The north is forcing the south to repeat its mistakes

Poor countries are on a development path to climate disaster, says Gao Feng. But the fault lies in part with the rich nations that benefit from exporting carbon emissions and responsibilities overseas.

[Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative]

Capitalist lifestyles and modes of production dominate our era, which has been characterised by mechanised manufacturing, international trade and colonisation. Developing nations have lost their traditional, pastoral ways of life and joined the quest for materials and resources needed to fuel consumer lifestyles and increasing profits. The end of the cold war marked the defeat of a century-long attempt to find a socialist alternative; the developed nations of the west donned victors’ laurels and declared the end of history.

It was also a victory, however, for the inherent failings and extremes of the capitalist system. Years ago a now-retired senior German official became agitated when I remarked that if the Chinese wanted to combat climate change, his country’s car manufacturers could go home and the Chinese could return to their bicycles. This would not do, he said, the Chinese should keep buying cars, but only drive them once a week. How much petrol would this require, however, even if China’s 1.3 billon citizens only drove once every seven days? And would people then sanctimoniously blame China for plundering oil? In the words of one online song doing the rounds: “When we closed the country, you came with gunships and opium; when we embraced consumerism and free trade, you said we were plundering resources and polluting the environment…”

As David Wheeler, Kevin Ummel and Robin Kraft wrote on chinadialogue in their essay “Another inconvenient truth”, developing countries (“the south”) have followed in the footsteps of developed nations (“the north”) by expanding their exploitation of resources and their energy usage. The south will overtake the north, both in terms of their annual and accumulated greenhouse-gas emissions, somewhere between 2025 and 2030. The population and economic scale of the south – bearing in mind that in 40 years the world’s population may reach 10 billion – means these emissions levels will bring the world ever closer to the danger level for greenhouse-gas emissions. This does not surprise me: growth of this nature is inherent in capitalism, and in some senses this system has been founded and determined by the north.

In the past few decades, the north has restructured its industries and exported polluting and energy-intensive low-end factories to developing nations, while keeping the high added-value work at home. This has brought these countries huge profits, while dumping the need for energy and resources on the south and exporting rich countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions, too. Moreover, these greenhouse gases have not just been relocated, they have increased.

The United Kingdom is an interesting example. The country has seen a significant downturn in its greenhouse-gas emissions, helping to meet the European Union’s climate-change targets in the process. But one of the characteristics of the country’s development has been the relocation overseas of its energy-hungry sectors, and a greater reliance on finance, scientific research, design and education to provide economic growth. This is, of course, a model for developing nations to follow. The Chinese capital Beijing has already done so, with almost every energy-hungry industry relocated. Steel giant Shougang’s smelting operations were moved to neighbouring Hebei province, leaving only their headquarters and electronics manufacturing behind. Consequently, Beijing is the only one of China’s directly-administered cities and provinces to have achieved the national target to reduce energy consumption by 4% every year. But if all developing nations were to follow the example of the UK, we would run into a problem: who would do the manufacturing? The north can move production to the south, but where can the south send it?

The north also has a scientific and technical advantage, which it uses to maintain its competitiveness over the south. Rich countries even go so far as to limit the use of key technologies in the developing world, hindering many years of effort on the part of the United Nations regarding technology transfer. As Wu Changhua observed on chinadialogue, the EU marches under the banner of environmentalism, but is ever more conservative when it comes to issues of technology transfer and international trade. If the south is only entitled to the old technologies that the north is willing to hand over, what choice do they have but to follow in the north’s polluting footsteps?

Perhaps there is another inconvenient truth at work: that the north has forced the south to follow its path. Climate change has forced a consensus that developing nations must find a new, sustainable development model. But what is this road, and how can it be opened for travel?

This path can only be to build energy efficiency and emissions reduction into the process of industrialisation and prevent the locking-in of old technology as far as possible. China’s 17th Party Congress put forward the principles and policy framework for this move. The country’s national climate-change plan set a mandatory 20% reduction of energy consumption per unit GDP by 2010, along with other concrete policy measures. Many other developing nations are putting similar programmes in place or soon will.

But success will not be achieved until the necessary conditions are met. There are two prerequisites for this low-carbon development: first, the north must set an example and cut its own emissions, providing experience that the south can apply. Second, the north must offer genuine assistance by taking the lead in research, technology transfer and investment. This is already reflected in the Bali Action Plan. The agreement that provides the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, which is expected to come from the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, must go beyond the contradictions and failings of capitalism. This task cannot be achieved in one action. However, the Copenhagen meeting must provide a route and a direction to a brighter future.

The shift of low-end industry from north to south has been essential for global economic development and aided the elimination of poverty. But the north should now help the south to deal with issues of energy efficiency and emissions, rather than casting smug accusations after getting the better end of the deal. There is a need to examine international trade mechanisms in order to provide compensation for the energy used in manufacturing, so that developing nations can bear the costs of associated emissions. This item is not in the Bali road map, but it is likely to be on the agenda after Copenhagen.

Northern climate-change policy puts ever more emphasis on emissions cuts in the south, while calling for the south to fall in line with their economic, environmental and social standards and open markets further. This increases the cost of development in the south, suppressing economic growth and making sure the north does not lose its competitiveness. The United States and EU have long considered plans to levy a carbon tax on products imported from developing countries.

To call for the south to emulate northern standards is a superficial solution, which does not cure the problem. Doing so is similar to cheating the voters in an election. If developing countries really emulated the EU, for instance, Europeans would have to spend more for the same products and would not be happy. In any case, some European countries, such as Portugal, Spain, Finland, Greece and Ireland, have still seen their greenhouse-gas emissions rise since 1990. To follow the UK example is not an option for the south as a whole. Even if the south did reach such standards, the climate-change issue would not disappear. The only solution is to concentrate on helping the south achieve a sustainable development path.

Gao Feng is director of the legal department of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat.

Homepage photo by fortes