Divide Between Rich and Poor Countries Presents Challenges for Paris Climate Talks

Aligning economic development and climate change mitigation strategies remains a challenge at Paris Climate Talks

Gita Subramony for Zondits, December 14, 2015. Image credit: www.wfs.org

The Paris Climate Talks began over a week ago with the atmosphere rich with the spirit of negotiation. The future of the planet is at stake here. If emissions go unchecked, global climate change has the potential to devastate society as we know it by causing extreme weather events and other natural disasters and disrupting our water and food supplies. Climate change is already making is presence felt: the World Health Organization attributes more than 140,000 deaths annually to the effects of climate change. In addition, global warming has the potential to severely limit the world economy.

Climate talks began in the 1990s with the Kyoto Protocol. However, without the US on board the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to reduce emissions by 5% below 1990 levels, pretty much died on the vine. Subsequent climate talks also failed to result in progress.

Now many countries, both industrialized and developing, are coming together again to address this pressing issue. The goal of the talks is to hammer out details on each country’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and create some framework to hold countries to their commitments. Not surprisingly, this is not an easy task. Reaching an agreement that addresses 200 countries is certainly not without its issues.

One central issue that has been highlighted in the talks is the tension between increased energy usage required to expand economies and lift populations out of poverty and the dire need to reduce emissions for the sake of the planet’s future. Another question that arises is this: Should richer countries with industrialized economies pledge more aggressive reductions since they are responsible for more of the emissions in the past?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has indicated that India’s greenhouse gas emissions will definitely grow in upcoming years. Many Indians don’t currently have access to electricity and those that do are often plagued by blackouts and service interruptions. With poverty widespread in India, the country is seeking to grow its economy and increase living standards for its population, and power will be essential, with cheap power generated by coal the most appealing for these goals. Though India is not opposed to renewable energy, the densely populated country will have a difficult time industrializing without increasing emissions. Does India have to sacrifice its economic gains in order to contribute to solutions for climate change?

Modi has called on the US to assist India with implementing renewable generation sources through financing these types of projects, but that might be difficult to achieve, too. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has indicated that House Republicans do not think that spending taxpayer money on climate agreements is worth it. With more than 56% of congressional Republicans in the climate change denial camp, it will likely be an uphill battle to allocate funding for another country to implement clean energy technologies. In fact, many states in the US lag behind with generating clean energy, and many politicians denounced the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants in the US. Without a consensus in the halls of government on domestic climate change mitigation, it’s hard to imagine the US incorporating it into foreign policy.

Does that mean that the world is doomed or that developing nations are out of luck? Maybe not. Increasingly, technological innovation is helping us commercialize more efficient equipment, meaning that we are using less energy to drive greater economic gains. In addition, places like India might also benefit by developing their own clean energy economies that can implement microgrids or other clean energy technologies that provide reliable power. Private industry could also play a large role in developing global economies while reducing energy needs. Though aligning economic growth with climate change mitigation strategies will be an ever-present challenge beyond the climate talks, innovative solutions exist both domestically and internationally.