What would sustainability in the North mean for development in the South?

08 July 2010

Everyone agrees that developed countries need to undertake a radical transformation if they are to assume their responsibilities for mitigating climate change. But what consequences would this have for the global South? Will climate change mitigation in the North undermine economic development in developing countries, or provide them with new opportunities?

To date, most discussions of climate change and the developing world have focused on how developing countries will be affected, how they should adapt, or whether or not they should embrace moves towards sustainability. But there is another issue that is often overlooked: the inadvertent affects on the developing world of developed countries’ policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although the poor are likely to be the main victims of climate change, and therefore have the greatest stake in effective mitigation, it does not necessarily follow that they will benefit in the short term. There is already significant evidence that policies designed to reduce developed countries´ ‘carbon footprints’ can shift the burden of mitigation onto the shoulders of the world´s poor. The most famous example is biofuels, which have been vigorously promoted as an alternative to petrol, but stand accused of contributing to displacement, environmental problems and rising food prices in the global South.

Dependent on the consumption of the wealthy

Unsustainable consumption in the global North is frequently identified as the prime culprit driving climate change. But the dependence of many developing countries on servicing that consumption is rarely recognised. Reducing certain forms of consumption in the North could have significant negative impacts in the global South. A recent IIED paper has shown how moves to cut the amount of air-freighted food consumed could destroy the livelihoods of millions of people in the developing countries. While ‘food miles’ only account for a tiny fraction of the developed world´s carbon footprint, the debate still throws up a largely unanswered question: having spent decades encouraging developing countries to build their economies by servicing unsustainable consumption in the developed world, what would happen if the North decided to dramatically change its consumption patterns?

Evidence from the recession

There is reason to believe that there would be significant negative effects, particularly if, as a previous Due South blog argued, sustainability requires a reduction in economic growth. In a globalised world, it seems implausible to imagine that reduced developed country growth – which would surely equate to lower financial flows, weaker demand for commodities, falling remittances and tourism revenue – would not lead to negative impacts in developing countries. Due South has already shown that while the recession led to reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, it also harmed the world´s poor, ranging from factory workers in Bangkok to informal miners in Zambia and smallholder farmers in Guatemala. Is this simply a forewarning of the possible unintended consequences of any hypothetical developed world move towards sustainability?

Opportunities as well as threats

Fortunately, significant climate change mitigation in the North could also have positive effects on developing countries. For example, a global drop in demand for oil could relieve the constant temptation for developing country governments to expand the ever-controversial extraction frontier, which a previous Due South post identified as an increasing threat to local communities and environments. Moreover, given that many oil exporters in the South suffer from a ‘resource curse’, whereby oil wealth encourages corruption, undiversified economies and poor institutions rather than equitable development, it may be the case that less demand for oil could encourage reform.

At the same time, developed country sustainability would certainly not mark the end of international trade or extractive industries, and in some cases, it could generate new demands. Bolivia and Afghanistan, for example, could bring in substantial revenue from their lithium reserves if demand for electric cars rises. The same could be said for countries that have substantial reserves of rare earth minerals required for clean energy technology, or uranium, if nuclear power is promoted. As a thoughtful video by the Bolivia-based Democracy Centre shows, though, mining for ‘clean technology’ minerals is likely to be every bit as contested as mining for more conventional resources like coal, gold and diamonds.

Beyond simply extracting different minerals, there may be other opportunities. China has already shown how rapidly developing economies can steal a march in the race for clean energy, and has become one of the world´s main exporters of solar energy products. Another recent development is Desertec´s plan to establish large-scale solar energy power plants in the Saharan desert to meet Europe´s energy needs. Although grandiose schemes such as this run the risk of ignoring local needs and concerns, Desertec claim that much of the energy would be used to satisfy growing demand for electricity in North Africa and the Middle East. Most importantly, electricity could be used to desalinate sea water, which would go a long way to resolving the region´s problems of water scarcity. Finally, as an IIED study has shown , even the much maligned biofuels can potentially bring employment and income-generating opportunities to local communities.

Less dependent development paths

However, perhaps the most important point to make is that there is no inherent reason why development in the South must depend so heavily on a relationship with the North. As a recent paper by the South Centre points out, one reason that lesser developed countries suffered from the recession was the legacy of decades of policies orienting their economies towards exports. In light of this, the recession could serve as a warning of the need to move away from export-dependent models, and to focus on economic diversification and domestic markets.

Of course, without extensive study, it is impossible to say whether the potential opportunities would outweigh the potentially massive costs of reduced demand for products upon which millions of jobs depend. We still do not know how seriously developed countries will take their climate change responsibilities, nor do we know precisely what a sustainable economy would look like. Nevertheless, despite seeming a long way off, these issues are unlikely to disappear.