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This Week In Climate: The Global South's path to decarbonization

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022: In our climate news column, "This Week in Climate", we look at the Global South’s role in climate action now that plans are in place for major polluters to decarbonize.
Julian Moore
Aug 23, 2022 11 min read
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We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the United States in recent weeks, and admittedly it has been a relief to report progress from the world’s largest historical contributor to climate change.

But now that the United States, Europe and China (in its many uneven ways) are moving toward reducing emissions, the challenges for the world’s most vulnerable frontline nations are coming into focus.

From afar, it can be hard to rationalize developing nations’ resistance to climate action in recent years.

The world’s poorest nations are already bearing the brunt of climate impacts, as cities in the Global South are primarily in coastal areas vulnerable to flooding, and yet are urbanizing faster than anywhere else in the world.

Drought in East Africa is pushing millions toward starvation and Guatemala’s “Dry Corridor” has driven what will likely go down as the Anthropocene’s first mass climate migration.

One of the few certainties we can discern about the future is that climate change will exacerbate the divisions between the rich and poor, so why are so many leaders in the Global South hesitant to take necessary action on deforestation and decarbonization?

The short answer is history. Global South nations, especially fossil-fuel rich African countries like Nigeria and Senegal, point to the a two-fold hypocrisy behind Western demands to transition away from fossil fuels.

Countries in the Global North got rich and elevated their standards of living by burning fossil fuels, primarily from exploitative practices in the Global South. But now that developing nations are poised to do the same, Europe and the United States are spending diplomatic capital to shutoff fossil fuel development in the name of climate action.

History aside, Global South leaders also point out that Western nations are still developing their own fossil fuel interests and should perhaps commit to transformational climate policies within their borders before telling Africa, South Asian or Latin America what to do.

The first point of this critique can’t be changed, but it can be compensated for. Climate reparations, if done fairly, could make right the cost of Western development on frontline nations.

However, between the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. and the European Green Deal in the EU, Global North countries are finally making the tough political and economic decisions to make their global climate action leadership credible.

That leadership is coming at the right time to help underdeveloped countries with the thorny realities of climate action.

Forest for Debt Swap

Colombia’s newly-elected President Gustavo Petro called for creditor nations like the United States to cancel foreign debt in exchange for Colombian government-funded efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Colombia is home to 7% of the Amazon, and until now has sent in the military to halt deforestation. Successes have been few, and have mostly led to spikes in violence while the forest continues to burn by the thousands of hectares.

Colombia’s new leadership campaigned on climate action, but the country’s economy is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Crude oil and coal are the country’s biggest exports, and human and indigenous rights have frequently been the price of developing Colombian fossil fuels.

Petro’s plan has a precedent, as Ecuador recently expanded the Galapagos marine reserve in exchange for foreign debt cancellations.

But according to one study, the success of this plan comes down to mutual accountability. Data reporting must be transparent on both sides, but the onus is often on debtor countries not to impose usurious rates or inflexible rules on borrower nations.

Debt in Latin America has exploded since the beginning of the pandemic, forcing the Colombian government to ramp up fossil exports.

Research Gap

Another obstacle to climate action in is emerging in the Global South: a serious lack of weather data.

One way that researchers are trying to close the gap in climate vulnerability between rich and poor countries is by generating more accurate climate models that will help scientists understand exactly which regions will be affected, and how to best respond to them in terms of adaptation and mitigation.

Today most climate models are developed in the Global North, where reliable weather records can sometimes go back centuries.

News organization Reuters found this out the hard way when it published a “hot list” of the world’s most influential climate academics, and almost none were from the Global South.

The backlash on that report was swift, but CarbonBrief found similar results in its follow-up study on the lack of author diversity in the 100 most-cited climate research papers.

East Africa is one area of particular concern, where political instability, corruption and a lack of funding over decades have combined to muddy forecasts about how the region will be impacted by climate change.

Researchers are still unsure whether climate change will make the region wetter or drier, and constant political upheaval in countries like Somalia and Ethiopia have disrupted data collection.

There will likely be a steep human cost to this data deficit. The leading database for weather-related deaths only reports a small fraction coming from Latin America, Africa and Asia, which amounts to 85% of the world’s population.

This suggests that climate-related deaths are significantly higher than what is currently understood, and gives the lie to a favorite claim of climate deniers that climate deaths are exaggerated by activists because they appear to be at an all-time low.

At root, the cause for these disparities are the usual suspects: inadequate funding, facilities and underdeveloped academic writing skills continue to keep Global South research out of top scientific journals.

The good news is that many of these issues can be solved with the kind of funding the Global North has promised.

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The Author

Julian Moore