One Rule for Us? – Why the global north should lead the fight against climate change

This blog was originally written as part of the Action at Home phase of my ICS placement, which encourages participants to play a role in seeking to bring about positive social change. It is hosted by the International Service ICS Alumni Blog, along with pieces by many other returned volunteers.


In Ghana I was struck by the difference between the developed and developing world. It is clear to me that if the world is to tackle climate change, the West must lead. I have written to my local MP, Jim Cunningham, the Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry, Nick Hurd, and the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Clive Lewis, calling on them to pursue ambitious targets to reduce emissions. Here’s why.

Last November, in Paris, representatives of 195 countries met in the hope of agreeing dramatic reductions to carbon emissions, and limiting global warming to no more than 2˚ over pre-industrial levels. What they walked away with was a historic agreement, built around Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, through which each country identified its own “ambitious” targets to reduce emissions and limit warming.

There has been much criticism of the agreement; contributions are voluntary, and many commentators doubt that the contributions will go far enough. Yet such flexibility is vital if climate change is to be tackled at all. Despite the huge weight of scientific consensus, previous attempts to limit emissions have failed, largely because of attempts to impose uniform, rigid limits on all parties. Many more developed nations backed uniform targets, as they saw climate change as a problem effecting everyone, and for which everyone should take equal responsibility. Yet the global north countries have historically been responsible for the majority of emissions, and are simultaneously more able to move away from dependence of fossil fuels, by virtue of their advanced economies and infrastructure.
In the developing world, the reality is very different. One of the things which struck me most strongly while living and working in Ghana earlier this year was that the country could not afford to reduce its emissions, and does not have the capacity to do so significantly. If a nation struggles to keep the power on at the best of times, an attempt to move away from fossil fuels as the primary source of electricity is going to have huge economic consequences. If the government lacks the money to provide large-scale public transport infrastructure, the citizens must rely on cars and mini-busses which are, more often than not, old and inefficient. If people’s diets are primarily rice and maize based, there is little capacity to reduce methane output by eating less meat.

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Drinking water in Ghana comes in 500ml sachets – which makes for a lot of rubbish

Here’s an example that struck me. Many, perhaps most Ghanaians do not have access to safe drinking water via domestic supply, something that most of us take for granted (indeed, the UN recognises access to clean safe drinking water as a human right). The country simply does not have the infrastructure to make that possible through domestic supply. Instead, drinking water comes in small, relatively inexpensive sachets of 500ml. This is a country in the tropics; the average temperature ranges between 21˚c and 28˚c. While I was living there, I often drank eight sachets of water a day. Those empty sachets had come from somewhere and go somewhere. It has been estimated that Ghana generates around 230 tonnes of waste every day, just from water sachets, and only around 2% of this is recycled. That means that each day, over 200 tonnes of plastic need to be produced by burning fossil fuels, just to ensure everyone can access clean water.

Ghana has little scope for reducing greenhouse emissions, unlike more industrialised nations, where people fly frequently and eat a lot of meat. Indeed, it would be reasonable for Ghanaians to call for a significant increase in their emissions, to allow for better standards of living, improved infrastructure, and more varied diets. To demand that Ghana meets the same targets as the USA would be deeply unfair, and would likely increase the inequality seen between developed and developing nations.

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One recycling option is to make volleyball nets from used sachets

Added to all that, it will be countries like Ghana which are hardest hit by a changing global climate. Desertification will wreak havoc on the agricultural production of countries across west, central and east Africa, while nations Indonesia and the Philippines will suffer from rising sea levels.  This will cause food shortages in countries where many people live at subsistence levels, it will lead to population movements, putting further pressure on public services, and causing friction between ethnic groups with long histories of animosity. Global warming could be the spark which restarts the civil wars that dominated Africa in the the second half of the 20th century.

The developing world is not responsible for most of the worlds emissions, nor is able to do anything near as much as the developed world to combat this problem. And if we fail to halt global warming, the global south, which is least able to handle the effects, will be hardest hit. With all that in mind, an agreement built around Nationally Determined Contributions was a breakthrough, as it represented an agreement which was sensitive to the different needs and capabilities of countries. It is of course true that these non-binding contributions will be weaker than agreements with binding instruments to enforce them, but a weak agreement must surely be recognised as better than no agreement at all. It is at least a beginning, and it is one that we in the West must take the lead in developing. I am calling on MPs from all paris icsties to set aside divisions to tackle this pressing issue. I hope you will do the same.

Jack Fleming
Returned International Service ICS Volunteer
Tamale, Ghana

Update: On 17 November 2016, the UK became the 111th country to ratify the Paris climate change agreement. The challenge now is to meet, and ideally to exceed, the obligations of that agreement. To date, I have received a reply from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, on behalf of Nick Hurd. Neither Jim Cunningham nor Clive Lewis have replied.