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We need a more nuanced narrative than “global sacrifice” at COP26

We need a more nuanced narrative than “global sacrifice” at COP26

by Walter Bruce Kemp -
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While former President Barack Obama was hailed as supportive of developing nations at COP26, he still spoke in language used in many speeches: referring to climate change as a global problem, not a complex geopolitical one. But perhaps this misrepresents where the responsibility lies. Said differently, when we ask for more sacrifices from our entire world in the face of climate change, are we failing to fully recognise the context of oppression? Requests for people to change their individual behaviors cannot be made without recognising the dynamics of privilege and poverty that play out across the globe. If I, as a privileged white man, asked a Black woman living in destitution to “make more sacrifices” – the ugly histories of colonialism, racism, sexism, patriarchy and classism would be painfully apparent. How can we account for these histories when we allow powerful men to stand at podiums at COP26 and other climate conferences and suggest we “all need to make more sacrifices”.


Matthias Lyunda, a Tanzanian representative and Executive Director of the Foundation for Environmental Management and Campaign Against Poverty (FEMAPO), told The National that “The US emits more carbon each year than the entire continent of Africa. And for the last 200 years, like all developed nations the US has benefited from the energy it created from its fossil fuel reserves.” Lyunda related this to the untapped fuel reserves of his continent: “Africa is being hit twice – our populations are very exposed to climate shock – food is becoming scarcer. We are also being told that we can’t use our fossil fuels – but people don’t seem to understand the implications of that in the African context,” Lyunda said.


Let that sink in – the US uses more carbon than everyone in Africa. That’s a population of 329.5 million (which would be 27% of Africans) creating the same carbon emissions as 1.216 billion people. Sadly, the only real dominant carbon emitter in Africa is South Africa, a country whose history is plagued with the racism of aparthied and colonialism. South Africa’s wealthy white minority have most benefited from the country’s industrialisation and large carbon footprint (7.5 metric tonnes per capita). The vast majority of African states, Tanzania included, emit almost nothing: In 2018 Tanzania was at 0.2 metric tonnes per capita; in 1975 the US was emitting 22.51 per capita. When we dig deep into this data, it should unearth doubts about our efforts to address the inequalities of climate change.


Graph 1.1 below:

Who has contributed most to global CO² emissions?


This graph shows a more global look at the data that Lyunda addressed. The sheer proportion of global emissions caused by North America and Europe draws into question an important problem: not only is it politically complicated to suggest developing nations should be part of the effort to “make sacrifices” – statistically, it doesn’t make that much sense. The developed nations of Europe, North America and Asia are basically the only players who matter in terms of climate justice. Africa and South America have caused about 3% of emissions respectively, despite (collectively) being worth 1.6 billion people. Looking at these figures (as displayed in 1.1), you could be forgiven for thinking many developing nations might as well be left out of demands for commitments to change practices. Instead of a narrative of global sacrifice, should we be promoting a narrative of selective sacrifice?


To make matters worse, the impact of climate change is ravaging already economically and technologically deprived states across the world. As of 2030, it’s anticipated climate change will contribute to or cause a quarter of a million deaths per year – almost exclusively in developing countries. These deaths are predicted to be caused by malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea and heat stress – all avoidable conditions for those in developed states. Can the financial costs of saving the planet in terms of investments by developed states be weighed against these deaths? How much money is a Tanzanian or Bangladeshi life worth to The Federal Reserve or The Bank of England?


This seems a particularly gloomy state of affairs. However, as President Biden addressed in his COP26 speech, there is ground work being laid to help developing states go green: “We want to do more to help countries around the world, especially developing countries, accelerate their clean-energy transition, address pollution, and ensure the world we all must share a cleaner, safer, healthiest planet.” This is a beautiful sentiment, but I’m not convinced it is backed by a clear statement of responsibility. Nowhere in Biden’s speech does he say: “This problem is the responsibility of developed nations. We must provide solutions for developed nations, not make requests.” Perhaps Biden’s heart is in the right place, but his COP speech may have incurred suspicion in an audience nervous about further broken promises – like the developed nations’ failed promise to pay out $100 billion in climate aid by 2020.


The language of global leaders was careful at COP26, but there’s a reason Lyunda thinks his country is being told not to use its natural resources, and that he is scared about the implications. The narrative of a global switchover was ever omnipresently clear at COP26, while the statement in Biden’s speech on taking responsibility for developing states was more a statement of intention than a commitment. If I was Lyunda, I would be scared too.


In my view, we should be using the resources of developed nations to make switching to renewables financially, socially and politically irresistible to developing nations. As Lyunda points out, the west has reaped the benefits of fossil fuels for centuries. In order to redress the balance, we need to face up to a controversial question: How much money is Tanzania’s fossil fuel worth? Biden says: “We have an obligation to help.” Are we asking if we can “help” Tanzania lose out on that wealth? The question isn’t whether or not they should burn those resources; they shouldn’t need to. The question is: how do we make it up to them? The answer: We must make a climate neutral future a solution for developing countries, not a sacrifice.


Walter Bruce Kemp is an M.A. student of Digital Journalism at HMKW Berlin.


Walter Bruce Kemp//  4 May 2022 // #GoingGreen

Walter Bruce Kemp is an M.A. student of Digital Journalism at HMKW Berlin.