Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.’

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Alien views
    The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of th...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…


A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…


Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…


Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…


Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…


The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…


Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…


With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…


Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…


The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…


Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…


Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…


As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…


Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…


The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…


Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away


Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…


Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…


A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…


The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…