Rich and poor nations cannot tackle climate change in identical ways, given that they do not have identical technological capabilities and degrees of responsibility in the crisis. Based on this principle, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the most universally accepted multilateral environmental agreement) lays down different prescriptions depending on a country’s level of development.
- Developed countries are responsible for learning to mitigate global warming. Mitigation addresses the roots of the problem: how can individuals and industries change their practices to hinder the process of global warming? Solutions include cutting greenhouse gas emissions, using renewable energies, reforesting, etc.
- Developing countries, whose populations are highly vulnerable to environmental problems, should focus on adapting to climate change. Adaptation aims at making societies more resilient to global warming (by developing drought-resistant crop varieties, improving the availability of drinking water, etc.), as opposed to changing the nature and degree of human impact on the environment.
Thus, under the UNFCCC, poor countries are exempt from mitigation. In theory, this should prevent restrictions on their economic development, given that pollution and industrial growth are tied together.
But imagine what the future would look like. Over the next decades, as their economies develop, ex-poor countries will become major polluters on the world stage. They will eventually face the need to shift their development to greener industries, and the world will embark on the same debates and conflicts that are now plaguing its efforts to solve the climate crisis.
The UNFCCC needs to adopt a more holistic approach to development. For now, it seems to equate development with growth while excluding environmental costs. Adaptation and mitigation cannot be divorced from each other. All countries of the world must get into the habit of keeping these two concepts in mind as they develop.