Combating climate change via a just transition

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The global climate summit, COP 26, will discuss climate gas reduction and climate financing. But who carries most responsibility as countries get started at a green transition?  What should we demand from both the global north and the global south? And could nature-based solutions be sped up? These are interesting questions to be addressed as we soon team up in one of the British Empire’s main industrial cities, Glasgow. And the former Empire has much to explain.


Rich countries have a huge responsibility of steering towards a quick green transition. Historically speaking, their debt to the global south is huge. The industrial revolution led to winners and losers. And the winners filled the atmosphere with dangerous climate gasses. These gases jeopardize the future of the global south. They lose again.

This puts today’s strong southern nation states, like India and China, in a double bind. They have an obligation to combat climate change, not least regarding their own population, who are craving for an environmentally sound society. At the same time, their citizens demand a lifestyle more akin to what they see in the West. Cooperation via the UN system is the only way forward, and the conference of the parties, COP 26, taking place in Glasgow during the first two weeks of November is a decisive meeting place. In the book, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable, (2016) the Indian author Amitav Ghosh analyzes how the industrial revolution from the 1780s and onwards gave us winners and losers. The industrial use of coal led to the construction of steamships. The major colonial power growing out of this new revolution was Great Britain, and they hindered the global south from industrializing. What was to become their largest colony, India, lost opportunities for shipbuilding through strict British protectionist rules. The British coal industry, investors, and politicians craved for control, and they got it.


The Empire with total control

The British Empire had power. A glaring example of this is the so-called Opium War of 1839 – 42, in which it became possible for Britain, with its new-fashioned steam-powered warships, to force China to import opium. It did not help that the Chinese emperor wrote to Queen Victoria, wondering if she would have allowed her countrymen to be subjected to such an addiction. She never answered. This is part of the historical carbon economy that few people know about.

The Chinese had large coal reserves, too. They used oil and gas in the household before the West did. However, they did not start with industrialization in the same way as the British, which had water resources and rivers with enough motion to be able to build water-driven mills that powered the first part of the country’s industrialization in textile production. But it was first and foremost in ancient Burma (present-day Myanmar) that oil was discovered in earnest in the 19th century. But the resource was at the time basically used in lamps. The British invaded the country in 1885 and took over the oil, and the Burmese never had the chance of developing the product in any industrial way.

What would have happened if China and Burma had continued to use their own national resources and developed it for industry, learning techniques from abroad? We will not know because they did not seize the opportunity before the British came.

Since neither China nor Burma started oil production above a certain quantity, most oil historians set the starting date for what we might call the oil adventure to August 28, 1859. This is when Colonel Edwin L. Drake started up Oil Creek in the town of Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Norway detected oil in her territorial waters around a hundred years later and has not looked back since. The Norwegians have put a fair amount of their oil revenues into a “closed” bank account, making this the world’s largest sovereign pension fund today. Few countries have used their resources better.


The carbon economy held down the south

Amitav Ghosh challenges us when he wonders if the climate crisis could have started earlier if decolonization had happened faster, for instance after the First World War instead of in the 1960s. An earlier decolonization would have given us a stronger and more powerful industrial Asian development, he concludes. With the imperialists’ trade monopoly, the climate crisis was postponed for many years.

Ghosh’s conclusion is interesting. And against such a backdrop, the positions of both China and India during the climate negotiations throughout the years are very understandable. They want room to industrialize, now. At last. They want the same development that the West had, and which they themselves were denied. In other words, they have a lot to catch up on, as they never benefited from the increased prosperity that industrialization brought. As Ghosh claims, the carbon economy was complicit in keeping many southern countries in an iron grip and thus remaining “underdeveloped.”

Therefore, it is no wonder that Indian and Chinese economists are just as enthusiastic growth advocates as any speculator and analyst on Wall Street or in the City of London. Both India and China have become more nationalistic, and internally violent, while growing economically. There are relatively few contrarian voices, despite both nations having important Confucian, Buddhist, and Hindu anti-materialist cultural roots. We must go far back in history to find objections, namely to the great national hero Gandhi. And he is largely forgotten in today’s India, writes Ghosh. In 1928, Gandhi said:

«God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. (…) If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. »

At that time, there were 300 million Indians. Today, 90 years later, there are another billion. And the nation is growing. And they want a car, a refrigerator, and air conditioning. And much more. Just like us. This will be felt as we measure average temperature rise in the years to come, as the economically potent Asia is also a “population-heavy” continent. A country’s total emissions of climate gasses can be measured, and then broken down on an individual level. This gives us a useful tool for setting national emission cut targets, and for comparing countries.

China became the world’s largest CO2 polluter as early as 2006. The country has had an adventurous growth and has (according to figures from the World Bank and the EU) gone from emissions in 1960 of 0.3 tons per person to 7.7 tons in 2017. Corresponding figures for India are from 0.3 to 1.8; for Norway 3.7 to 8.8, for Great Britain from 11.2 to 5.7; and for the United States from 16 to 15.7.


The Western growth model

The modern climate crisis has accelerated since 1980 and was primarily created by a Western growth model. This model is now imitated by everyone, with local variations. But this (eternal) growth and modernization could, as we have discussed, have taken place in other nations in the past too, had the historical circumstances facilitated it. Today’s climate crisis is, with such a perspective, an unintended consequence of being human. It is about our inexhaustible creative power, for better or worse. Everything we have done, and everything we do, contributes. We contributed to the extinction of the megafauna as we expanded north and west before the invention of agriculture, and then we cut down the European forests to get more agricultural land, and we contributed to greenhouse gas emissions when we started moving around Asia’s wetlands and became rice growers. Then came coal and oil and the modern transport and production system. The modern climate crisis is about the totality of all human activities over time.

In an international solidarity perspective, where humanity is in the same boat, those who first reaped the fruits of modernity and industrialism must therefore contribute the most to global equity. This principle was crucial for the success of a climate convention, drawn up during the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The convention’s most central concept is almost like a biblical commandment, in which it states that all parties have “common but differentiated responsibilities.”


Climate financing important

Climate finance flowing north to south has therefore proven to be one of the important pillars for creating action and building trust between the rich north and the poorer south. It is important that the process becomes transparent, inclusive, and predictable. Through the Paris Agreement, a goal was set for rich, industrialized countries to contribute USD 100 billion each year from 2020 to developing countries. Unfortunately, it was not specified that the money should be in the form of aid. Therefore, more than 50 percent of climate financing is now given as loans. This must be addressed during the Glasgow summit.

According to the UN Climate Panel, climate emissions must be cut by about 45 percent by 2030 to avoid global warming of over 1.5 degrees. The Paris Agreement is based on countries gradually strengthening and following up on their national emission reduction targets. As of 13 September 2021, 112 countries (including the 27 EU countries) have registered new targets. Several large emitting countries have reported or announced higher targets (including Argentina, the EU, China, Japan, South Africa, Canada, and the US), while other large emitting countries have not raised their ambitions (including Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Russia).

At the same time, many countries, including Norway, have subsidized fossil energy through the Covid 19 pandemic rescue packages, which has provided more oil and gas fields with a lifespan far beyond the countries’ reported targets for emission reductions. Several reports, including UN Environment’s “Production gap report 2020” and the IEA’s “Net Zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector”, show that this will further weaken the possibility of achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals. The time for subsidizing the oil business must be over and that should also be Norway’s policy. How on earth do we expect the global south to invest in green solutions if we, having profited from oil and gas, don’t show global leadership?


Nature-based solutions

The role of nature in combating climate change and limiting damage was recognized at COP 25 from Madrid in 2019. Nature provides us with a variety of services and benefits. These ecosystem services include climate regulation, flood mitigation, water and air purification, extreme weather protection, and soil stabilization. Conservation of natural areas and biodiversity therefore has an important function as nature-based climate adaptation and climate measures, in addition to protecting the environment.

In countries in the South, where nature will increasingly be damaged by extreme weather, nature conservation is also very important for welfare, the economy, and food security. In this context, it is important that the global north does not contribute to the destruction of important ecosystems through imports, such as the purchase of rainforest timber. Nature-based solutions is of importance for both northern and southern countries.


The past, the present and the future

We started this essay by stating that rich countries have a huge responsibility of steering towards a quick green transition. We have shown how, historically speaking, their debt to the global south is huge. A different historical trajectory might have seen the global south industrialize much earlier. That would have given more wealth and prosperity to the south. But maybe it would have led to an even more destructive climate reality even earlier?

Or: Probably a more just and equitable world would have addressed these environmental issues much earlier and in a stronger manner? I think so, but we will never know. Be that as it may, both the north and the south must now cooperate in the major green transition. And the north must be willing to pay up. And the south must be willing to submit to certain rules, regulations, and transparent schemes to show that the money they receive is spent as was planned. Glasgow and the COP26 must deliver on this and many more issues.

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