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The Green Divide: How Climate Legislation Widens the Gap Between Developed and Developing Countries

The global climate crisis is an issue that cannot be addressed by unilateral action and conversely requires a coordinated international effort. However, the imposition of climate change legislation by developed countries on developing nations raises concerns about the feasibility and fairness of such standards. The current standards set by climate conferences push unfair responsibility onto developing countries without consideration of their state of growth. This disparity threatens to hinder the developmental trajectory of those less economically advanced countries, prompting a call for a more equitable approach to global climate policy.  


The Paris Agreement, signed by 196 parties at the COP21 (Climate Change Conference 21) in Paris in 2015, exemplifies the global commitment to fighting climate change. Its goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, sets a high bar for member countries. However, the ambitious nature of these targets, coupled with the varying capabilities of countries to meet them, defines the challenge at hand. 


For example, the U.S., a developed country, has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030. This target is ambitious but is set within a context where the U.S. has already undergone extensive industrialisation and economic development, affording it the technological and financial capability to transition to a low-carbon economy with relatively less impact on its overall development trajectory.


Comparatively, Nigeria, a developing country with an economy heavily reliant on fossil fuels, has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% unconditionally and up to 45% with the help of foreign aid by 2030 compared to current emissions (note that the base year used for these two countries is significantly different, thus the difference in reduction percentage is more similar than it may seem). While this commitment is reflective of Nigeria’s support for global climate action, it places a significant burden on its economy. It impedes its developmental goals, which in turn undermines the country’s need for substantial economic growth to improve living standards. The conditional aspect of Nigeria’s target also highlights its dependency on international support, which is not always guaranteed or sufficient, to achieve these more aggressive reduction goals.


Equally, it must be taken into account that the top five emitters (China, the U.S., India, the EU and Russia) accounted for about 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, while the least developed countries account for about 3.8 per cent of global emissions. These statistics are yet another sign that the responsibility for emission reduction should fall upon highly developed countries, which produce the majority of problematic emissions. 


Further, the disparity between the developed and developing nations in terms of economic and industrial capabilities significantly affects their ability to comply with stringent environmental legislation. For instance, developed nations like the U.S. have the financial and technological resources to invest in renewable energy sources, whereas many developing countries are still grappling with basic infrastructure and energy access issues. This imbalance underscores the inequity of imposing uniform standards across such diverse contexts. 


These uniform climate change standards create a myriad of challenges for developing countries, such as economic constraints and infrastructural deficits. Many African nations, for example, struggle with energy access, relying heavily on fossil fuels due to the lack of affordable alternatives. While the transition to renewable energy is necessary, it requires substantial investment in technology and infrastructure that these countries often cannot afford without international aid. 


According to the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook 2022, around 600 million people (which comprises about 43 per cent of Africa’s total population), lack access to electricity, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, the World Bank’s June 2021 Report indicates that despite global progress in energy access, the number of people without electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased. Additionally, the UN Secretary-General has highlighted that Africa, despite contributing the least to the climate crisis, faces significant challenges in meeting global standards without the help of international aid, and has received only two per cent of global investment in renewable energy over the past decade. As per these reports, this is not an issue that can be internally addressed, but would rather require external investment (of a suggested 25 billion USD a year, or three trillion USD by 2030) to overcome. However, the global stage, dominated by the most developed countries with the highest emissions, continues to ignore proposals for aid and maintain unrealistic emissions reduction standards across the board. 


Looking into the past, the Industrial Revolution in countries like Britain and the U.S. delivered substantial environmental degradation. This is ironic given the current expectations imposed on developing countries to pursue economic growth without replicating the environmental impacts their developed counterparts once did. 


The disparities in climate legislation bring to the forefront the critical issue of climate injustice. Climate injustice refers to the unequal distribution of the effects of climate change and the disparate capabilities of nations to respond to them. This injustice is most starkly observed in the disproportionate impact that climate change has on developing countries, which are least responsible for the carbon emissions that drive global warming. These nations, often already grappling with challenges such as poverty, limited access to clean water and food insecurity, face the added burden of climate change impacts like extreme weather events, sea-level rise and agricultural disruption.


In seeking a more balanced approach to climate change action, it is primarily essential to create consistent structures of technology transfer and financial aid from developed to developing nations. Developed nations, who are generally responsible for historically contributing the majority of problematic emissions, should bear the brunt of reparative actions. This includes more than just pledging to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions: these countries have a moral obligation to assist those nations that are now disproportionately affected by the consequences of historic emissions. Developed countries––like the U.S.––should be pushed to provide generous aid to developing countries to help those countries reduce harmful emissions and continue economic advancement.  


There are examples of these efforts, such as the Green Climate Fund, committed to supporting developing countries in the adoption of sustainable practices. However, third-party action is not sufficient to solve a problem of this magnitude. Summits like the United Nations COPs must result in greater efforts from leading powers to take on aid programs to support the sustainable growth of the developing world. 


Though on a smaller scale than a COP agreement, there have been notable successes of international support facilitating significant advancements in sustainable development within developing countries. One of these is Morocco’s Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex, one of the world’s largest solar power projects. The project owes much of its success to receiving substantial international funding through grants and loans, including contributions from the European Commission and the World Bank. The Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex is an apt case study as to why international funding towards sustainability projects beyond national borders is so necessary. It underscores the importance of financially aiding developing nations to fight the ever-growing tide of climate change without undermining the development of these nations. 


In conclusion, the imperative to address the global climate crisis must be balanced with the need for equitable policies that consider the varying capacities and developmental stages of nations. It is equally essential to identify and hold accountable the principal entities responsible for the bulk of the climate crisis and ensure that they contribute most significantly towards reparations and solutions. Addressing climate change is not only about reducing emissions but also about ensuring equitable outcomes for all nations, particularly those that are most vulnerable. Thus, by cultivating a more collaborative international framework that supports the individual needs of developing countries, it is possible to pursue a path of sustainable development that does not stifle progress in the developing world. This approach calls for a reevaluation of how climate standards are set and supported, ensuring that the fight against climate change is both inclusive and effective. 

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