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The ‘North-South’ divide in international climate policy

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A member blog post by

Charlotte Teunis

Scotland's International Development Alliance

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Towards the end of last year, Scotland’s Environment and Climate Change Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, announced that the Scottish Government would publish an indicative Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in the run-up to the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow. This is welcome news, as we know NDCs and climate finance are two key themes that will be high on the negotiators’ agenda at this COP .

With Black Lives Matter bringing back attention to enduring racial inequalities and colonial legacies, Charlotte Teunis, Alliance Volunteer and Freelance Journalist, delves into one particular geopolitical issue still underpinning international climate policy: the so called ‘North-South’ divide. How does this impact upon NDCs and climate finance?

Glasgow is quite a symbolic place for the climate summit, once one of the great cities of industry in the British Empire. Much research argues that the Industrial Revolution in Europe was only possible because of the food, energy and raw material imports resulting from colonising the Americas at that time. A 2015 article by Carmen G Gonzalez, then a researcher at the Seattle University School of Law, argues that ‘colonialism universalized European notions of nature as a commodity for human exploitation while creating a global economy that systematically subordinated the global South’.

Important to note is that the distinction and wording used in the Paris Agreement, ‘developing’ country Parties and ‘developed’ country Parties, is a distinction that, according to many, still implies these hierarchical relations. Development here would mean one particular, western type of development, towards western European-American capitalism and scientific knowledge. Furthermore, both the ‘Global North’ and the ‘Global South’ that we speak of in this article are in fact very heterogeneous groups with often very different interests at heart.


Each country that is a Party to the 2015 Paris Agreement had to bring forward its first NDC no later than 2020. These pledges comprise national emissions reductions as well as efforts for climate adaptation. In the run-up to the Paris summit in 2015, some nations already pledged their Intended NDCs. By 2020 at the latest, parties had to bring forward either their first NDCs for the post-2020-period or their previous Paris INDCs will continue or be updated if the country chooses to do so.

Despite the actual COP having been postponed for one year, it was hoped that Parties would still respect the 2020 deadline, but pledges were still ongoing right up to the beginning of 2021. Parties have to submit updated NDCs every five years and are asked to increase ambition over time to keep global warming ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’ while ‘pursuing efforts’ to adhere to a 1.5°C limit.

1.       The bottom-up NDC system

The NDC system is a bottom-up system that lays the responsibility for setting concrete goals to reach the 1.5°C-2°C temperature limit with the countries themselves, which allows for a fair differentiation per country. However, without setting top-down policy ambitions in stone, this approach also means that achievement comes down entirely to the separate countries own ambitions. Countries from the ‘Global North’ can decide for themselves whether or not they do what is in the best interest for more vulnerable countries and whether they opt for ambitious NDCs.

Additionally, only a few parts of the NDC procedure are legally binding, for example, giving updated pledges every five years, pursuing domestic mitigation measures and communicating transparently about this. The details of the pledge’s content and targets, however, are more open to interpretation. The ‘Global North’ taking up responsibility is not obligatory. However, some accountability measures were implemented, such as a transparency framework, a global stocktake and a compliance and facilitation committee.

2.       Insufficiently ambitious NDCs

 At climate negotiations, Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, among others, have specifically been asking for a 1.5°C limit. The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre adopted the slogan ‘1.5°C to Stay Alive!’; crossing the temperature limit of 1.5°C would have devastating results for the region.

Although the more vulnerable nations could claim a victory in Paris in comparison to the other summits, as the agreement explicitly mentions ‘pursuing efforts’ to adhere to a 1.5°C limit, the most recent figures from Climate Action Tracker (December 2020) predict a 2.1°C temperature rise by 2100 in the most optimistic scenario. This is the scenario when all 127 governments with net-zero targets (both agreed and under discussion) uphold their commitments to their pledges, although more ambitious 2030 targets, as well as accelerated policy implementation, would be needed.

3.       Scientific North-South gap and NDCs

Additionally, there is a North-South divide in scientific research, according to a 2017 Nature research paper. This may result in countries from the ‘Global South’ not having the expertise to do an evidence-based check on whether NDCs brought forward by ‘Northern’ countries are really equitable or whether the propositions brought forward are in favour of ‘Northern’ interests. Some lower income countries may also lack research capacity for determining the equity of their own NDCs.

Additionally, most UNFCCC knowledge used at the COP negotiations is underpinned by research from the ‘Global North’. Other research argues that this North-South divide “most likely confines approaches to narrow paradigms from a few cultural settings and perspectives”. Northern researchers’ views may dominate the advice given to and assessments for the COP.

Climate finance

1.       Differences in negotiation power

At COP15 in Copenhagen, more vulnerable countries already aimed for the 1.5°C temperature target, but the accord that was brought forward mentioned 2°C and no legally binding mitigation targets. Lower income countries have not yet been able to shake off their economic dependence from the ‘Global North’ since the end of colonisation. Consequently, they are often faced with the dilemma of accepting accords and conditions that do not comply with their demands and even put the lives of their citizens at stake, or losing the climate finance needed for adaptation altogether.

2.       Climate finance institutions and projects

Additionally, the governance of climate finance institutions has sometimes been debated. For example, some developing countries were sceptical of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the precursor of the Green Climate Fund, which was based at the World Bank in Washington D.C. Some countries objected to World Bank involvement in the fund, as bigger donors are more influential at the World Bank as they have more voting power (which is dependent on financial contributions). In 1994, however, the structure was changed and the GEF moved out of the World Bank, among others.

Despite equal representation from developed and developing countries on the board, the GEF’s successor, the Green Climate Fund (GCF), again had the World Bank appointed as an interim trustee, a role which it has fulfilled up until today. There has also been debate about the ownership of the GCF’s projects. A 2020 IIED post indicates that about ‘only eight least developed countries are leading GCF-financed adaptation projects’, with an important culprit being the conditions for becoming a GCF entity.

3.       Amounts and types of climate financing

Additionally, a 2019 article in The Conversation argues that the $ 100 billion promised for climate adaptation in developing countries is not enough to cover all costs. It also argues that the money that does come through, doesn’t always reach the world’s poorest who need it the most. Other critiques on general climate finance have come from academics and Oxfam: climate finance would increase LDCs debts as well as dependency, as climate financing comes mainly in the form of loans.

What does COP26 need to deliver?

So what is needed from Scotland, the UK and others at this year’s COP26 in terms of NDCs and climate financing? This report from Stop Climate Chaos Scotland brings forward a few ideas:


·         Could rapidly cut emissions to at least meet legal targets

·         Increase its Climate Justice Fund

The UK:

·         Issues a 1.5°C aligned NDC

·         Leads a global scale-up of financial support

Rich polluting countries:

·         Issue 1.5°C aligned NDCs

·         Meet the $ 100 billion climate finance target

By Charlotte Teunis, Freelance Journalist and Alliance Volunteer.

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