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Premier league polluters: The arrogance of demanding that the developing world shoulder the burden of First World climate negligence

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Kim Polley is a reputation resilience strategist who works across sectors from agriculture, energy and financial services to FMCG, ICT and public administration. Her core regions of focus are SADC, EAC and Ecowas.

The developed world has been responsible for much of the environmental fallout of the past century. It has industrialised on the back of coal and built its own economies at the cost of the planet. Now it is telling emerging markets that they must carry the burden of First World negligence too.

With the second week of COP26 nearly behind us, and many, many calls to action and exploitation of public paranoia, the world still waits with bated breath to see the final outcomes of this global climate change gathering. However, what is becoming clear within all this noise, is that the developed world is leading the share of voice (again) and expecting emerging markets to follow along quietly and “do what’s good for them”.

This is rich when you consider that it’s the developed world that has been responsible for much of the environmental fallout of the past century. It has industrialised on the back of coal and built its own economies at the cost of the planet. Now it is telling emerging markets that they must carry the burden of First World negligence too. This is in no way fair, or indicative of a just transition. 

The developing world should not let itself be bullied into developed world commitments or timelines. We need a climate change approach that considers and respects our social and economic realities.

What’s the real agenda?

The developing world must have the same opportunities to advance and achieve social and economic resilience, without carrying the punitive costs of countries that benefited from unfettered industrialisation. 

Furthermore, to the more cynical among us, it may appear that COP26 and the climate change agenda is being used to force commitments from overburdened emerging markets that may in fact limit their opportunities for economic recovery post-Covid-19 — and conveniently ensure the continuation of First World ascendancy.

Surely there should be an approach to climate change mitigation that recognises the need to secure social development for emerging markets first? After all, societies and communities that are more prosperous take better care of their planet. They don’t need to cut down trees for light, cooking and warmth. Nor are they pushed to over-farm or over-fish their resources. They have the ability to look beyond day-to-day survival and become better stewards of their environments. Some may say that this is overly simplistic. After all, it’s the heavy emitters we need to address, and they are generally large companies or state-owned entities.

This is true, but so too is the need to uplift societies and provide inclusive opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in the economy. When there is neither energy nor food security, this becomes almost impossible. Developing world governments understand this, and they also understand that currently, it may mean they make some tough choices about what they sign up to. 

A coal-free, net zero future is the goal, yes, but it is simply not possible currently when there are more urgent challenges to deal with first.

Keeping us in the dark… literally

We all know Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In terms of the global climate change agenda and the First World’s urgency to ensure that every country signs up to a costly and prescriptive set of commitments at COP26, it begs the question of why only now? 

The impacts of climate change on our planet have been studied in detail since Nasa launched its first weather satellite (Tiros) in 1960 — and it is generally acknowledged that this was when we first realised how fast it was happening. Over the decades, the data has been the strict preserve of the First World, and sharing it has only become a priority once the developing world became less of an offset opportunity due to its own desire to industrialise and modernise.

Perhaps emerging markets were kept in the dark to ensure global economic powerhouses had somewhere to go to clean their carbon laundry. It seems that knowledge was deployed for competitive advantage. After all, keeping schtum ensured the First World’s continued ability to pollute without real ramifications, thereby maintaining economic dominance.

A just and pragmatic transition is key

In the last few days at COP26, the phrase “just transition” has been kicked around like the proverbial football. It seems that some claim it is merely a “fig leaf” to cover up Third World inaction. However, the key is in defining what a just transition is, and in understanding that it is not a reluctance to change, but rather an insistence that as things change, citizens are not left behind. Shutting down thermal power stations — while certainly a long-term goal — cannot be done overnight without putting lives and livelihoods at risk.

And I don’t mean in the way it does for countries with a social system to fall back on, or deep government pockets that have ensured there is a stable, reliable electricity grid that can take the kind of up- and down-time activity that still plagues renewable solutions. 

Emerging markets need time to build up their nations, improve infrastructure, combat unemployment, achieve food security and secure a sustainable economy. Most cannot afford to do even half of this list right now, and expecting them to sign up to additional COP26 commitments is not only unrealistic, it’s also unreasonably arrogant.

And believe me, I think it’s great that a number of First World governments are making commitments at COP26 to provide emerging markets with funding to help them meet their Paris Agreement goals. However, it shouldn’t be used to feed their saviour complexes or see them receive a shower of accolades. The First World is a premier league polluter that has escaped unscathed for decades. It makes sense therefore that this is where the burden for funding climate change mitigation around the globe should lie. 

In short, when I saw the developing world push back this week, I couldn’t help but smile. It brought to mind that rousing chorus by 80s heavy metal band, Twisted Sister: “We’re not gonna take it. Oh no, we ain’t gonna take it. We’re not going to take it anymore!”

So, let’s place the responsibility where it should be. I know you aren’t used to it, First World, but it’s time to step up and be accountable. Amandla! DM

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