ESSAY: Is global inequality making it hard to form a climate treaty?


At the Durban Conference of the Parties (COP) signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2011, the international community made a significant decision to completely change track in the negotiation over a new climate treaty. In the years prior to the Durban talks, nations attempted to negotiate the terms of an agreement which was planned to supersede the Kyoto Protocol when it expired in 2012. This agreement, mandated by the ‘Bali Roadmap’ signed at the Bali COP in 2007 was expected to be settled at the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen. There, the major world leaders met for the first time to address the issue of climate change. Yet the Copenhagen conference was a marked failure; the world’s leaders could not come to any agreement over how to reduce emissions. By 2011, negotiators realised the time to arrange a new agreement was running out. Yet, feeling fatigued from the lacklustre negotiations of previous years and disappointed with the political letdown at Copenhagen, they instead negotiated for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol to make more time to organise another agreement. The result of the 2011 climate conference was the ‘Durban Platform’, a settlement which established a Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol, and assigned a new working group to formulate the new treaty by 2015, to be implemented at the end of the Second Commitment Period.

This typifies the disappointing track record the world’s nations have had over cooperating to negotiate a climate agreement effective enough to substantially curb global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions levels. In the face of this slow progress, climate scientists have continued to voice their concern that urgent action is needed immediately to reduce GHG emissions in order to avoid dangerous levels of climate change in the future (Hare 2010, p. 603). In order to smooth out the process to formulate an effective climate treaty, politicians and negotiators need to address the root causes of this non-cooperation. This essay aims to examine a major stumbling block in countries’ efforts to collaborate to sign a climate treaty: the so-called ‘north-south impasse’. Nations from the Global North and Global South have not been able to agree on how to come up with a global solution to mitigating climate change which equitably and justly distributes mitigation responsibilities across the developed and developing world. It will be demonstrated that the problem will not go away unless nations deal with the elephant in the room – unequal trade relations between poor and wealthy countries. By comparing the contending theoretical perspectives on how to achieve international cooperation, it will ultimately be shown via world-systems analysis that global inequality is a significant obstacle to fostering cooperation in negotiations for a climate treaty. Finally, alternative proposals will be suggested which both address the impact of global inequality in climate negotiations and offer an equitable and plausible solution to the challenge of climate change mitigation.

Equity: The source of disagreement in negotiations for a Climate Treaty

Numerous factors have contributed to the inability to foster international cooperation to construct a meaningful climate treaty. For instance, it has been incredibly difficult for certain nations (in particular, some of the more significant emitters) to muster up political support for domestic policies to combat climate change; climate scepticism remains alive and well in many parts of the world, even in the face of the overwhelming consensus in the climate science community about the imminent threat of global warming (Boston 2012, pp. 4-6). Other concerns relate to the nature of the beast – climate change is a problem spanning multiple generations, and in the absence of visible short-term consequences it is often hard for domestic voters and politicians to justify the short-term costs of climate action; it is also difficult to determine a political solution when the problem involves making changes to economic and social structures relating to people’s production, consumption and lifestyle patterns (ibid). Perhaps the most relevant obstacle to building support is the fact that climate action relies heavily on cooperative action, when there are so many different self-interests at stake (Parks & Roberts 2008, p. 629). The higher the need for more countries to participate, the more complex the negotiations become, as the incentive to free-ride increases, while countries are enabled a de facto veto power with the knowledge that their lack of participation will decrease the effectiveness of the regime (Victor, 2006).

Yet all of these issues aren’t unique to climate negotiations – other global environmental regimes succeeded in mobilising support for treaties in spite of similar obstacles. The international regime to combat the depletion of the ozone layer has been typecast as the model environmental framework in fostering international cooperation (Falkner, Hannes & Vogler 2010, p.254). Its main treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, was successfully negotiated in two years and was later revised to make improvements. Aimed at restricting the usage of artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which thinned the stratospheric ozone layer, the benefits of making CFC emissions reductions commitments – decreasing the potential of increased rates of skin cancer caused by higher exposure to UV/B radiation, for example – were deemed more important than the risks associated with implementing them (Baylis, Smith & Owens 2011, p. 355). The regime was marred by widespread scepticism over the need to ban the chemicals in the first place (as they had been considered ‘safe’ inert industrial gases since their origin in the 1920s), as well as concerns over the economic ramifications the bans would incur for certain industries across the world (ibid). Industrialised nations also made two incredible concessions to developing countries – who, as with climate change, complained that it was the developed countries’ mess, therefore their responsibility to clean it up – in order to persuade them to participate; they conceded an article in the Protocol giving developing countries a grace period before needing to commit to it, and set up a fund to finance the provision of alternative non-CFC technologies for the developing world (ibid).

The ozone regime was therefore used as the main model for climate diplomacy (Rayner 2010, p. 616). Yet whereas the former was able to foster the participation of developing countries in a fair manner, the latter has subsequently failed to do so. This is because developing and developed countries have never been able to agree on what constitutes a fair and equitable model to base a climate agreement on. In the Framework Convention, signed at the Rio Summit on the Environment in 1992, Party-States were encouraged to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992). However, the definition and meaning of the principles of ‘equity’ and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (CBDRRC) have been the most fiercely debated topics in climate negotiations ever since. The debate even fettered efforts to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only treaty on climate change, as it influenced the United States, the world’s largest emitter at the time, to decide against ratifying it (Stavins 2012, pp. 1-2). The US Senate voted unanimously not to sign the treaty until developing countries committed to binding emissions limits under the same time frame as it would (whereas they argued they weren’t responsible enough to commit to legally binding emissions reductions) (ibid). This was even after the protocol was watered down to gain acceptance from the major power.

The reasons for the division are varied. On the one hand, developing countries say that because climate change was caused by wealthier nations, it is only fair that they take responsibility for it. As the climatic impact of most GHG emissions takes hundreds of years to dissipate, the high level of historical emissions from the industrialised world means that they’ve contributed most to the problem (Mattoo & Subramanian 2010, p. 6). It is also unfair, according to developing countries, to force them to divert attention away from their own development to solve the problem when they didn’t cause it. (Some even complain that restrictions on emission growth are forms of economic control to deny their access to the industrialisation methods that were enjoyed freely by Northern countries (Willis 2011, p. 183).) Another concern of developing countries relates to per capita emissions; if every person had an equal right to the global atmosphere – a global common – then it is unfair that developed countries are allowed to emit more on a per capita basis than developing nations. As Parks and Timmons Roberts (2009, p. 623-624) point out:

Overall, the richest 20 per cent of the world’s population is responsible for over 60 per cent of its current emissions of greenhouse gases. That figure surpasses 80 per cent if past contributions to the problem are considered…

Accordingly, they have urged developed nations to take the lead in cutting back on emissions and helping finance the efforts of developing nations to limit their emissions levels as well.

On the other hand, Northern countries argue that the emissions growth of Southern nations needs to be controlled as well. Since the formation of the UNFCCC, many developing countries have transitioned towards becoming major economies, a trend that has corresponded with massive emissions growth. The Non-Annex I Parties (those considered ‘developing’ at the beginning of the UNFCCC) increased their total share of global emissions from 33.1 per cent in 1990 to 48.3 per cent in 2006 and their emissions are expected to continue rising as their economies grow (Olivier, et. al. 2011, p. 14). Even if developed countries drastically reduced their emissions, it would not be enough to mitigate global warming. As Mattoo and Subramanian (2010, p. 36) suggest, “the available carbon budget is not even adequate to sustain business-as-usual growth rates for developing countries, let alone for the world as a whole”. Furthermore, developed nations deem it unfair to put them at an economic disadvantage by reducing emissions levels, only to allow developing countries surpass theirs in the future anyway.

Why can’t developed and developing countries cooperate? A Theoretical Examination

The fierce debate over equity in climate negotiations has been labelled the ‘north-south impasse’ by certain climate change scholars, as it reflects the deadlock in negotiations caused by the fundamental inability to achieve consensus between developed and developing countries (Parks & Roberts 2009). It is particularly disappointing for those international relations theorists who draw from the strong track record of environmental regimes to emphasise the significant potential for international cooperation to occur when joint gains are pursued (Baylis, Owens & Smith 2011, p. 359). These include liberal theorists – in particular neoliberal institutionalists – who posit that there is a high degree of interdependency between states, as they rely on each other for mutual peace and prosperity. Because of this, there is a strong incentive to work together to achieve joint, or absolute, gains for the whole international community, especially in areas such as environmental governance, where countries need to find solutions to transboundary problems which concern everyone (O’ Neill 2009, p. 10). Institutions such as the ozone regime, where developed countries were willing to make concessions in order to achieve the greater good (the restrictions of CFCs), were shown to be ways to counter the potential for free-riding and cheating that occurred under the global state of anarchy (the absence of a supranational arbitrator of state behaviour). Liberals see international cooperation succeeding when, as O’ Neill (ibid) puts it, “states can work together to realize joint gains, and institutions are set up that can monitor compliance, increase transparency, reduce the transactions costs of cooperation, and prevent most, if not all, cheating”.  Yet the climate change experience presents a problem for this idea; joint gains were evidently realisable in the alleviation of the threat of dangerous global warming, and the UNFCCC provided an institutional set-up to foster cooperation in the ways alluded to above. Still, this has not translated to cooperation between developed and developing nations in the process of formulating a climate treaty.

The north-south impasse is also troubling for cognitivists, or constructivists, who look at environmental regime-building as the result of the application of commonly-shared principles and norms that have arisen out of a constantly evolving global environmental ‘culture’ (Parks & Roberts 2010, p. 138). While growing networks of scientists and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) – referred to as ‘epistemic communities’ (Baylis, Owens & Smith, op. cit. p, 359) – disseminate new ideas and knowledge, states seek to obtain and sustain legitimacy in this constitutive social system by participating in international environmental agreements. In other words, states look to consolidate new norms that have been commonly accepted (by listening to individuals and organisations who have a social and intellectual authority on the issue) into new regimes. Such norms include the need to urgently act to mitigate climate change, as well as the principles of ‘equity’ and ‘CBDRRC’ underpinning any attempt to do so. Yet the north-south impasse displays an inability to define the meaning of these norms and apply them into a constructive environmental agreement. This has incurred the anger of many members of these epistemic communities, who lambast the consequent slow progress of climate negotiations.

Realists believe they have the answer to the problem. They argue that states build alliances and regimes only when it is in their best interests to do so, as the global state of ‘anarchy’ encourages them to engage in zero-sum behaviour (O’ Neill, op. cit. p. 9). Once they no longer see the relative gains of cooperating within those regimes, agreements and negotiations break down accordingly. This explains why developed countries signed up to the UNFCCC (so as to project a positive international image, perhaps), but later made it difficult to negotiate any treaty which put them at a relative disadvantage to developing nations. However, the strong track record of environmental regimes, and the enthusiastic willingness of certain Northern players such as the EU to participate in burden-sharing, has cast a significant flaw in the realist argument. In fact, the realist case does little to explain why developing countries on the one side and industrialised nations on the other seem to form distinct voting coalitions in much of the climate negotiations, typified by their conflicting conceptions of equity. It is not valid to suggest that countries are merely trying to pursue relative gains by forming part-time alliances to protect their interests when you consistently have voting blocs such as the Group of 77 (G-77) and China, which consists of a wide variety of developing nations, all with differing self-interests and contextual predicaments.

A more fitting explanation would need to address the causes of the north-south impasse more directly. As the stalemate relates to the political relations between the Global North and the Global South, in particular the disparity between their historical responsibilities for causing climate change, the most appropriate theoretical tool for analysing the situation would come from critical theory. Critical theorists examine how climate change relates to questions of social inequality and the structural forces influencing state behaviour (Willis, op. cit. p.180). Of course, critical theorists have had much to say about climate change being related to the processes and structures of the capitalist economy (Baylis, Owen & Smith, op. cit. p. 359), a topic which will be returned to later. This strategy may be of some value when addressing the non-cooperation caused by the north-south impasse. This is because when trade relations are added to the political variables influencing states’ willingness and ability to cooperate in climate negotiations, this adds a socio-economic dimension that would otherwise be disregarded in other paradigms on international cooperation – which is appropriate given that the problem relates to the non-cooperation between the Global North and the Global South.

A World-Systems Analysis of Non-Cooperation in Climate Negotiations

World-systems analysis is a fitting critical paradigm to examine how structural forces affect north-south relations and impact on climate negotiations. This is because of its examination of the historical progression of society and the global political/economic system, when climate change has its roots in the beginnings of modern society – being the product of the GHG emissions coming from modern energy-production technologies – and is triggered by the economic and social structures relating to people’s production and consumption patterns. Aimed at explaining why some states have been able to achieve increased power and wealth while others remain trapped in a constant state of impoverishment, world-systems analysis has a few central premises. Firstly, it argues that the ‘world system’ evolves and goes through cycles, and the current structure first took form in Europe between 1500 and 1650 (Jackson & Sorensen 2010, pp. 193-194). This structure was exported around the world through colonisation, as other regions were incorporated into the global economy by imperial European powers who integrated their colonies into their own economies. Second, this system contains a world economy with a hierarchical global division of labour. A ‘core’ group of nations benefits most from it, a ‘periphery’ group at the bottom of the ladder is exploited, and a ‘semi-periphery’ creates a buffer zone in the middle of the two (ibid). Individual countries may move up or down this hierarchy depending on their trade relations within the world economy and geo-political role and power. Finally, the structural location this results in for that country – its position in the world-system – influences its internal political and social dynamics (ibid). The historical legacy of a country’s incorporation into the global economy thus influences the avenues of development available to it, shapes the types of products it makes, the conditions it creates for both capital and labour, and its global power relative to other countries (Roberts, Grimes & Manale 2003, p. 282).

This has profound implications for a country’s environmental performance, particularly in the context of climate change, as it often leads to unequal ecological exchange between members of the core and everyone else. Core nations, the developed countries of the world, are in the process of dematerialising their economies as a result of more sophisticated consumption patterns (Parks & Roberts 2007, p. 195). They are enabled and sometimes even forced to do this via a higher demand for services and highly elaborate manufactured goods, stricter environmental regulations, as well as advanced technology and a high-skilled labour force (Roberts, Grimes & Manale op. cit. pp. 284-285). However, in order to sustain their sophisticated modes of production, from which they make considerable profits, they need to appropriate high amounts of biophysical resources from the peripheral economies in the South (Parks & Roberts 2010, p. 141). These countries rely on the export of raw materials and the utilisation of their large pools of low-skilled labour to develop economically; as such, they are forced to sell primary commodities at a low price which doesn’t factor in the social and environmental costs of their extraction, processing or shipping (Parks & Roberts 2007, p. 196). Additionally, without efficient infrastructural technology at their disposal, these developing nations look to maximise profits and minimise costs to compete globally, which often means reducing environmental regulations (which are considered unnecessary costs) (Roberts, Grimes & Manale op. cit. pp. 286-288). Parks and Roberts (2010, p. 143) argue that as a result, “some core economies are being ‘relatively dematerialized’ as they export to poor countries, or ‘peripheralize’, the material-intensive stages of the production process”. Statistical research conducted by Heil and Selden (2001) has even attested to this, as they showed that participation in international trade increased emissions in peripheral economies, but lowered them in core nations.

Yet this distribution of ecological ‘baggage’, as it were, is a natural consequence of the way the world-economy operates. Modern society was transformed by the large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels, a trend that was reinforced by economic growth and increased technological efficiency. This process then swept across the world as countries tried to emulate the successful economic growth of capitalist nations in the core (Newell & Paterson, 2010: 12-13). The term ‘carboniferous capitalism’ was coined by American historian and sociologist Lewis Mumford to describe the way growth was contingent on the energy provided by the fossil fuels that originated in the carboniferous period in geological history (ibid). The global capitalist economy promotes the accumulation of capital, which often depends on the improved capabilities of technology to increase the output of production. Technological advancement necessitates increased production in energy, and fossil fuels are the cheapest, most efficient means of energy production. This means that, until a country is rich enough to develop the technological capabilities to reduce the carbon intensity of its production output (or move to alternative forms of energy production) and dematerialise its economy, it needs to exploit fossil fuels in the meantime, as it is the most cost-effective way possible to develop. Climate change, the result of the environmental waste of fossil fuels, is the cost of economic development within the global capitalist system. Moreover, peripheral economies were indebted their position in the unequal exchange of ecological goods by the way they were incorporated into the world economy by members of the core. This would explain why equity is such a particularly contentious issue in climate negotiations.

Creating a framework to delegate emissions reductions responsibilities within this world-system becomes a hard task because of these unequal trade dynamics. This is because reducing emissions essentially impacts on how a country can pursue development. Countries would be willing to share this burden if it meant they all were disadvantaged in the same way. However, different countries would be affected in different ways depending on their world-system position, and this influences their willingness to commit to an agreement. This, combined with the fact that certain nations have already benefited more than others in the world-system vis-à-vis the ability and freedom to create emissions, makes it difficult for nations to share the same understandings of fairness and equity. Different experiences within this world-system (whether you feel your nation has been exploited or not, or whether you have found economic growth easy or difficult) creates different causal beliefs and worldviews, which shape a nation’s understanding of norms and principles, as well as its negotiating strategies and policy preferences (Parks & Roberts 2010, p. 141). For instance, a developing nation which has up until only recently struggled to experience development, will deem it unfair for their new growth to be stripped away from them because of the past behaviours of developed nations. Conversely, a developed nation would require a justification for risking their world-system position (which they feel are entitled to) by burden-sharing; they would need reassurance that the end-goal of cooperative gains is met, and this requires accounting for all emissions levels, including those of developing nations. These sorts of disparities create a climate of mistrust, as countries look to promote their views of fairness over those of others. This, in turn, leads to zero-sum behaviour and reinforces free-riding in the UNFCCC institution if countries don’t feel they’re being treated fairly (which essentially represents a high transaction cost). Therefore, the lack of agreement in climate negotiations resembles an intrinsic issue in climate change politics: the structural obstacles caused by inequality between the developed and developing world.

Conclusion: Towards an Equitable Solution

Unequal trade relations are to a significant extent responsible for hampering negotiations for a climate agreement because they restrict states’ capacities to agree on the fundamental principles underpinning it and obstruct the visualisation of potential absolute gains by instilling a climate of mistrust. This essay has made three central points to come to this conclusion. Firstly, although numerous other factors have contributed to the non-cooperation in the negotiations, the debate over climate equity was shown to be a huge disruption that has been characteristic of climate politics. The debate has resulted in a massive impasse between developing countries, who view climate change as industrialised nations’ mess and so their responsibility to clean it up; and developed countries, who argue no climate treaty will be effective without the committed participation of developing nations whose emissions levels are growing rapidly. Secondly, none of the traditional paradigms on international cooperation could fully account for why it was absent in negotiations for a climate treaty. A new approach was needed, and one that critically addressed the division between developed and developing nations more directly. Finally, an examination of the north-south impasse from a socio-economic perspective – via world-systems analysis – revealed how climate change was the cost of economic development within the world-economy, and that a country’s world-system position influenced its conceptualisation of climate equity as a result. This illuminated why the equity debate was such a significant impediment to cooperation in climate negotiations.

In the interests of smoothing out the process of negotiating a climate agreement, it isn’t enough to point out the problems though. It is also important to use this information to offer real solutions. Through the world-systems inference that different groups (the core, periphery and semi-periphery) are affected in different ways by unequal ecological exchange, cooperation could be fostered by addressing the needs of each group. Core members, being the most responsible for causing climate change – having already released greenhouse gases as the price of successful development within the capitalist world economy – and most economically and technologically capable to respond to mitigation efforts, should be held accountable accordingly. This is necessary to gain the approval of disadvantaged peripheral economies. However, members of the semi-periphery, whose progress in the world-system relies upon the same carbon-intensive development methods previously utilised by core members, need to significantly reduce emissions levels as well. They will, however, need financial or technological assistance in order to do so without risking their ability to achieve upward mobility in the world-system. Efforts should also be made to facilitate the development of periphery states in the least carbon-intensive way possible as well.

One solution to allay everyone’s concerns is to shift focus on international cooperation towards a low-carbon technological revolution to achieve absolute gains (Mattoo & Subramanian 2010, p. 36). While everyone focuses on sharing the burden of reducing absolute emissions levels, developed countries can lead the way in generating state-of-the-art renewable energies (which they have the ability to do with their higher-skilled labour force and developed technological capacities) while allowing their cheap proliferation into the developing world through amendments of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This can be seen as the compensation they pay for their unequal ecological exchange with the Global South. Transitioning economies can also contribute to technological development through investment and their contribution of raw materials and comparatively cheaper work-force. Net gains would be accessible to everyone, while countries can reach a negotiated compromise on their collective understanding and acceptance of the principles of equity and CBDRRC by reconceptualising collective action as an attempt at redistributing economic growth rather than economic burdens.

Other approaches to reaching a climate agreement based on addressing inequality have also been suggested elsewhere. The Climate Action Network International, a majorly influential NGO within the climate regime, has been advocating for a three-track agreement, with developed countries continuing along a ‘Kyoto-style’ track of legally binding commitments to reduce absolute emissions, rapidly developing countries focusing on ‘greening’ (or decarbonising) their economic growth levels and the poorest nations focused solely on adaptation measures to protect them from the worst impacts of climate change (Climate Action Network 2003). A similar hybrid proposal was recommended by the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, assigning responsibility to nations based on three criteria: their past and present emissions, the carbon-intensity of their economies and their ability to pay (judged by their per capita GDP) (Claussen & McNeilly 1998). The result is the delineation of three different groupings of nations with relative mitigation responsibilities (which would look similar to that portrayed by a world-systems analysis). Additionally, compensation for developing nations is already a fundamental objective of climate negotiations. The Green Development Fund is already a mechanism created to generate such compensation, though its financing has generally been neglected by wealthy economies during the recent financial crisis. A similar approach to equity as that represented in the Montreal Protocol – whereby developing countries are given a grace period to reduce emissions, as well as financial/technological assistance to transition from carbon-intensive development – could also suffice.



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