Elizabeth May: Failings of the Global North

Publication source: McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy

The climate crisis is all about inequality. At its core is the matter of intergenerational equity. Do we, in our time and generation, have the right to deprive our children and grandchildren a liveable world?

It is also about climate justice and injustice within our contemporaries in the family of nations. Though many in the North want to minimize our role, and despite the fact that on an annual basis, China is now the world’s biggest polluter, the wealthy industrialized world still has a larger proportion of responsibility for the crisis.

The build-up of greenhouse gases that has changed the chemistry of the atmosphere is overwhelmingly from the industrialized North. Year on year contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are not as relevant as the emissions as they build up cumulatively. Carbon dioxide is a very long-lived gas in the atmosphere. The tailpipe exhaust from todays’ traffic will be warming the atmosphere for the next one hundred years. So rather than excuse ourselves for the pollution since the Industrial Revolution, the North is comfortable saying “but what about China? India? Brazil?”

But the build-up of GHG in the atmosphere is more like a bank account. Those depositors who have been making substantial deposits for decades have more wealth—i.e. responsibility—than those who came along recently.

The Kyoto Protocol embraced the difficult dynamic that all countries must act, but that the industrialized wealthy countries need to go first. That was how we structured a treaty to save the ozone layer. In 1987 the industrialized world agreed in a binding treaty to reduce ozone-depleting substances by 50% while developing countries were allowed to increase emissions by 15%. That was the birth of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” It worked in the Montreal Protocol. But the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 ran up against an unexpected campaign from the wealthy North. Confronted with the problem that the wealthy industrialized countries had set in motion a threat to planetary survival, other wealthy states decided not to do their part. Actually, that is not entirely true. Only the biggest polluter decided to deny responsibility.

The United States and its fossil fuel lobby settled on the rallying cry against Kyoto of “It’s not fair!” By design, and based on the success of the Montreal Protocol, the first binding emissions reductions for greenhouse gases (GHG) never contemplated asking developing countries to reduce emissions. It was always the plan that Kyoto was a down payment on future actions. The plan was always for Kyoto to be a first step to be followed in its next phase by developing countries taking on targets next time. But with the US and then Canada repudiating Kyoto and allowing emissions to rise, the entire plan surrounding GHG cuts went off the rails. The disaster that was COP15 in Copenhagen revolved around the question of fairness. Having failed to meet the targets negotiated at Kyoto, the USA responded by promising billions in development and adaptation, but nothing concrete on reducing its own emissions.

The climate negotiations in Paris are now based on a much more limited approach than that available to nations in 1987 when we protected the ozone layer. No deadlines are in the treaty, and no enforcement mechanisms through trade sanctions. The rise in globalized corporate power, in particular the creation of the World Trade Organization, has circumscribed national powers to use trade sanctions for environmental treaties.

Can COP21 succeed? Yes. Even with the more limited range of options, a binding treaty is still possible and it can include, and in fact, must include, substantial measures to address the equality issue. Funds must be committed both to the Green Climate Fund, which was launched in Copenhagen by the US with a promise to have $100 billion available every single year to assist the developing South meet the challenge of climate change, as well as to an insurance-like system to help cover “Loss and Damage” occurring in poorer nations due to extreme weather events.

The responsibility to act rests heavily on Canada. We have the means to do so. We still waste more than half the energy we use. We have enormous potential in renewable energy – untapped tidal, solar, wind and geothermal (I do not consider Site C and other massive hydro power as renewable or green).

Canada also has a history of compassion and support for the developing world. With a new government, we must press for real climate action in the context of justice and equity.