Who should pay for climate change damage?


(Part Two of Two)

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

LAST November, just three days after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines and just as the horrific scale of the disaster was becoming clear, representatives from about 190 countries gathered in Warsaw for the 19th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) to continue the slow work of developing the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a $100 billion funding mechanism conceived in 2009 and aimed at providing resources for poor nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts.

The Philippines’ lead negotiator, Leyte native Yeb Saño, earned himself his 15 minutes of fame with an agonized, tearful speech at the conference’s plenary session, but immediately scuttled any opportunity afforded by the public attention to demonstrate leadership (or any sort of understanding of professionalism or dignity, for that matter) by leading a walkout of 132 national delegations and staging a hunger strike.

Although the organizers of COP19 tried to put a positive spin on the outcome of the conference, it basically accomplished nothing, a pattern that seems sadly typical of almost every global-scale climate change meeting. The sticking point, of course, is money: Who should pay for repairing the damage caused by climate change, how much should they pay, and for what, exactly, can they be held accountable? The standard argument of the world’s “developing” nations—an argument that is currently being advanced with more force than usual, due to Albay Governor Joey Salceda’s being a co-chairman of the GCF—is that since the “industrialized” world, primarily North America, Europe, and the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) produce most of the world’s climate-damaging emissions, they should fund the recovery and climate mitigation needs of the “less developed” world.

The argument has some merit on a very basic level, in that those who are most responsible for climate change should also be the most responsible for cleaning up the resulting mess.

But the manner in which the argument is advanced by countries like the Philippines is specious at best; it strongly implies an assumed blamelessness for the consequences of environmental degradation, an attitude Get Real writer benign0 skillfully put paid to in an article published shortly after Saño’s embarrassing performance at COP19:

“ . . . we need to be a bit more circumspect and less judgmental in our calls for “developed” nations to be more “responsible” for their actions.

“After all, the Philippines cannot really claim to be a paragon of environmental awareness, much more a champion of mitigating action. The country is a vast dumping ground of millions of tons and billions of dollars worth of cheap plastic trinkets shipped thousands of kilometers on diesel-powered vessels from China. Most of these end up being processed via the nation’s decrepit waste management infrastructure. Its public transport system is propped up by millions of rustbucket jeepneys and tricycles that poison the air with their leaded exhaust. More importantly, the Philippines produces the ultimate source of all that environmental degradation in copious amounts—people . . . ”

The logical flaw in the way the economic assessment of climate change responsibility is being pushed by countries like the Philippines is that it completely ignores any sense of proportion, and as such discourages economic development of any kind. A more rational approach is to determine how cleanly a country carries out its human activity, regardless of the scale of that activity. That can be done quite simply: If we assume that the go-to metric for climate change impact, carbon emissions, is a reasonably valid indicator and if we also assume that Gross Domestic Product is a reasonably valid metric of human activity, then we can easily find a ratio that expresses how costly in carbon-emission terms it is to produce a nominal US dollar’s worth of GDP. Divide carbon emissions in thousands of metric tons by nominal GDP in millions of US dollars, and the result is some number of kilograms of carbon per $1 GDP.

The global mean, according to this method, is 0.35202 kg carbon/$1 nominal GDP, and here is where the Philippines’ implied argument that it does not contribute to the environmental ill effects it suffers begins to look a little shaky; the ratio for this country is slightly above the mean at 0.36, comparable to such countries as Japan, Argentina, Croatia, Mexico, and Turkey. Among the ASEAN nations, the Philippines is right in the middle; Singapore (one of the world’s cleanest at 0.05), Myanmar (0.16), Laos (0.20), and Cambodia (0.27) are all lower, while Indonesia (0.51), Brunei (0.58), Thailand (0.77), Malaysia (0.80), and Vietnam (0.95)—all countries who share the Philippines’ same ax to grind with the “developed” world—are appreciably higher.

The world’s worst polluters are North Korea (5.01 kg carbon/$1 GDP), China (3.41), Iran (2.04), India (1.97), and the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan (1.93); the cleanest are mostly underdeveloped nations—which probably   reflects a lack of economic activity as much if not more than any commitment to sustainability—but some notable examples besides Singapore are Macau (0.03), Switzerland (0.06), Sweden (0.10), and Norway (0.11). The US, by comparison has a substantially higher but still relatively modest ratio of 0.49; the European Union as a whole averages 0.21.

The problem here is obvious; none of the world’s worst polluters have shown any inclination to even discuss funding the GCF (and in North Korea’s and Iran’s case, rise above a neckless horse-level of crazy in general), and so hat-in-hand climate “victims” like the Philippines make their pitch to countries with a little bigger sense of responsibility.

Which would be justifiable if the Philippines and similarly-threatened countries like Indonesia and Vietnam were doing all they could to mitigate climate change impacts on their own. When they proportionally cause just as much harm or even more in some cases than their “developed” counterparts, they are not looking for cooperation, they are looking for a handout in order to maintain a double standard.

In the Philippines’ case, widespread, ongoing forest and watershed destruction, criminally irresponsible handling of wastewater and solid waste, obsolescent infrastructure, wholesale conversion of land into urbanized heat generators, and the indolent refusal to even attempt to move on from modes of public transit that were outdated half a century ago are certainly not indications of a nation doing its best to prepare for new environmental realities. One has to wonder, if the Philippines was actually successful in getting the developed world to fund its “adaptation and mitigation initiatives,” would this country even use the resources wisely? Sadly, the answer to that question seems to be all around us.



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1 Comment

  1. I am just happy to find out that the Philippines is not one of the world’s worst polluters….