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The Inequity in Climate Change

By Glenn Althor, James Watson and Richard Fuller

The countries responsible for most greenhouse emissions incur the least impacts whereas those least responsible bear the greatest cost. How unfair is that?

In a recent analysis we have explored the state of global climate change inequity, and what we discovered struck us as most unfair. We found that fewer than 4% of countries are responsible for more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, wealthy developed nations such as Australia, the United States and Canada are essentially climate “free riders” causing climate change (through high greenhouse gas emissions), while incurring few of the costs (such as climate change’s impact on human mortality and GDP).

On the flip side, there are many “forced riders”: communities that 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. Furthermore, when we looked at projections of climate vulnerability to the year 2030, this inequity is expected to worsen.

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

To explore climate equity, we used recent data on greenhouse gas emissions and climate vulnerability. We compared 2010 greenhouse gas emission data and the vulnerability data for 2010 with projections for 2030 to assess whether the most heavily polluting countries were also those least vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. We used quintiles to compare the data sets and enable visualisation of climate equity in the recent past and near future (Fig. 1).

Our results show a situation that is not fair by any definition. 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”.

The Paris Agreement and the associated Paris Climate Agreement Signing Ceremony have been widely hailed as positive steps forward in addressing climate change for all, although the details on addressing “climate justice” are still unclear.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change speaks of keeping global temperatures “well below” 2°C, which is commendable. However, the emissions-reduction pledges submitted by countries leading up to the Paris talks are very unlikely to deliver on this. Until the Paris agreement is ratified, and key free rider countries pledge (and act) to bring their emissions in line with targets, it is hard to see how we will limit global temperature change to 2°C. Until these efforts are accomplished, the future of many of the world’s most vulnerable countries is grim.

The creation of US$100 billion per annum for a Green Climate Fund has been suggested for supporting developing nations to reduce emissions. However, progress toward this goal has been slow. Additionally there is very little detail on who will provide the funds or 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 crisis of climate change. As such, there must urgently be a meaningful mobilisation of the policies outlined in the Paris agreement. However, as the Agreement’s key policies are yet to be realised, member states have both an exceptional opportunity and a moral impetus to use these results to address climate change equity in a meaningful manner.


Glenn Althor, James Watson and Richard Fuller are associates of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), and are based at The University of Queensland.