Confronting climate colonialism ahead of the Paris summit

by Luisa Abbott Galvao, climate and energy campaigner

When the United Nations convenes the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris this December, stakes will be high. While it will be the 21st such meeting, country delegates at this Conference of Parties will seek to sign an agreement establishing a formal path for global action. Developed countries are undermining this tremendous opportunity by taking a deeply problematic climate mindset to the negotiating table, one that unfairly punishes poor countries for the acts of richer ones. The negotiating table is tilted, and the super storms, heat waves, drought and other climate disruptions will flow to the vulnerable developing world first.

Globally, people often think about climate change as if it were a societal accident, one big human error that we must now all come together to resolve. But this perspective erases the role that global power relations played in bringing about this crisis, a process fraught with inequities and injustice. It also allows those most responsible for the problem to avoid their fair share of the changes that will be needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

While the developed world is largely responsible for climate disruption, it is the developing world that primarily experiences the impacts, and most acutely.

Traffic along LA’s 5 freeway. Transportation makes up nearly a third of the United States’ carbon emissions. Credit: Jeff Turner, Flickr, Creative Commons

This means that as a global society we must operate within the allowances of a limited global “carbon budget.” This budget is the cumulative amount of greenhouse gases that the world can emit between now and the end of the century in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Of the Earth’s known fossil fuel reserves, 80 percent must be kept in the ground if we are to stay within this budget. There is a strong historic correlation between wealth generation and fossil fuel usage, so how this carbon budget is fairly split among nations, in other words — how much each country is allowed to emit — is tremendously important.

The United States and other developed countries have already used a disproportionate share of the world’s atmospheric carbon space through their emissions, leaving the developing world with very little to sustainably fuel their progress. As of 2011, the United States, which accounts for only 5 percent of the global population, was historically responsible for 27 percent of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since measurements were first taken around 1850.

China, which makes up around 20 percent of the global population, was historically responsible for only 11 percent of total global emissions, and India only three percent. All countries have energy needs and a right to develop. However, the U.S. negotiating position is that countries must not follow our own model of development and must stop using fossil fuels in order to address the climate crisis. Yet, we are unwilling to help them with the resources necessary to fuel their progress. That means that our position is to essentially condemn them to the impacts of climate change and poverty.

This appropriation of carbon space for the enrichment of some and the impoverishment of others is a new form of colonialism: climate colonialism. How we as a global community can actually achieve a fair and ambitious agreement in Paris is a hugely contentious and protracted debate. Emissions reductions pledges are complex as negotiators try to reconcile historical responsibility — meaning stronger commitments from the United States — with current, proportional emissions.

In 2007, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Stakeholders, such as the U.S. State Department, try to shift the onus of responsibility for climate action onto emerging polluters like China. However, while countries like China and India are significant recent polluters, it is important to acknowledge that they are lesser contributors historically, and this matters because carbon accumulates in the atmosphere for decades, it does not just dissipate over time. Additionally, the per capita emissions of China and India — with their large populations — are low when compared to those of developed countries. A disproportionate share of the population in developing countries live in utter destitution, and the capacity of their governments to address the climate crisis are much less than that of the United States and other developed countries.

The debate boils down to a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change principle known as “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” In other words, the whole world has a stake in addressing climate change, but some nations are more responsible than others and thus must bear a larger responsibility for solving it.

Protesters in the streets in during the 2009 Copenhagen COP. Credit: Mat McDermott, Flickr, Creative Commons

The prior international climate negotiations have built up to the agreement sought in Paris, where an architecture of accountability will be established. Under this agreed-upon system, countries voluntarily submit climate commitments and the world holds them accountable to meeting them — most likely through public shaming. Countries have already begun submitting their commitments ahead of the upcoming negotiations.

Unfortunately, this structure will be insufficient if it does not contain rigorous and binding targets to hold countries accountable to, as well as adequate climate finance to help the developing world progress on a different pathway. President Obama has committed the United States to reducing emissions by 26–28 percent below 2005 levels, by 2025.

This is woefully low. Compared to 1990 emissions levels, the predominant international standard for comparison, it is a 14–17 percent reduction. A recent calculation from the Stockholm Environment Institute for Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development found that a fair commitment from the United States would require the country to reduce its emissions by 55–65 percent below 1990 levels, by 2025 and — because the United States cannot possibly reduce enough within its borders to satisfy its fair share — to additionally contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to help other countries transition to clean energy and curb their own emissions.

Taken collectively, the voluntary country commitments already announced make it clear that total pledges will not be rigorous enough to satisfy the goal of the climate convention: to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. They are certainly not close to a 1.5 C limit, a level which will already create devastating impacts. As greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere with every passing day, rich country delegates have justified this shortfall by promising to return to the negotiating table to “ratchet up” commitments. This is immoral and scientifically unsound. As the world’s largest historic polluter, the United States’ commitment must be significantly improved by the time of the Paris negotiations, not years from now. This commitment must be binding, and premised on science and justice. It must show leadership and signal to other countries that we are serious about doing our fair share. As it stands, it is based on only on political inertia.

This is climate colonialism in action.

The uneven negotiating table has led to only weak commitments, a promise of delayed action and a lack of support for less developed, more vulnerable countries. Instead of shirking its responsibility and exporting climate action, the United States must step up and lead the world to a meaningful agreement.

This article originally appeared in the Friends of the Earth summer 2015 newsmagazine. Full magazine is available at

Friends of the Earth Newsmagazine

Every quarter, Friends of the Earth publishes a print…

Friends of the Earth

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Friends of the Earth U.S. defends the environment and champions a healthy and just world.

Friends of the Earth Newsmagazine

Every quarter, Friends of the Earth publishes a print newsmagazine for its members. Some of the articles are featured here.

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