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Unfair air: the inequity of climate change

A large coal loading belt in New South Wales, Australia A large coal loading belt in New South Wales, Australia cbpix
12 Feb
Developed countries are exporting unfair proportions of greenhouse gases to vulnerable, less-developed countries

Climate change has no borders. While fossil fuels are gathered up and kept close by nations, the greenhouse gases they produce are disowned and free to intermix with in the international climate. Most emissions are the by-products of developed countries, who are generally safer from their impacts than less-developed countries. New research has quantified the full extent of the inequity between vulnerability and emissions.

‘The latest data shows that around four per cent of the world’s nations are generating over 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,’ says Dr Glenn Althor, researcher at the University of Queensland and lead author of the study. ‘This is a critical issue as the impact on the Earth’s climate from these emissions is felt by all nations, but on a disproportionate level.’

Screen shot 2016 02 12 at 14.27.38Climate change equity for 2010 (a) and projected for 2030 (b). Least vulnerable and most emitting ‘free riders’ are shown in red and most vulnerable and least emitting ‘forced riders’ are shown in dark green (Image: Althor et al)

The study found that a staggering 20 of the 36 highest emitting countries – such as the US, UK, Canada, and Australia – are among the least vulnerable to climate change’s impacts. Like filling up the swimming pool from the safety of the shallow end, these ‘free riders’ are relatively safer from climate change than their less polluting neighbours.

Meanwhile, 11 of the 17 countries with low or moderate greenhouse gas emissions are acutely vulnerable. ‘This is clearly unfair,’ says Althor. These ‘forced riders’ – such as such as the African nation of Gambia and the island of Vanuatu – are more at risk from climate threats such as flooding, drought and sea level rise.

As far back as 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has acknowledged the inequity of emissions and the burden of climate change with the commitment to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. It is the same principle that applies to countries such as India, which was given leeway to increase fossil fuel usage in order to develop its economy. It also implies that already developed countries have more responsibility to reduce emissions sooner, having benefited from fossil fuels for so long. However, according to the study, a poor understanding of the scale of global inequity in emissions and impacts prevents the developed world from fulfilling that responsibility.

The authors urge the policy makers to redress the balance, saying: ‘It is time that this persistent and worsening climate inequity is resolved, and for the largest emitting countries to act on their commitment of common but differentiated responsibilities.’

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