The challenge of tackling human-derived climate change has emerged over the past two decades to become one of the most important, yet divisive, issues on the agenda of the international political community. Within international debates, developing countries have historically portrayed themselves as innocent victims of profligate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the industrialized "North." States from the "South" have successfully argued that a combination of low emissions, widespread poverty, and limited capabilities means that they should be exempted from quantified mitigation (i.e. emission reduction) targets.
More recently, the special status of developing countries has come under growing scrutiny. Against a back drop of rapid urban industrialization in a number of the largest developing countries, the developing world will soon overtake the developed one as the leading source of GHG emissions. These shifts in the dominant sources of emissions are forcing the domestic GHG-related choices of developing countries into the spotlight of the international community, and they are creating pressures for high-emitting industrializing countries to commit to mitigation targets. At the same time, the ability and willingness of developing countries to contribute to global efforts in mitigating emissions will depend profoundly on leadership from, cooperation with, and assistance from developed countries.
Too Poor to Care?
A popular view of developing countries is that they are too poor to care about environmental protection. The environment, the argument goes, is a luxury good. Only when developing countries have satisfied their basic development goals will they become actively engaged in environmental protection. Although not without foundation, this caricature of developing countries is an oversimplification of reality. True, the immediate and most important task for low-income countries remains economic growth, poverty alleviation, and social development, which is hardly surprising. Yet countries' core commitment to economic development should not be conflated with a complete disregard for environmental sustainability. Beginning in the 1970s, governments in the vast majority of developing countries have taken steps to protect the environment. Among others, they have adopted various environmental policies and standards and established regulatory agencies. Many have created high-level environmental departments and ministries, as evident in India's 1974 national water pollution control legislation and its establishment of a Department for the Environment in 1980. The government has subsequently introduced a wide range of environmental policies covering areas as diverse as vehicular emissions, forestry management, and environmental impact assessment.
As evidenced by ongoing and often serious environmental degradation across large parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, environmental policies have generally been poorly implemented. To take one example: the much-publicized air and water pollution experienced in China over the past decade is not simply a reflection of inadequate policy, but also of weak enforcement on the part of provincial administrations. Indeed, in many developing countries, state environmental protection remains more of a ceremonial activity than a substantive one. Yet the very fact that the majority of developing-country governments have been willing to begin to address environmental is sues indicates that norms of environmentalism--which prescribe environmental protection as a legitimate and worthy state goal--are not simply the preserve of rich, industrialized economies.
Similarly revealing about the existence of environmental concern in developing countries are non-state forms of environmentalism. A large body of work has demonstrated that, contrary to neo-Malthusian narratives, low-income groups may assume the role of active environmentalists. …