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North-South Divide And Tackling Global Warning

By Helena Norberg-Hodge

28 February, 2010

As signs of climate instability increase, radical and rapid action is becoming ever more urgent. One of the biggest obstacles to global collaboration, however, has been the foot-dragging and obstructionism of the US government, much of it based on the fear of giving Southern economies a ‘competitive advantage’ if they are permitted to emit greenhouse gases at higher rates than the North. Yet even within the environmental movement there is no unanimity on this thorny question: should the countries of the South have the right to increase their emissions as they industrialize and ‘develop’?

At first blush, it makes sense that they should, based both on equity and the notion that rich countries have no right to make demands of the so-called poor countries: “We in the North have benefited from ‘development’, how can we deny the South the right to follow in our footsteps?”

This argument suffers from two key flaws. First, people in the South simply cannot replicate the development path taken by the North: not only has our ‘development’ already used up too much of the planet’s resources – including its ability to absorb CO2 emissions – but the South has no colonies to supply it with cheap resources and labor, no ‘Third World’ to exploit. Second, arguing for equity ignores the fact that development and globalization do not benefit the majority; they have instead been responsible for a dramatic increase in poverty, while primarily benefiting only a small wealthy elite.
This latter point underlies the dark reality behind the US government’s attitude to climate change. According to Walden Bello, senior analyst at Focus on the Global South:

“When the Bush administration says it will not respect the Kyoto Protocol because it does not bind China and India, and the Chinese and Indian governments say they will not tolerate curbs on their greenhouse gas emissions because the US has not ratified Kyoto, they are in fact playing out an unholy alliance to allow their economic elites to continue to evade their environmental responsibilities and free-ride on the rest of the world.”

According to Bello, the US has formed an “Asia-Pacific” partnership with China, India, Japan, Korea and Canada as a rival to the Kyoto protocol, in order to promote the notion of voluntary curbs on CO2 emissions instead of mandatory ones. Bello further argues that it is the wealthy elites that “spout the ultra-Third Worldist line that the South has yet to fulfill its quota of polluting the world while the North has exceeded its quota. It is they who call for an exemption of the big rapidly industrializing countries from mandatory limits on the emission of greenhouse gases under a new Kyoto Protocol.”

Today, most manufactured goods and a large proportion of agricultural products that are consumed in the North are produced in the South. Global corporations benefit from raw materials and cheap labor in the South. In the industrialized countries, where salaries are high and resources are both more depleted and protected, the profit potential for global corporations is not as large, so expansion into the South is essential for their growth. And it is these institutions that are behind the notion that people in the West cannot tell the South to limit their carbon emissions. In fact, Lee Raymond, president of Exxon-Mobil, traveled around the developing world some years ago, warning leaders not to participate in treaties on climate change if they wanted to attract foreign investment.

In this sense, “telling the people of the South what to do” is precisely what Northern institutions have been doing by imposing export-oriented, fossil fuel-based development on them. Government aid, direct foreign investments and the policies of the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank are foisting ever larger-scale infrastructures on the South – mega-dams and fossil fuel-based power plants, superhighways and shipping terminals. Meanwhile, TNCs are bombarding people all over the South with advertising images promoting an urban, consumer lifestyle. If addressing climate change requires limits on Southern greenhouse gas emissions, this is not telling the people of the South what it do, it is telling TNCs and the global elite that they cannot continue shaping the South for their own short-term interest.

The globalization of the economy is also responsible for uprooting million of people in the South, by destroying rural livelihoods and local markets. Policies that promote large-scale centralized energy installations and export-led development feed the mass migration from rural areas – where people have greater food security and a better quality of life –into vast shantytowns. In the slums the quality of life declines, while resource consumption increases. So do CO2 emissions: every pound of food consumed – even by those on a near starvation diet – now has to be transported and packaged.

These same globalizing policies lead to a massive increase in redundant trade: identical products (butter, milk, potatoes, live animals) criss-cross the globe in ever increasing quantities. This system does not promote efficiency, but rather leads inevitably to an increase in poverty, waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

It makes sense for the West to immediately reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, as well as other natural resources. It also makes sense for the global North to bear the financial burden of reducing CO2 emissions. However, it does not make sense to argue in the name of equity and justice that the South should have the right to continue increasing its CO2 emissions. To a great extent, those emissions are our dirty laundry. They are the waste caused by using the most fertile lands of Africa to grow the vegetables that fill the aisles of European supermarkets. They are the smoke billowing from the factories of China that produce an endless stream of plastic trinkets for our manufactured consumer needs. They are the pollution created by sweatshops churning out goods that we could perfectly well produce for ourselves.

One of the best ways of reducing both CO2 emissions and poverty in the South would be to strengthen the existing, decentralized demographic pattern by keeping villages and small towns alive. This would allow communities to maintain social cohesion and a closer contact with the land. A strategic way of doing so would be to help provide decentralized renewable energy to the rural peoples of the South (who constitute almost half the global population). It would be relatively easy to do so: throughout the less industrialized world there is a tremendous potential for using solar, wind, and small-scale hydropower. To introduce such an infrastructure would cost far less than the mega-billion dollar projects being proposed for the South – many of which encourage fossil fuel consumption. This alternative would also help to dramatically improve people’s material standard of living, and prevent the tragic migration of millions more people into slums, where dependence on petroleum and other non-renewable resources escalates.

As Walden Bello points out: “One cannot depend on the elite and the middle-class in the South to decisively change course… The fight against global warming will need to be propelled by an alliance between progressive civil society in the North and mass-based citizens’ movements in the South.”

The movements in the North should heed Bello’s message.