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This is not a climate change negotiation

December 11, 2009

This is not a chair.

In my first year of high school I had an English teacher who, rather outrageously, insisted we simply call him John. John had spiky bleach blond hair, earrings in both ears and a conspiratorial grin. One stifling hot afternoon, much to the entertainment of myself and 29 other 7th graders, John stood at the front of the class and declared that the chair in front of him was not, in fact, a chair at all.

Well it, whatever ‘it’ was, certainly looked like a chair to us. But, captivated, we listened on intently as he proceeded to enlighten us with the idea that the object in question was only ‘a chair’ because we as a society had agreed to call it a chair. 

That’s mind boggling stuff for a 13 year old.

Yet taking the imposed frameworks of the universe for granted, is not limited to spotty, teenage, delinquents. For all our superior human intellect, even the cleverest of us occasionally demonstrate a tendency to accept what is put in front of us, without critically considering its validity. Now, there are of course, a plethora of examples of this phenomenon that I could use to be witty and provocative about. But, on the very, very, slight chance you are not completely bored to tears with all things Danish I thought I would freestyle it on the poor Raggedy Anne dolls which are developing countries in the climate change negotiations. 

The narrative that is repeated ad nauseum by all and sundry, throughout negotiations and stretching back to Kyoto and beyond, is that developing countries need to be allowed to increase their carbon emissions so they can continue the industrialisation path of development. Developed countries spout it, developing countries seethe it and apart from the Ewz country of the week Tuvalu, there is almost complete agreement on the point. And this is great, really fantastic, except for one teeny weenie, itsy bitsy, almost entirely inconsequential question I feel obliged to ask. What development exactly is it, which you would be speaking of?

It is a commonly acknowledged fact that a country in possession of a large amount of poverty must be in need of a great big fat developed country to come in and screw it over, under the pretext of ‘development’. This is exactly what’s been happening since the colonial project was kicked to the curb. Modernisation theory was a lie, Walt Rostow was a bigger story teller than Walt Disney; dependency theorists never managed to lift their gazes from their navels for long enough to do anything useful; and even the demi gods Sachs, Sen and Stiglitz have always found it difficult to achieve anything meaningful as they wallow in their own smugness.     

Aside from a few Asian Tigers, and the erratic BRIC, all of whom blatantly ignored established protocol, there has been the most spectacular lack of development in developing countries in the last half a century. So far, so boring. But, why does the climate change paradigm suddenly make us forget all of this? Why do we suddenly start holding this status quo up as the golden brick road for developing countries? At the very least if developed countries seem to actually have developing countries best interests at heart, shouldn’t we be very, very, suspicious?

For example, just maybe, could it actually be in the best interests of developed countries to keep developing countries away from sustainable low carbon economic strategies and technical innovations?

In other words, is the idea that moving to low carbon economies is a burden for developing countries, actually not a chair at all, but just what have agreed to call a chair?

Even as a wannabe hippy I am the first to agree that there are massive complexities, nay burdens even, in moving a country like America over to a low carbon economy. Entrenched oil interests don’t segue into pretty little wind farms painlessly. But, it doesn’t automatically follow that it should be the same for developing countries. Not to belittle say, Botswana, but not quite so many entrenched interests, not quite so many cashed up, hell bent, lobbyists, if you want to build a carbon neutral economy there.

Developing countries don’t have the same opportunity costs that the developed do. They are, in many cases, blank slates where new technology can be introduced without having to battle to oust old technologies. Underdevelopment suddenly stops being a drag, and starts being a head start. And the debate over the difficulties and expenses of aid and technology transfer has only obscured the long history of technology transfer between developed and developing countries and the role aid has in propagating carbon intensive industry. Least developed countries have never been in anymore of a position to build coal burning power stations than they are to build fields of solar panels. So why not simply skip the coal station and head straight for the shiny renewable? Why waste your breath arguing about whether you should or shouldnt have carbon limits, and just start demanding the good stuff?

Why not indeed?

Developing countries, if they have developed at all, have done so at the behest of their evil overlords, mostly in the interest of creating markets for developed country products, not for their own good. So consider for a moment the implications of a developing country forgoing imported oil because it is self sufficient in renewable energy. Consider the implications of all of their industry being equipped with the most efficient technology available. What happened to the albatross around their neck that was their crippling debt? What happened to their second rate economy and being the door mat to your dirty developed country boots? What happened to our nice little status quo?

Critiques of traditional development theory have long posited that the conditions no longer exist for developing countries to follow the same path developed countries took. So why does climate change suddenly make us argue for the right to keep to trying? The advantages are clear for developed countries, they get to dominate the new technology and cement their primacy for another century, while still being able to outsource the really dirty stuff elsewhere. But why are developing countries wasting so much energy demanding the right to continue along this futile path of dirty, inefficient, unsustainable, technology? It’s like demanding a betamax in a DVD era.

For better or worse, as a global society we have agreed to call concrete and steel and plastic and chopped down trees and dug up mines, success. But the irony is, development has not helped developing countries achieve anything like this. If we stopped for a moment to really consider the consequences of low carbon strategies we might find that rather than a burden they represent viable alternatives for developing countries to finally reduce poverty in a meaningful way. And maybe not just catch up with developed countries but to spectacularly leapfrog their way to the front of the race.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. snugglebus permalink*
    December 11, 2009 4:16 pm

    damn it stop being so stimulating!

    BUT…some issues.

    ‘developing countries’ as a group (e.g. the G77) are not a not a meangingful group. china has a very different set of interests to botswana for example at this stage. this opposition between countries developed : developing, isn’t especially telling at this point. China, India, Vietnam, and so on, are on high-carbon growth paths already and therefore aren’t quite such blank slates.

    second the point is that low-carbon growth paths are still quite hypothetical. arguing for the RIGHT to not be legally prevented in any treaty from any particular path, even one that had a similar level of carbon intensity to that adopted by the now-developed countries, is not mutually exclusive with also wanting to be a low-carbon economy. who wouldn’t want to be? but there is a wariness among many countries about narrowing down their options on the basis of a vague idea, and some as yet unclear intimations that developed countries will assist them in that process.

    finally, the fact is that a lot of the heavy industries which used to be based in developed countries are now based in (some) developing countries, often called carbon exporting. a heavy industry economy emits more carbon than a service economy. there may be ways to lessen the carbon footprint of certain industries sure, but again its all very hypothetical and they are going to be still carbon heavy. so clean power generation is great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean if an African country want in 20 years to industrialise that they are not going to have to deal with a big jump in carbom emmissions.

    so agreed that there are reasons to question the antagonisms at the heart of our entire economic and social model, but if I was a developing country negociator i’m not sure that would be my biggest concern. you can call it a chair or a tree for all I care. but i still want to be able to sit down.

  2. einsteinsdreams permalink*
    December 11, 2009 11:30 pm

    You are entirely correct about developing countries being an unwieldy term, and probably I was referring more to the least developed side of things but I need to remember to refer to things on paper and not just in my brain…

    You may also be right that they should be able to be argue for not being legally prevented from taking a high carbon path (although I don’t think historical emissions from the west is really a good enough reason as there wasn’t the same understanding – although current emissions from the west is a different story) but, especially going back to Kyoto and the Rio conference and there are still wiffs of it now, a real antagonism to the process due to historical factors, regardless of any economic or technological benefits offered. And this is where and why the idea of climate change as a burden really took hold. Obviously if Malawi were forced to contribute to the same level as America this would be impossible burden. But the intellectual leap from wanting a substantively fair climate change regime to having no emissions limits is not an obvious one.

    And your third point only proves that. Carbon exporting or leakage is a massive loop hole. Developed countries get to export their nasty carbon intensive production elsewhere. Now carbon may be a global problem but there are ancillary issues such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions and the regional pollution you get from fossil fuel consumption. A report by the EU back in 2004 that half their climate change implementation costs were gained back in savings due to reducing the associated regional pollution problems. ie there are strong regional costs to high carbon industry – developed countries should not be able export them – that only benefits us.

    What is even worse is that studies show children living in polluted places have lower IQs (amongst other things) and this years blacksmith study has again confirmed that the worlds most polluted cities are in developing countries.

    How is this development?

    Developing countries have a right to not be in any way disadvantaged from a regime that mainly seeks to right the wrongs of our unsustainable industrialisation but I’m not convinced that focusing on carbon limits is the way forward.

    Or something.

  3. snugglebus permalink*
    December 13, 2009 3:06 pm

    my third point (carbon exporting) was more to underpin the second…that the only conceivable growth paths are high-carbon ones. i agree its a massive loop-hole of sorts though. and you are right about the wider pollution problems, and my basic understanding of China is that this has motivated a lot of their action’s regarding emissions.

    your basic point, should this high-carbon process still be called ‘development’?…well the obvious response would be what else is there that has delivered poverty reduction, rising living standards, less hunger, better health and educational outcomes and so on? nothing is comparable in human history. and that is precisely the issue buried between the lines of your post. we are pretty concerned about the potential consequences of the process that produces these positive outcomes, but even if you stop calling this a “chair” (or ‘success’)…it doesn’t change the fact that there are a significant proportion of the planet that still need to ‘sit down’ as it were.

    i just wish i had the answer 😦

  4. einsteinsdreams permalink*
    December 15, 2009 4:42 am

    When we say that development has delivered poverty reduction, living standards, less hunger, better health etc, how broad a definition of development are we taking? Aid, GDP increases, the entire historical industrialisation process? I know this is sort getting into theoretical territory and that’s not my intention, but I think it is important to identify which particular events or process caused these particular improvements and to see if they are mutually exclusive to low carbon development.

    For example reducing hunger is not uniformly correlated with GDP increases. One country can have huge increases in GDP but that can be accompanied by big increases in their Gini coefficient compared to another country with less ‘development’ but better social policies which leads to reducing hunger. In a recent WB report (and note this will be one of the few times I ever use their name without accompanying vitriol) they worked out that although China’s absolute reduction of poverty was unmatchable, per unit of GDP growth Brazil reduced its proportional poverty rate five times more than China or India. So my point is more that high carbon intensive development is not automatically associated with reducing poverty in developing countries ergo limiting carbon emissions isn’t necessarily synonymous with limiting development.

    And as this development process that we laud for having brought us all these gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh is also about to rip the carpet out from under our feet if we continue it so not entirely so clever of us after all.

    All I’m trying to say is that I think developing countries, especially LDCs could have achieved better outcomes (developmental and environmental) for themselves out this process (and previous ones) if they hadn’t been so focused on not having limits – I think it is a bit of a red herring. So here is a question – are LDCs being screwed over (sacrificed even) not just by developed countries but by stronger developing countries like India and China etc who obviously benefit most from not having limits and will have the money to deal with the adaptation that will need to be dealt with because of CC?

    hmmm…..

  5. StrangeGlobal permalink
    December 15, 2009 3:41 pm

    “Underdevelopment suddenly stops being a drag, and starts being a head start.” I think that’s the most enlightening thing I’ve heard this year. Thanks for the complete mindset turnaround. I’ve got some heavy thinking to do now.

  6. December 15, 2009 4:29 pm

    The money to fund a low carbon industrial base has to come from somewhere for these countries. I think that in order for development to take a different path in these countries, the process has to start all the way back with political will in developed countries to make it so. Tax breaks need to be removed from high carbon financing and moved to low carbon based options. New industries need support to export their products and accept the risk of selling to third world economies and similarly, high carbon based industries need to be suppressed. Can you tell I think the concept of a truly “free market” is rather silly :-)?

  7. snugglebus permalink*
    December 15, 2009 10:37 pm

    @einsteinsdreams by development I meant the process of transition to an industrialised eocnomy. I appreciate your point that you can deliver more or less carbon intensive growth paths. Here is a graph I made thanks to google sexiness. There is certainly a difference in emmissions growth across those countries, but the general, less promising, point is that all those lines are going up pretty quick. And to put it crudely, the country with the fastest growth is the country whose line has gone up quickest. That is development (with the caveat that you make about Brazil but I think that has more to do with social policy than the type of growth path they were on…not certain though).

    Again, if I was a developing country negociator I would resist limits (but of course this is a bargaining chip – you give it up under the right tradeoff, which in this case is the right financing package from developed countries). Understand your frustration though…

    Think Mike is right that the free market isn’t going to cut it in this case though!

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