We know that climate change is a problem and we have a decent understanding of how the changes will affect us. What you may not know is that the World Bank lists 137 nations (65% of all countries in the world) as “developing countries.” Furthermore, according to the United Nations, 1.4 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. One of the major goals of the UNFCCC is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, as they are one of the main drivers of climate change. However, bringing cheap and affordable electricity to those without may require heavy use of fossil fuels and, in general, higher GDP (economic growth) results in increased greenhouse gas emissions. What this means is that we have a great conundrum: Developing nations need to develop and climate change is exacerbated by development.
With these statements in mind, I pose a few questions: How do we weigh the costs and benefits of solving each of these problems? Can we solve these problems simultaneously, and if so, how? Do we have to choose which problem is more important?
As with any conflict, this great conundrum comes with several different solutions (extremes and compromises) born from opposing arguments and viewpoints. In no way can I explain all of these in one post, but I can provide a brief overview of the major themes and explain what the UNFCCC is doing to address these challenges.
Common arguments for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and inherently fossil fuels) include: resource depletion, pollution, climate change, and preservation for future generations. These arguments all have a long-term view that focus both on human and environmental well-being. We currently know that fossil fuels can provide affordable and reliable energy, but at a major cost in the long term because fossil fuels are a major instigator of human-induced climate change.
As you would expect, there are moral arguments for inducing economic development and providing electricity to developing countries without concern for environmental impacts. These arguments are centralized around the short-term human condition. For example: Many argue that the use of fossil fuels provides reliable energy, which actually protects us from climate.
But what about the small island nations that will be under water in the near future because of the sea level rise? What about the rapid spread of diseases, like malaria, due to the warming climate? Fossil fuels can help resolve many issues but climate change issues are not among those. It is not human nature to live without some impact on the earth, however, these impacts must be minimized so that we don’t have to sacrifice long term benefits for the short term.
So, how does the UNFCCC address the role of developing nations in the midst of climate change? Simple: Sustainable Development. Except, it isn’t that simple. ‘Sustainable development’, in the broadest sense means, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As you can see, this language is not conducive to any real application in a climate change agreement.
For the sake of brevity, I will pause here and let you meditate on where your moral compass points in this conundrum. Next week, I will continue to expand this idea of sustainable development and what it means for developing nations and future COPs in “Which Way Does Your Moral Compass Point? (Part II)”.