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Countries such as Mauritania have contributed little to climate change, yet face the worst impacts such as crop failure. Oxfam International/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Australia, the US and Europe are climate ‘free-riders’: it’s time to step up

The Paris climate agreement finalised in December last year heralded a new era for climate action. For the first time, the world’s nations agreed to keep global warming well below the critical threshold of 2°C.

This is vital for climate-vulnerable nations. Fewer than 4% of countries are responsible for more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In a study published today in Nature Scientific Reports, we reveal just how deep this injustice runs.

Developed nations such as Australia, the United States, Canada, and European countries are essentially climate “free-riders”: causing the majority of the problem (through high greenhouse gas emissions), while incurring few of the costs (such as climate change’s impact on food and water).

In other words, a few countries are benefiting enormously from the consumption of fossil fuels, while at the same time contributing disproportionately to the global burden of climate change.

Clearly this is not fair by any definition, or as Pope Francis put it in last year’s encyclical on climate change:

Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

Taking a free ride

Using recent data on greenhouse gas emissions and climate vulnerability, we mapped the countries that are benefiting from fossil fuels without paying the price of the resulting climate change, as you can see below.

A Map from our study, showing which countries produce the most greenhouse gases and experience the least effects of climate change (brown) and countries that produce the least greenhouse gases but experience the worst effects of climate change (green).

Those countries contributing most to climate change are by far the least vulnerable to its effects, pointing at an enormous global inequity.

Many of the highest greenhouse gas-emitting countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and China, are also the least vulnerable to climate change, meaning they are essentially taking a “free ride”.

China for example, was responsible for over 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, but has a relatively low vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

On the flip side, there are many forced riders, who are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts despite having scarcely contributed to the problem. Many of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, the majority of which are African or Small Island States, produce a very small quantity of emissions.

This is much like a non-smoker getting cancer from secondhand smoke, while the heavy smoker is fortunate enough to puff away in good health.

We found a general pattern globally: countries that emit more greenhouse gases are usually less vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change.

Using projections of climate vulnerability to the year 2030, we find that this inequity is expected to worsen as more countries that contribute little to global warming become acutely vulnerable to climate change-related pressures such as droughts, floods, biodiversity loss and disease.

Work in progress

The Paris Agreement has been widely hailed as a positive step forward in addressing climate change for all, although the details on addressing “climate justice” can be best described as sketchy.

The goal of keeping global temperatures “well below” 2°C is commendable but the emissions-reduction pledges submitted by countries leading up to the Paris talks are very unlikely to deliver on this. The future of many of the world’s most vulnerable countries, particularly small islands that face total inundation, will depend on radically limiting climate change sooner rather than later.

More than US$100 billion in funding has been put on the table for supporting developing nations to reduce emissions, however the agreement specifies that there is no formal distinction between developed and developing nations in their responsibility to cut emissions, effectively ignoring historic emissions.

There is also very little detail on who will provide the funds or, importantly, who is responsible for their provision. Securing these funds, and establishing who is responsible for raising them will also be vital for the future of climate vulnerable countries.

The most climate-vulnerable countries in the world have contributed very little to creating the global disease from which they now suffer the most from. There must urgently be a meaningful mobilisation of the policies outlined in the agreement if we are to achieve national emissions reductions while helping the most vulnerable countries adapt to climate change.

And it is clearly up to the current generation of leaders from high-emitting nations to decide whether they want to be remembered as climate change tyrants or pioneers.

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