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Climate Change: Developed vs. Developing nations

Updated on April 23, 2014

Recent Climate Change is Humanity Driven

Let's first define the issue we are addressing. For arguments sake, let's assume that carbon emissions from industrialized nations are largely responsible for the dramatic increase in average global temperature over that last 40 to 50 years. There is a lot of evidence and broad agreement from the scientific community that this is the case. Whether humanity can and is impacting global climate is widely debated and a separate discusion entirely. I will be focusing on who should bear the responsibility for preventing or at least minimizing the worst effects of climate change by reducing their carbon footprint.


There are generally two schools of thought regarding the fair distribution of global responsibility for the 25-40 % reduction in carbon emissions believed necessary to limit the worst effects of climate change. Developing countries (India, China, and Brazil are some of the biggest players in this group) who hold little responsibility for the current rate of climate change insist that developed countries' (the U.S. and much of Europe fall in this category) extended history of dirty industry makes them the primary culprits and therefore primarily responsible for making the necessary carbon emission cuts. Developed countries, while acknowledging their overweight role in climate change, contend that limiting the current shift in climate is a task which requires participation by all nations, not just the most industrialized regions.

The economical cost of change can be great, especially the rapid change required to make any meaningful dent in the rate of climate change. The initial investment in clean practices and the substantial carbon taxes generally recognized as the vehicle needed to drive them have the potential to slow and even stall some of the carbon intensive industries many nations' economies thrive on. Setting aside the political strength of prominent industry players, it's difficult for any politician to go about risking economic well being in favor of carbon reduction policies aimed at preventing a calamity many people don't believe humanity is causing in the first place. The ongoing instability of the global economy is only exacerbating the dilemma. Further resistance to change stems from our frog minds (if you've never heard of a frog in a boiling pot of water look it up) and habitual kick the can down the road policy. This drives world leaders on both sides to limit their culpability and ultimately reduce their exposure to these economic and political risks.

One of the courses for my minor in sustainable energy technology was a climate change policy course. In one exercise, the class was split up into two groups representing developed and the developing countries to debate this very topic. It's been some time since I took the class, but I will outline arguments that evolved over the course of the debate. While I did not present the idea during the debate, I also wrote a paper about one possible compromise inspired by the framework of the U.S. legislative branch (I know that these days the words compromise and U.S. Congress are not often seen in the same vicinity except in reference to their integrity, but the basis for its structure is a noteworthy example of compromise).

The Developed Players

The group representing the developed nations argued a carbon emission reduction approach based on the GDP of a given country. In other words, carbon emissions would be tied to the "coin" each country's economy pumped out; a certain amount of carbon emission allowed per million "coins" of national productivity. They argued this accurately reflected the carbon efficiency of a nations economy. If economic stability is to be preserved, the degree to which carbon is reduced should be tied to economic output, representing a carbon tax proportional to the amount contributed to the global economic stage.

It was argued that developing economies rely on the strength of developed nations' economies to purchase those goods which can't be consumed internally. Any carbon tax dispraportionately affecting developed countries' economies would upset this balance and cause economic instability. If developed economies stumble or stall due to heavy taxation, then demand will fade for goods from developing nations, resulting in a drag on their economies and thus the domino spiral into global recession ensues.

There were additional points made indicating that developing nations are uniquely exposed to the damaging effects of climate change. Many are island or coastal nations whose geographical position happen to make them more susceptible or inland locations which models predict may turn to desert. This argument implies that developing nations should want to contribute as much as possible to carbon emission reductions because they are especially vulnerable to the consequences of business as usual. I always felt this argument was like Russian roulette with the developing nations firing the first 4 shots. "We'll both be at risk, but It will be much worse for you so its in your best interest to help us out of this mess." Sadly the Russian roulette analogy didn't come up during the debate.

The position of the developed nations group included other talking points, but this was the primary foundation on which they built their argument. In the end, the economic impacts could only be controlled if the carbon taxes levied were directly proportional to economic output. On paper this seems rational, levelheaded, and even fair. After all, when a person buys $100 worth of cave diving equipment their sales tax isn't adjusted based on their socioeconomic status. It's the same for the impoverished and wealthy alike. Then again, in most developed countries, the income of an individual is taxed very differently depending on socioeconomic hierarchy, requiring the wealthy to fork over a larger percentage (at least that's often the intention). It's hard to see why some of these same principals wouldn't be applied to nations in a similar fashion.

The Developing Side

The group representing the developing nations contended that carbon emission standards should be based on population. In other words, if one country has say, around 250 million people and another has 1 billion, then the country with 1 billion would be permitted to produce 4 times the carbon emissions as the country with 250 million. There are plenty of statistics out there that show how drastically different the per capita carbon footprint is between developed and developing nations. In this technological and energy hungry age, the per capita carbon footprint of a nation is closely linked to the quality of life of its citizens. Developing nations argue that every person in the world has an equal right to engage in activities which result in carbon emissions and benefit from the industries which produce them.

The developed economies grew on the backs of coal and oil unimpeded by any carbon emission considerations. They steamed ahead, growing exponentially throughout the 21st century and releasing their carbon emissions indiscriminately into the atmosphere. Today's developing countries would argue that they deserve the same opportunity to traverse their industrial revolution with uninhibited use of their own coal and oil resources.

There is another trend as nations develop that gives developing countries a drastic disadvantage if carbon emissions were regulated based on GDP. History shows us that young economies grew and now grow primarily through manufacturing and industry. As economies mature and become more efficient they shift from manufacturing and industry to a more service based economy. The U.S. is a perfect example of this as roughly 70% of it's GDP is now generated from the service industry. Meanwhile, many of the products the developed countries consume are labeled made in China, India, or Taiwan. Besides greater efficiency in what manufacturing they do, the developed countries have their substantial service economies to water down their carbon emissions and make their carbon efficiency much higher.

Just as the group representing developed countries, the developing countries group had other points of discussion during the debate. In the end, the two major foundations of their argument were equal opportunity for all individuals to benefit from an industrialized economy and the right for developing countries to grow their economies with the same reckless abandon as was afforded developed nations in their youth. The fact of the matter is they don't, and know they can't behave in this manor because of what we now know about climate change. China, for instance, produced more total carbon emissions than the U.S. and India combined in 2013, but they have also become the world leader in manufacturing of photovoltaic cells and produce roughly a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources (especially hydropower). The U.S., on the other hand, only produces between 13 and14 percent of its electricity from renewable sources (also largely from hydropower).

Debate Summary

There are clear advantages to developed countries if carbon emissions are regulated based on economic output (GDP). Their industrial sector is more carbon efficient and a substantial portion of their economies are service based. Individual citizens in developed countries could continue to benefit from a larger piece of the carbon pie than their developing world counterparts.

Developing countries benefit from their oversized populations compared to GDP when carbon emissions are regulated based on a countries population. While their industrial sector is less carbon efficient, fewer of its citizens have access to the benefits of industrialization, bringing down the per capita carbon footprint. If regulation is not at all dependent on the carbon efficiency of economic output, then incentives to improve efficiency are diminished and equivalent economic output from developed countries would shoulder a substantial majority of the economic burden from carbon emission reduction.

In 2010, two big players from each side, the U.S. and Europe from the developed nations and China and India from the developing nations had the following carbon emissions per capita (tons of CO2 per person per year):

  • United States: 17.6
  • Europe: ~10 (depends where you look and what countries you include)
  • China: 6.2
  • India: 1.7

Here are the carbon efficiencies for these same players in 2006 (U.S. dollars per ton)

  • United States: 2,291
  • European Union: 3,712
  • China: 435
  • India: 579

(note that Europe beats the U.S. and India beats China in both metrics, they are not by any means mutually exclusive)

It's clear from the data (albeit not as recent as I would like) that the developed nations would require significant reductions to bring their emissions down to the per capita level of the developing nations. Conversely, the developing nations would be hard pressed to match the carbon efficiency of the developed nations, likely requiring considerable time to develop their economies. Assigning carbon reduction responsibility to nations based on either of these tenets leaves one side bearing the brunt of the obligation.

Compromise: U.S. Legislative Branch?

The United States was faced with a similar problem when deciding how to structure their Legislative Branch. States with large populations believed each member of the legislature should represent a given number of citizens. States with greater populations would have greater representation in the legislative process. Less populous states argued that each state should have equal influence on the national stage, sending the same number of representatives to the federal government regardless of population. The great compromise lead to the two houses of Congress. The House of Representatives satisfied the concerns of populous states and the Senate provided a legislative body where all states were represented equally.

Similarly, we have two sides, the developed and developing nations, with two different ideas regarding fair representation. Instead of representation in a governing body, its how responsibility for carbon reduction is represented in the global market. Certainly a mathematical formula could be developed and agreed upon which assesses a nations responsibility for reducing their carbon emissions based both on their per capita emissions and on the carbon efficiency of their economies. There are no silver bullets, and no such formula will ever take into account every consideration when addressing fair expectations for an individual nation, but I believe it could be a good starting point.

If we agree that humanity is driving the engine responsible for accelerating climate change and decide it is in the best interest of the world to start letting off the gas, then we need to take collaborative and swift action to curb carbon emissions around the globe. If this is going to happen, the policies we implement will have to address the disproportionately large footprint of a developed nation's citizen as compared to those of developing nations. At the same time economic output is necessary to keep the world economy rolling and those nations which produce a unit of economic activity with greater carbon efficiency must also be recognized.

Where do you fall?

Which side of the discussion do you think would be easier to defend in a debate?

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Who should clean up the mess?

If you could decide how the world divvied up responsibility for carbon reduction, what would you do?

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    • Gap4 profile image

      George Patterson 3 years ago from Charleston, WV

      Interesting, I actually think you have to look at the industrial ages of all of the countries. We have been polluting a lot longer. Nice article

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Great topic, very well researched. The U.S. talks the talk, but nobody wants to walk the walk when it comes to trying out alternative energies. I hate to say this about my own country, but as an environmentalist myself, feel damages must be repaired.

    • profile image

      siyu 2 years ago

      We should take care of our mother earth

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great Hub, Zachrmr. It is up to all countries to sharply reduce their carbon gases. Yes, we and the rest of the developed countries have caused the greatest historical damage but this is an existential crisis for the entire world. We should provide funds and expertise to help poorer countries go greener but everyone must follow this course.

    • pramodgokhale profile image

      pramodgokhale 2 years ago from Pune( India)


      many global conferences were a platform of debate and sharp differences between developing and developed nations.Most of the time US remained adamant on many issues and pressing India and China to reduce emission .

      US has more autos than any nation and that would not reduce emission and

      Indian companies are selling carbon credits to western companies and power producers but that does not reduce pollution, Indian corporate s make money out of such deals.Outsourcing to India also reduces emission in Europe and USA and Eco conservation of India is not getting benefited

    • zachrmr profile image

      Zachary Robertson 2 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      The issues at hand are certainly not without greater complexity than outlined in my article. Volumes of books would have to be written to begin to cover all the intricacies of the geopolitics and environmental impacts of any policies that would be enacted. For instance, who is responsible when an American owned international company builds manufacturing facilities in India or China? In an age when some corporations have revenue greater than most countries, should they be directly regulated instead of paying the carbon taxes based on which countries they choose to build their facilities? If we look at reducing emissions only on a global level, how much do we risk-averse effects on local climates where manufacturing is most intense? Point being the article was not intended to answer every question, but to give insight into the broad strokes of the divide between two groups of nations on the issue of global climate change and carbon emission reduction. That being said, I welcome the comment and encourage continued discussion.

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