In the field of international relations, it has become commonplace to describe one set of nation-states as ‘developed’ and another ‘developing’. What makes a country in one camp and not in the other is not necessarily clear. There are numerous organisations each with its own criteria for measuring different levels of development. Perhaps most famously, the UN produces its own 'Human Development Index'. The world’s countries are measured by their ‘human development’ through life expectancy, education (years of schooling), and national income per capita. In 2020, the year the last UN report was published, seven of the countries ranked within the top ten on this index were in Europe. In the bottom ten, all listed countries were located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, while China ranks modestly at 85th in the same report - earning it a “high human development” badge - the Chinese government itself insisted it is considered a developing nation at the World Bank, and is treated by the fiscal organisation as such. What this shows is a lack of a universal definition for a term that is so widely used. Furthermore, it illustrates how broad a brush the ‘developing’ label is; China is the world’s second-largest economy, a far cry from South Sudan, 186th on the UN’s list.
So, when making a comparison between these two categories, it is important to understand how limited our definitions are in reflecting the scope and variation of the countries they encompass.
The majority of the world’s countries, no matter whose metrics you decide to work by, can be counted among this group. From India to Indonesia, Tuvalu to Tanzania, the umbrella term covers a plethora of GDPs, economies, and regions. In recent years, the blame has started to shift towards this group for the climate crisis. Is this blame well-founded?
According to the Center for Global Development, China was the single biggest emitter of CO2 in 2015 at 23 percent of the world total. Similarly, Statista - whose sources are unfortunately blocked by a paywall - claim China to be the single biggest emitter in 2020 at just over 30 percent of the global amount, a seven-point increase. India, one of the world’s largest economies, also emits a large amount: five percent (CGD) and 7 percent (Statista), making it the third-largest polluter in the world. Whilst these are certainly concerning figures and do demonstrate just how much the two nations contribute on their own, it is also very important to remember that both these countries have the world’s largest populations - per capita, both nations rank way, way lower and neither even make the ‘top 20’. Now, that does not negate the fact that both countries are massive pollutants and need to work on transitioning to greener energy, but it should convey the hypocrisy of those in the West who blame these states for causing climate change “now” - such as the CDG implied.
Another powerful point is that, beyond the two largest economies in the developing world, the rest of the regions have a very small effect on CO2 emissions proportionately. The entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America - approximately 1.8 billion people - emit the same amount as the USA (pop. 329 million). In fact, no singular region, when China and India are excluded, emits more than the US alone does. It is these statistics that are important to keep in mind when fingers are pointed.
Despite their disproportionately small impact on climate change, it is the least developed countries that are most vulnerable to its devastating consequences. Should they be forced to bear the burden of others?
The developed nations - interchange with First World or Global North at your pleasure - are the birthplace of the industrial revolution, and as such the original atmospheric polluters. Generally, the regions of North America, Europe, and the countries of Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are its generally-accepted constituents.
From earlier, we can see that the United States is clearly a major contributor in terms of CO2 emissions. Though not the largest, at 13 percent according to both the CDG and Statista, taking into account its population, it exceeds that of both India and China per capita. Moreover, out of the ten biggest national CO2 emitters, six are developed: the US, Russia, Japan, Germany, Canada, and South Korea. Particularly remarkable is Canada’s ranking considering its relatively small population of 38 million - the country emits more than nine times the amount of CO2 per person than India does.
Whatever your position on the issue is, it is plain and clear that developed countries still play a massive role in the pollution of our skies. To try to shift the blame onto developing countries is ignorant at best and malicious at worst.
Hopefully, this brief and very simplified comparison of the two blocs has, at the very least, shown that no single country is to blame for the crisis that we find ourselves in now. Historically, the West developed the industrial processes that began to heat up our planet, and now, nations that are developing their own economies in much the same way are playing a part too. When someone tries to accuse another region or country of being the “biggest contributor”, remind them that the situation is far more nuanced than that.
Ultimately, all states need to play their part in agreeing and committing to the treaties signed, such as those at COP26. Yet, as the least developed nations on Earth - those with the weakest economies and most limited resources - struggle to contend with ever-more powerful weather events and natural disasters, it should be the duty of the rest of the world to cooperate and fulfill their pledges to support their neighbours. Otherwise, the societal and political - not just ecological - consequences could be unparalleled.