamale, Ghana
Limiting emissions in developing countries may impact
industrialisation and people's livelihoods

Industrialisation: a double-edged sword

Now, global emissions predominantly come from developing countries and this is likely to grow further still. Tackling climate change relies on developing countries limiting their emissions, but is it really fair to ask them to pay for a problem others have created? Especially when people's livelihoods are at stake.

Rapid industrial growth in China has already lifted millions out of poverty, and other countries, like South Korea, exemplify the positive effect that industrialisation can have. There are real worries that stifling industrial growth, particularly in very large countries like China and India, could have a disastrous effect on the poorest sections of these societies.

Simplistic approaches to limiting greenhouse gas emissions could have just such an effect, so agreeing where the burden for reducing emissions falls is a tricky process. Especially when it is often the same people who suffer, whether through extreme weather or rapid economic decline.

Shared responsibility

Child from Mombasa, Kenya, examining solar panels
Both industrialising and industrialised countries need to be
responsible for cutting emissions and investing in renewable energy 

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that people and governments in developing nations take these issues very seriously. China, which currently has the largest emissions footprint of any country, is leading the world in renewable energy investment. Equally, many poor people are adapting to the lack of national grids in their country by turning to small-scale wind and solar energy. There is no reason why late industrialising countries need to make the same mistakes as their predecessors, but this does not mean that industrialised nations can shirk their responsibilities.

Tackling climate change is not just about curbing rampant consumption, it strikes to the heart of beliefs about developmental opportunities. Ensuring equity in negotiating plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions is, therefore, essential. Unfortunately, whilst this is necessary to achieve lasting and effective change, it is unlikely to speed up an already slow process.

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