The inequity in climate change?

How unfair is that?

By Glenn Althor, James Watson, Richard Fuller (University of Queensland)


KEY MESSAGES:
  • Fewer than 4% of countries are responsible for more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions
  • These same nations are also the least exposed to the impacts of climate change
  • Many of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries produce a very small quantity of emissions

In a recent analysis we explored the state of global climate change inequity (Althor et al, 2016) and what we discovered struck us as most unfair. We found that fewer than 4% of countries are responsible for more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, wealthy, developed nations such as Australia, the United States and Canada, are essentially climate ‘free- riders’: causing climate change (through high greenhouse gas emissions), while incurring few of the costs (such as climate change’s impact on human mortality and GDP).

On the flip side, there are many ‘forced riders’: communities which are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts despite having scarcely contributed to the problem. Many of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, the majority of which are African or Small Island States, produce a very small quantity of emissions. What’s more, when we looked at projections of climate vulnerability to the year 2030, this inequity is expected to worsen.

In other words (now and in the near-future), a few countries benefit enormously from the consumption of fossil fuels, while at the same time contributing disproportionately to the global burden of climate change.

To explore climate equity, we used recent data on greenhouse gas emissions (WRI 2014) and climate vulnerability (DARA 2012). We compared 2010 greenhouse gas emission data and the vulnerability data both in 2010 and 2030 to assess whether the most heavily polluting countries were also those least vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. We used quintiles to compare the data sets and enable visualisation of climate equity in the recent past and near future (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A map of global climate equity in 2010 (a), and projected to 2030 (b). Countries shown in dark brown are free rider nations: those contributing the most to climate change and the least vulnerable to its negative impacts. Countries shown in green produce the least greenhouse gases but experience the worst effects of climate change.

Figure 1: A map of global climate equity in 2010 (a), and projected to 2030 (b). Countries shown in dark brown are free rider nations: those contributing the most to climate change and the least vulnerable to its negative impacts. Countries shown in green produce the least greenhouse gases but experience the worst effects of climate change.

Our results show a situation not fair by any definition, or as Pope Francis put it in last year’s encyclical on climate change: “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded”.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement and associated Paris Climate Agreement Signing Ceremony, have been widely hailed as positive steps forward in addressing climate change for all, although the details on addressing ‘climate justice’ are still unclear.

The UNFCCC speak of keeping global temperatures ‘well below’ 20, which is commendable. However the emissions-reduction pledges submitted by countries leading up to the Paris talks are very unlikely to deliver on this. Until the Paris agreement is ratified, and key free rider countries pledge (and act) to bring their emissions in line with targets, it is hard to see how we will achieve global temperature change below 20. Until these efforts are accomplished, the future of many of the world’s most vulnerable countries is grim.

The creation of US$100 billion (per annum) in funding has been suggested for supporting developing nations to reduce emissions, in the form of the Green Climate Fund. However, progress toward this goal has been slow. Additionally there is very little detail on who will provide the funds or, importantly, who is responsible for their provision. Securing these funds, and establishing who is responsible for raising them will also be vital for the future of climate-vulnerable countries.

The most climate-vulnerable countries in the world have contributed very little to creating the global crisis of climate change. As such, there must urgently be a meaningful mobilisation of the policies outlined in the Paris agreement. However, as the Agreement’s key policies are yet to be realised, member states have both an exceptional opportunity and a moral impetus to use these results to address climate change equity in a meaningful manner.


More info: Glenn Althor g.althor@uq.edu.au

References: Althor G, JEM Watson & RA Fuller (2016). Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change. Scientific Reports 6: pp. 20281.

DARA (2012). Methodological documentation for the climate vulnerability monitor. Madrid: DARA.

World Resources Institute (2014). Climate Analysis Indicators Tool: WRI’s Climate Data Explorer. 2.0 ed. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

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