North-south climate rift hurts poor people

Developing countries should embrace carbon-cutting as an opportunity, not treat it as a burden, argues Monica Araya

A windfarm in Brazil (Flickr/The Danish Wind Industry Association)

A windfarm in Brazil (Flickr/The Danish Wind Industry Association)

By Monica Araya

Much of the progress on climate action these days occurs on the basis of collaboration.

Without the commitment and talent to join forces, efforts to tackle climate change will not succeed. With the world’s eyes set on Paris, especially after the brutal events of last week, governments must embrace a more accountable standard at COP21 and show an unprecedented willingness to cooperate despite their differences.

Polarisation along north-south lines hurts billions of citizens who will benefit from deeper carbon cuts by all countries. Much of the problem is insistence of treating decarbonisation – and “intended nationally determined contributions” to a deal (INDCs)– as a burden for developing countries. Climate finance, the argument continues, is the compensation for the burden of making a costly energy transition.

Report: China aims to quadruple solar installations by 2020

But is the switch to renewable energy really a burden for development? The empirical record tells a difference story: decarbonisation is an opportunity for better growth.

Notice also the INDCs in practice. Countries like Morocco, Ethiopia and, my own country, Costa Rica are putting out climate plans that are considered more ambitious than those of larger emitters and speak the language of opportunity for development.

The assessment of benefits is getting sharper: if Chile switched to a 100% renewable energy pathway by 2030, it could save 1,500 lives per year and US$5.3 billion in fossil fuel imports annually. In China, the same shift would save 100,000 lives and $190 billion per year.

While it is indisputable that developed countries carry the highest historical responsibility for climate change today, it is the national interests of most, if not all, developing countries to push large emitters to move faster in Paris.

Analysis: Rich-poor climate reconciliation in sight at UN talks

The G20 countries, including advanced and emerging economies, use $452 billion a year to subsidise their fossil fuel industries. They generate nearly 74% of global greenhouse gas emissions (including from land use). If these 20 countries do more, billions of people around the world will benefit.

A departure from narrow framings of fairness is needed. We need less heat and more light. Focusing on historical responsibility conceals the new questions looming large.

For countries like mine or small islands the question is not whether India’s cuts are fair compared to the US. Instead, the question is whether the G20 economies are in line with with holding warming below 2°C, or even 1.5°C. The answer is no.

So the hardest burden to development is not the energy transition but climate impacts. Industrialised countries can take historical responsibility by supporting measures to adapt to those impacts and cope with permanent losses.

UNEP: National climate plans deliver half carbon cuts needed for 2C

Opinion polls show that people, most notably Latin Americans and Africans, see climate change as a “very serious concern” and worry it will harm them personally. Almost 80% of the 10,000 citizens consulted in 76 countries “want their country to take measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even if many other countries don’t take measures”.

Paris needs to enable a solidarity pact around resilience. Giving adaptation a new political parity with respect to mitigation will increase the ownership of the Paris agreement by developing countries. This package needs to have elements inside and outside the Paris agreement, most pragmatically in the Paris finance and cooperation package to ensure supports for the most vulnerable nations and communities at the very least.

Vulnerable nations are embracing climate action and trail blazing south-south cooperation outside the negotiations too as seen in the Climate Vulnerability Forum’s Manila Communique. These countries will create a Manila-based south-south center on climate information services and their ministers of finance, the V20, aim to mobilise public and private funding from their own economies.

They deliberately depart form a narrative of polarisation. What they say instead is: If we can do this alone, imagine what could be achieved with support by others.

Report: Climate vulnerable governments urge all countries to make tough CO2 cuts

Ultimately the enemy is harmful emissions, not countries. These emissions come from fossil fuels and development will be better without them.

Fortunately, a new politics of climate change cooperation is emerging that leaves behind north-south antagonism.  Think of the historical announcement made by US and China a year ago and their joint presidential statement made this September. The emphasis on renewable energy as opportunity is the new normal. If the world’s two largest economies and emitters are finding common ground, others can also find theirs.

The climate finance landscape is evolving quickly too. While the Paris finance package is expected to come mostly from developed-nations funds, outside the negotiations, China has changed the game by putting $3.1 billion into south-south climate cooperation fund. This effectively marks a new era of south-south financing flows. There is extraordinary wealth creation in emerging economies, and much more of it must be channeled toward climate change action.

In a few weeks, governments will meet in Paris to sign a new climate agreement for the 21st century. An unprecedented commitment to cooperation between developed and developing countries is due.

Monica Araya is a former Costa Rica negotiator, director of Nivela and co-founder of Costa Rica Limpia. Follow her at @MonicaArayaTica.

Read more on: Comment | UN climate talks