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Walk the talk

by Hans Dembowski

In depth

Improving an embankment in Bangladesh

Improving an embankment in Bangladesh

The powerful do not always notice when their credibility is eroding. Unless the governments of the rich nations wake up soon they will lose any claim to international leadership. By Hans Dembowski

Today, developing countries have no idea what compensation they will get for the impacts of climate change in the next seven years. At the Copenhagen climate summit, industrialised countries only made pledges for the years 2010 to 2012. On top of that, they promised an annual $ 100 billion would be made available for 2020 on. It is well understood, however, that the rich nations
– are mostly responsible for global warming,
– must support climate protection in developing countries on top of conventional development assistance (ODA) and
– cannot simply watch poor world regions become the main victims of ­climate change.

These ideas were consensus 20 years ago at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike its lame sequel in June (note Op-Ed views in this edition), the UN conference in 1992 actually made a difference. Rich nations, however, did not live up to their pledges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and as­sisting the eco-friendly transformation of developing economies. It took them until 1997 to conclude the under-achieving Kyoto Protocol. This document was not very ambitious to begin with, and the USA never ratified it. Other governments did ratify, but many did not live up to their promises.

In the meantime, climate change has become a fact that can no longer be prevented. Poor nations, in particular, are exposed to ever more devastating storms, floods and droughts. The international community has accepted that developing countries deserve support for adapting to the changing environment on top of other assistance. From 2010 to 2012, however, the prosperous world made only a miserly $ 3 billion available for this purpose.

Broken promises add to frustration in poor countries where governments are used to disappointment – whether the rich world pledges to agree to more development friendly trade rules, promises to spend 0.7 % of GDP on ODA or blurrs that promise with “additional” climate finance. Leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America know that today’s power relations and the current distribution of global wealth are rooted in colonial history. The public of rich countries is no longer aware of this legacy, and mistakenly believes ODA is about charity.

Germany’s climate track record is actually quite strong. It has fulfilled substantial Kyoto commitments, for instance. Yes, the economic collapse in formerly socialist East Germany played a role, but today the nation is known for high productivity, comparatively strong employment and spectacular exports. Germany proves that an industrialised nation can reduce emissions and stay competitive at the same time. It matters, moreover, that this country is phasing out nuclear power and banking on renewable energy technologies. Observers understand that the Federal Republic is relying on the very options rich nations like to recommend to poorer ones.

The way some rich-nation governments are hiding behind emerging markets is increasingly embarrassing however. They pretend they can do nothing about global warming unless China, India, Brazil and others act too. Yes, rather sooner than later, rising powers will have to cap emissions. But prosperous countries with great technological clout must lead by setting the right examples. Unless they walk the talk, preaching will convince nobody.