Has the World Really Changed? (December 30, 2015)

Republished from Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development

Several governments have been arguing that we are living in a different world where historical inequalities between countries are disappearing. They suggest that the principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ needs to be reviewed with actions and finance not based on historical responsibility (or climate debt) but focused on action from countries ‘in a position to do so.’

But has the world really changed and has the historical debt been paid?

A deep divide between wealthy countries and developing countries persists. The wealth of rich countries has been at the material and ecological expense of the majority of the world. The principle of CBDR derives from the international legal principle of solidarity that underpins the UN Charter and, consequently, all intergovernmental processes.

Calls for ‘climate justice’ are empty without acknowledging that justice requires a remedy, justice is delivered when reparations are provided, justice is essentially about accountability.

  • CBDR remains relevant, because of the ‘historical responsibility’ for the state of the current world. In the climate negotiations, historical responsibility specifically relates to the depletion of the world’s resources and the environment and the generation of emissions that bring us to the brink of extinction.

–              72% of historical emissions come from the US, EU, Japan, Russia and Canada whereas they represent less than 1/5th of the world’s population (about 19%).

–              While historical emissions are the most important reference for emissions, per capita emissions right now are on average 12 times higher in the USA than India, 42 times greater than Bangladesh and 170 times more than Rwanda.

  • CBDR remains relevant because, despite repeated commitments to the principle of international solidarity as a founding principle of the UN, inequalities of wealth, resources and power between countries remain.

–              1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty account for just 1% of global consumption while the richest 1 billion consume a staggering 72%.

–              Wealth inequality has increased since 2008, with the top percentile of wealth holders now owning 50.4% of all household wealth. In 1988 the top 10% controlled 51.5% of global income. Just 67 people own more wealth than half of the world’s population.

–              In the last few years China’s growth has resulted in a growth in middle income but this hasn’t affected inequality between the richest states and the poorest. When China’s growth is excluded, the “bipolar world of two highly differentiated clusters persists largely unchanged.”

–              In the years preceding the financial crisis the poorest 60% of the world received a mere 5% of income generated by global GDP growth, while the richest 40% received a staggering 95%.

–              In 2010 high income countries, accounting for only 16% of the world’s population were estimated to generate 55% of global income. Low income countries created just above one per cent of global income even though they contain 72% of global population.

  • Third, CBDR remains relevant because the right to development will be denied to the majority of the world’s population unless developed countries drastically reduce their emissions and provide the corresponding finances.
  • Without drastic changes to current economic systems climate change will drive at least an additional 100 million people in the global south into poverty and increase inequality between countries. Scientists researching the differential geographic impacts of climate change suggest that “global warming is essentially a massive transfer of value from the hot parts of the world to the cooler parts of the world”.
  • Current wealth accumulation and distribution patterns would require consumption to increase 175 times to ensure all people lived on $5 per day: a pattern that would clearly result in extinction long before poverty eradication.

But aren’t developed countries running out of money?

Vast wealth remains in the hands of wealthy countries even though there has been a large transfer from the state to the private sector and from the middle and low income brackets to the wealthiest. Climate finance could come from the taxing the highest 1% of emitters. A tax on high emitters of between 5 – 10% would provide at least $150 billion per annum.

Funds can also be derived from harmful industries. 80% of GHG emissions are caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the subsidies to this sector accounts for USD $5.3 trillion a year including the cost of externalities. Re-directing these subsidies in developed countries toward energy democracy, prioritising women and the poor could anchor a transformative shift.

At least $21 trillion dollars is hidden in offshore tax havens. Taxing these funds at the low rate of 30%, the lowest end of advisable corporate tax regimes, would unlock $7 trillion

Global military spending amounts to $1.78 trillion a year and it makes sizable contributions to GHG emissions. A glaring emission in the current global emissions calculations is the exclusion of military emissions. The US military is the single largest consumer of oil – redirecting 10% of military finding to climate funding would certainly help vulnerable countries to resist to climate disasters and to shift their energy system to renewable.