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Climate Justice for a Changing Planet: Developing Nations Unite Around Justice in Barcelona talks

Members of the African Group board from left to right: Pa Ousman Jarju of Gambia, Grace Adhiambo of Kenya, Kamel Djemouai from Algeria and Bruno Sekoli of Lesotho attend a press conference during the Climate Change Talks in Barcelona Tuesday. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

- Nick Dearden and Tim Jones

The decision of African nations to walk-out of the Barcelona climate talks this week, and the support they received from other developing countries, proves that climate change is transforming global politics. The poorest countries in the world are refusing to sit by while their future right to development is negotiated away by vested interests in rich countries.

Developing countries have rediscovered a unity in recent months which is capable of shaking western complacency in a more fundamental way even than the collapse of WTO talks in Seattle 10 years ago. And their argument has an authority which will draw support from citizens right around the world – because at its core is a call for justice, summed up by the concept of ‘climate debt’.

It isn’t simply a matter of asking the rich world to pay for the devastation climate change is causing in the developing world. As a report recently launched by World Development Movement and Jubilee Debt Campaign points out, ‘climate debt’ questions a global free market system which has pushed many developing countries into high carbon pathways that they now need to find a way out of.

Through enormous debt burdens, through aid and lending and through trade rules, rich countries and their spokesmen in the IMF and World Bank have forced policies on developing countries which have created carbon addiction. These policies have led to more oil and coal being dug up, more trees being chopped down, more food being grown on massive farms to export to the West, more dependency on fossil fuels for electricity needs.

Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest area of tropical forest and faces a huge problem of deforestation – it accounts for 70% of the country’s carbon emissions. Indonesia’s timber trade boomed under the corrupt President Suharto, as he looked for ways of repaying the enormous loans flowing into the country from his western backers. Suharto liberalised investment regulations, allowing foreign companies to become key players in the destruction of forests and export of timber.

When the IMF waded into Indonesia’s financial crash in 1997, it infamously told the government to cut government spending (the very opposite of how our own governments have dealt with the financial crisis), forcing cuts in environmental protection which left forest resources vulnerable to private operators. It also told the government to remove restrictions on foreign investment in palm oil plantations, causing rampant deforestation and destruction of peat land.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua faced demands to privatise its electricity sector as a condition of receiving debt relief from the IMF and World Bank. Short-term this actually reduced Nicaragua’s carbon emissions – in the most regressive way possible – by increasing the average electricity bill by 100-400% and pricing the poor out of the market. But long-term it has increased the country’s fossil fuel addiction, because private companies are far less likely to put in the investment needed to create a renewable energy base.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of Nicaragua’s electricity coming from oil has increased from 55% to over 70%, while electricity from renewables has fallen. In contrast, Nicaragua’s neighbour Costa Rica has maintained a public, not-for-profit electricity system and the country gets 94% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Likewise, Ecuador has massively extended its oil production over the last 20 years, with the IMF seeing oil as a key way of Ecuador repaying its mountain of debt, itself based on loans irresponsibly lent to its military junta in the 1970s. This oil has done little for Ecuador – the IMF demanded 70% of oil revenues be earmarked for debt servicing, and no more than 10% for social spending. When current President Correa increased the proportion flowing into the social sector IMF loans were cancelled.

The examples go on, adding to the rich world’s ‘climate debt’, which we need to pay to enable developing countries to rid themselves of poverty, but in a less carbon-intensive way then we did. Our new report estimates that the UK – accountable for 6% of historical emissions – needs to make massive cuts in emissions. By rights, it is we who have used up our allowance – we are already carbon bankrupt. To make up for this fact we believe that the UK owes �660billion – which could be repaid as just under �17billion a year through to 2050. A huge amount – but on the other hand it is only 1% of our national income, which has been built up by carbon intensive industry, and less than the Lloyds group was given in its bail-out package. A small price to pay for a habitable planet.

But the rich world fails to understand that climate change will not be solved by throwing a few loans the way of the starving and destitute. Indeed their solution is an avalanche of new loans to developing countries who are already repaying debts at a rate of 5 times what they receive in aid every year. And to oversee these loans will stand the World Bank – an institution at the very heart of carbon-fuelled growth and Third World debt. As Central American activist Ricardo Navarro commented recently “I would rather that the UK government bought flowers for every household in the UK than spend this money on a World Bank coal fund."

Of course the concept of climate debt scares many – the same vested interests referred to earlier. Arch-climate-change-denier and former Thatcher government advisor Lord Muncton even described it as a blueprint for “world communist government”. Doubtless many saw Roosevelt’s New Deal or the creation of the welfare state in the same way. Certainly it implies fundamental changes in the global economy, radical redistribution of the world’s resources.

But the alternative is not ‘merely’ the continuation of gross inequality and shameful levels of poverty in a world rich in resources. It is the ability of all of us to inhabit our planet.

Nick Dearden is the Director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign. Tim Jones works with the World Development Movement.

The joint report, The climate debt crisis: Why paying our dues is essential for tackling climate change, can be found at http://www.wdm.org.uk/climatedebtreport

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