The North-South divide

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Rich industrialised countries have a responsibility to help others stick to their green responsibilities, argues Helena Norberg-Hodge, not collude in helping shirk them

As signs of climate instability increase, radical and rapid action is becoming ever more urgent. One of the greatest obstacles to global collaboration, however, has been the Bush administration’s foot-dragging and obstructionism, much of it based on the fear of giving developing economies a ‘competitive advantage’ if they are permitted to emit greenhouse gases at higher rates than those in the more developed North. Yet even within the environmental movement there is no unanimity on this thorny question: should the countries of the global South have the right to increase their emissions as they industrialise and ‘develop’?

At first blush, it makes a lot of sense that they should, based both on notions of equity and the feeling that rich countries have no right to make demands of the so-called poor countries: We in the ‘North’ have benefited from ‘development’, how can we deny the ‘South’ the right to follow in our footsteps?

This argument suffers from two key flaws.   First, people in the South simply cannot replicate the development path taken by the North: not only has our ‘development’ already used up too much of the planet’s resources – including its ability to absorb CO² emissions – but the South has no colonies to supply it with cheap resources and labour, no ‘Third World’ to exploit. Second, arguing for equity ignores the fact that development and globalisation do not benefit the majority, but have instead been responsible for a dramatic increase in poverty, while benefiting only a small, wealthy elite.

This latter point underlies the dark reality behind the US government’s attitude to climate change. As Walden Bello, executive director of the group Focus on the Global South, has written:
‘When the Bush administration says it will not respect the Kyoto Protocol because it does not bind China and India, and the Chinese and Indian governments say they will not tolerate curbs on their greenhouse gas emissions because the US has not ratified Kyoto, they are in fact playing out an unholy alliance to allow their economic elites to continue to evade their environmental responsibilities and free-ride on the rest of the world.’

According to Bello, the US has formed an ‘Asia-Pacific’ partnership with China, India, Japan, Korea and Canada as a rival to the Kyoto protocol, in order to promote the notion of voluntary instead of mandatory curbs on CO² emissions. He further argues that it is the wealthy elites that ‘spout the ultra-Third Worldist line that the South has yet to fulfil its quota of polluting the world while the North has exceeded its quota. It is they who call for an exemption of the big rapidly industrializing countries from mandatory limits on the emission of greenhouse gases under a new Kyoto Protocol.’

Today, most manufactured goods and agricultural products consumed in richer countries are produced in the South. Global corporations benefit from raw materials and cheap labour to be found there. In industrialised Northern countries, where salaries are high and resources are both more depleted and protected, the profit potential for global corporations is not as large, so expansion into the South is essential for their growth. And it is these institutions behind the notion that people in the North cannot tell the South to limit their carbon emissions. In fact, some years ago, Lee Raymond, president of Exxon-Mobil, travelled the poor world, warning leaders not to participate in treaties on climate change if they wanted to attract foreign investment.

In this sense, ‘telling the people of the South what to do’ is precisely what Northern institutions are doing by imposing export-oriented, fossil fuel-based development on them. Government aid, direct foreign investments and the policies of the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank are foisting ever larger-scale infrastructures on the South – mega-dams and fossil fuel-based power plants; superhighways and shipping terminals. Meanwhile, transnational corporations (TNCs) bombard the South with advertising images promoting an urban, consumer lifestyle. If addressing climate change requires limits on Southern greenhouse gas emissions, this is not telling the people of the South what to do, it is telling TNCs and the global elite that they cannot continue shaping the South for their own short-term interest.

The globalisation of the economy is also responsible for uprooting millions of people in the South, by destroying rural livelihoods and local markets. Policies promoting large-scale centralised energy installations and export-led development feed the mass migration from rural areas – where people have relatively better food security and quality of life – into vast shanty towns. In the slums, the quality of life declines but consumption increases. Even for those on a near starvation diet, every pound of food consumed has to be transported and packaged, so CO² emissions rise.

These same globalising policies lead to a massive increase in redundant trade: identical products (butter, milk, potatoes, animals) criss-cross the globe in ever-increasing quantities. This system does not promote efficiency, but rather leads inevitably to an increase in poverty, waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

It is essential for richer countries immediately to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels, as well as other natural resources. And there is no doubt that the global North should bear the financial burden of reducing CO² emissions. However, it does not make sense to argue in the name of equity and justice that the global South should have the right to continue increasing its CO² emissions. To a great extent, those emissions are our dirty laundry. They are the waste caused by using the most fertile lands of Africa to grow the vegetables that fill the aisles of European supermarkets. They are the smoke billowing from the factories of China that produce an endless stream of plastic trinkets for our manufactured consumer needs. They are the pollution created by sweatshops churning out goods that we could perfectly well produce for ourselves, allowing peoples of the South to use more of their labour and resources to provide for their own needs.

One of the best ways of reducing both CO² emissions and poverty in the South would be to strengthen the existing, decentralised demographic pattern by keeping villages and small towns alive. This would allow communities to maintain social cohesion and a closer contact with the land. A strategic way of doing so would be to help provide decentralised renewable energy to the rural peoples of the South (who constitute almost half the global population). It would be relatively easy to do so: throughout the less industrialised world there is a tremendous potential for using solar, wind, and small-scale hydro. To introduce such an infrastructure would cost vastly less money than the mega-billion dollar projects that are encouraging fossil fuel consumption in the South. This could also help dramatically improve people’s material standard of living, and prevent the tragic mass migration into slums, where quality of life drops dramatically and dependence on petroleum and other non-renewable resources escalates.

As Walden Bello points out: ‘One cannot depend on the elite and the middle-class in the South to decisively change course… The fight against global warming will need to be propelled by an alliance between progressive civil society in the North and mass-based citizens’ movements in the South.’

The movements in the North need to wake up to Bello’s message.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, a non-profit organisation concerned with the protection of both biological and cultural diversity. She is also a co-founder of the International Forum on Globalization (

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008

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