This house believes that developed countries have a higher obligation to combat climate change than developing countries

Climate change and global warming are the result of massive emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ such as CO2, CFCs[1] and nitrous oxide.[2] This has been a problem due to the exponential increase in the burning of fossil fuels throughout the industrial revolution which began in the 19th century. Climate change is a phenomenon which will have a global impact, although of course nations will be affected to different degrees. Although the problem is a global one, developed nations who are heavily industrialised usually release more greenhouse gases per capita than developing ones. In attempting to address and solve global warming, many have asked whether developed nations - which led the industrial revolution and are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere - should bear a greater responsibility for combating climate change.

This debate has been stimulated in large part by the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1992, which exempted developing nations such as China and India, from the same emissions-reductions obligations as developed countries. The principle underlying Kyoto is known as "common but differentiated responsibilities",[3] which continues as a centerpiece principle for those calling on Developed countries to assume a greater responsibility. China, India, and other developing countries call for recognition of this principle, while many developed countries argue that conditions have changed as developing countries have begun to industrialize and pollute more rapidly in recent years. There are many questions involved in this public debate. The question of who should bear the burden of cutting emissions in order to prevent climate change has been a central reason for there being no new major binding agreement along similar lines to the original Kyoto treaty. The United Nations Climate Change Conferences at Copenhagen and Cancun did not live up to their billing and did not result in a renewal of Kyoto or the creation of a replacement with agreements being in more minor areas such as creating a ‘Green Climate Fund’ at Cancun. The most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban was slightly more successful with agreement that Kyoto would continue until a new agreement is finalized although not all original parties to the agreement are willing to sign up, Canada for example has left the treaty.[4] More importantly there was agreement on the ‘Durban Platform’ from developing countries like China and India that they will be a part of a legally binding treaty to be negotiated by 2015.[5] This therefore opens the door to developing countries taking more responsibility to combat climate change.

[1] Baker, M., ‘Is there a connection between the ozone hole and global warming’, Union of Concerned Scientists, 13 July 2009,

[2] Sandbach, Lucy, ‘Nitrogen – The Bad Guy of Global Warming’,, March 2007,

[3] United Nations, ‘Article 3 Principles’, Full text of the convention, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,

[4] CBC News, ‘Canada pulls out of Kyoto Protocol’, 12 December 20111,

[5] Tollefson, Jeff, ‘Durban maps path to climate treaty’, Nature, Vol. 480, Issue 7377, 13 December 2011,


Developed countries have the greatest capacity to combat climate change.

It is the developed world that has the capability to combat climate change. It is they that have most to cut per capita. More importantly it is these developed countries that have the research capabilities to come up with the necessary technology to make the economy greener, to produce renewable energy, to mitigate against the effects of disasters. Moreover these same places are the countries that have the finance available to fund these activities; not only funding the research into the solutions but also the financial resources to put them into action all around the world. Poor countries turn to the powerful financial centres such as London and New York to finance large projects, the same will be the case with projects to mitigate climate change. Finally these countries have the expertise to put these new inventions and projects into practice; they have the experts to work out the best places to build, to advise on building, and make sure the project does not have unintended side effects. As the nations with the greatest capability, developed nations have an increased responsibility to act.


While developed countries are more capable of contributing to combating global warming, their obligation to do so does not increase. The ease with which a party can accomplish a task does not determine its responsibility to do so.

Developed countries have a duty to lead by example

The most developed nations are also the most powerful in the international community; they have a duty to lead by example. Even if India and China are rapidly rising the developed countries between them are still the most powerful economies. If developing nations perceive that more developed ones are not acting to combat climate change, they will have no imperative to act. This is because some developing countries such as China or India want to maximize their development capacity in order to compete with developed countries. They are only likely to cut carbon emissions if those developed nations they compete with do so first – that way their attempt to compete is not jeopardised. The climate change talks that have achieved relatively little have shown this to be the case – China has only shown willing to do a deal if the United States commits itself first.


China and India, although developing nations, are actually very politically powerful. Both are G20 nations, and the G20 includes both developed and developing nations. They have sufficient potential for leadership due to their size and economic power and therefore could equally be an example to other nations. These countries would be a better example to other developing countries as the methods they use to tackle climate change would be directly applicable to other developing nations whereas action by developed nations is much more likely to take advantage of high tech solutions that may not be universally applicable.

The developed world is mostly to blame for climate change

It is through heavy industrialisation that developed countries are developed – since they contributed more to climate change, they have a greater obligation to resolve it. Climate change has largely been caused by long-term emissions by developed countries. While China is now the world’s biggest CO2 emitter and other developing countries emissions are rapidly rising historically the vast majority of emissions have been from developed nations. From 1900 to 2004 the United States produced 314,772 million metric tonnes of CO2 compared to China’s 89,243 million metric tonnes and while India now produces more CO2 Germany over the same period emitted three times as much.[1] As CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for a long time, about 50% will be removed within 30 years, but 20% or more may remain for thousands of years, the history of emissions is as relevant as current emissions.[2] Since they contribute more of the damage, and since each nation has a responsibility for the harm it has caused, developed nations have an increased obligation to combat climate change.

[1] Vaughn, Adam, ‘A history of CO2 emissions’, Datablog, 2 September 2009,

[2] Inman, Mason, ‘Carbon is forever’, Nature Reports Climate Change, 20 November 2008,


It was unknown that emitting greenhouse gases caused climate change until the 1980s – over a century after the industrial revolution. Developing nations were not initially aware of the damage they were causing, therefore the harm was unintentional. It is unfair to retrospectively punish these nations for something that was unknown to be harmful when it was done. The responsibility should therefore be based upon either current emissions or at most emissions from the period in which the damage caused was known and emissions could have been reduced.

The biggest emitters per capita will have the most impact when they reduce emissions

Developed countries emit the most greenhouse gases per capita, in 2008 the US emitted 17.9 tonnes compared to China’s 5.3 tons per person,[1] and therefore a reduction from these nations is both easier and has a greater impact than from developing nations. Countries with high CO2 emissions can reduce these emissions through lifestyle changes that do not reduce citizens quality of life, for example simply by reducing the amount they drive – walking or going by bike when only going a short distance – whereas for developing nations reductions either have to work out ways of doing things more efficiently or accept that living standards will be affected as most people’s lifestyles are already low carbon, the challenge is to keep it that way while improving quality of life.

[1] ‘CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita)’, The World Bank,


Many developing nations who are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol are in fact using more fossil fuels per capita than developed nations who are attempting to cut down. Countries with large endowments of oil for example are profligate in its use so Qatar emitted 49.1 tons per capita. While China’s emissions of 5.3 tones is much less than the United States there are other developed countries that produce similar amounts such as Switzerland at 5.3 and Israel at 5.2 tons per capita. Nations such as China and India could make an equally meaningful contribution due to their sheer size but also because incorporating green energy into the industries in a still developing nation is easier than trying to change a developed one. These counties will need to build new power plants anyway as they experience more demand for electricity, they might as well make these new plants green

Developed countries must combat climate change while developing countries have more pressing concerns

Developing nations need to be allowed to develop without the burden of emission restrictions. Developed nations have been allowed to industrialize at whatever pace they wished, and through industrialization produce emissions. Despite having been polluting the atmosphere as a result of industrialization since the early 19th Century developed nations only began comprehensively limiting pollution after World War II in order to reduce smog through regulation such as the 1955 Air Pollution Control act and 1963 Clean Air Act in the United States[1] and many developed countries have yet to regulate their CO2 emissions.

Having had free reign to develop for 200 years the developed nations need to take responsibility for those 200 years of irresponsibility while giving the developing world longer to clean up its act. The developing world at the same time has higher responsibilities that come first, for example to ensure that there is no one living in poverty. In India 456 million people live on under $1.25 per day,[2] it is absurd to suggest that India despite having higher CO2 emissions than Japan, indeed almost double,[3] should have to reduce its emissions by a similar amount and at the same time industrialise to pull these millions out of poverty.

[1] Environmental Protection Agency, ‘History of the Clean Air Act’, 16 November 2010,

[2] The World Bank, ‘New Global Poverty Estimates – What it means for India’, 26 August 2008,

[3] Boden, Tom, and Blasing, T.J., ‘Preliminary CO2 emissions 2010’, Carbon Dioxide Analysis Center


This makes the flawed assumption that development has to be dirty to lead to meaningful advances in living standards. This is not the case. In the 19th Century the developed world had no choice but to develop in a dirty way as there were no alternative power sources that could provide enough energy. Today there are numerous green energy sources that are every bit as efficient as the coal fired power that was used for the developed world’s industrial revolution.

Moreover history has shown that the states that catch up economically do so by leapfrogging the already developed nations by moving in to new industries and not making the mistakes made by those who are already at the top. Thus Germany took a lead in the then new industry of chemicals by the end of the 19th Century[1] and Japan in Electronics during its economic miracle after world war II. Newly industrializing countries should consciously aim to take a lead in new green industries in order to power their development and can therefore avoid the developing the 19th and 20th century industrial base that was once necessary.[2]

[1] Mowery, David C., and Nelson, Richard R., Sources of Industrial Leadership Studies of Seven Industries, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.222,

[2] Cascio, Jamais, ‘Leapfrog 101’,, 15 December 2004,

States have no responsibility to other states

States are sovereign meaning they are the supreme authority within a territory,[1] increasingly it is seen as the people who are sovereign through a social contract where the government rules by consent of the people[2] but significantly this is still internal to the state. They are therefore not responsible to other states. If a state exists to protect and improve the lives of its own citizens then there is no obligation for any state whether developed or developing to take on responsibility for combating climate change , all the more so when this would harm its own citizens interests or wellbeing. Developed countries may have an obligation to their own citizens to do what they can to prevent climate change but this obligation is no higher than the governments of developing states to their own peoples. Otherwise because of state sovereignty the only obligation that states may have to each other are those that they enter into freely through a treaty where they agree to bind themselves[3] however developed states will not enter into a treaty where they accept a higher obligation to combat climate change because it would be against their own interests. This is exactly why negotiations towards a binding treaty on climate change is not getting anywhere.[4]

[1] Philpott, Dan, ‘Sovereignty’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[2] Tuckness, Alex, ‘Locke's Political Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[3] Shaw, Malcolm N., International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.88,

[4] Walt, Stephen M., ‘What happened in Copenhagen’,, 21 December 2009,


While states may theoretically be sovereign and have supreme authority in practice nations do not exist in vacuum. Due to many international agreements such as Kyoto Protocol and international bodies such as UN, countries do have shared legal responsibilities. Many developed states have already accepted that there are "common but differentiated responsibilities" having signed up to the Kyoto protocol.[1] This means that they have acknowledged a shared responsibility for solving climate change and have accepted that commitments will vary from country to country. The implication is that this will depend upon historical contributions to the problem and the ability to devote resources to tackle the problem,[2] both of which would mean more responsibility for developed nations.

[1] United Nations, ‘Article 3 Principles’, Full text of the convention, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,

[2] Stavins, Robert, ‘Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments’, An Economic View of the Environment, Harvard Kennedy School Belfast Centre for Science and International Affairs, 29 November 2009,

Developing countries have the biggest incentive to reduce emissions.

Developing countries are expected to be the countries which will suffer the worst effects of climate change, comparatively more developing countries are outside temperate zones so will be harder hit by rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns[1] therefore they have the greatest responsibility to change. Developing countries are suffering with increasing problems as a result of climate change such as crop failure and the spread of deserts, these are exacerbated by high rates of population growth meaning more people need to be catered for on a shrinking resource base.

Unfortunately it is the case that countries that are less affected by climate change or who have the wealth to prevent the problems it causes are not going to take the lead in reducing emissions because they have no incentive to do so. Especially in democracies politicians have to respond to the wishes of their electorate and the electorate’s priority is never going to be people who are thousands of miles away and they will likely never meet. As it is developing countries who are in harm’s way of climate change it is the responsibility of their politicians to respond to their electorate and act to prevent climate change or reduce its impact.

[1] ‘Climate Change & the World Bank’, The World Bank,


While developing countries may be the ones with the incentive to reduce emissions this does not alleviate the developed world of the responsibility to be tackling their emissions and taking a lead on climate change. Someone’s motivations to act does not change their responsibility to do so. 

Pinning responsibility on nations is wrong and unhelpful

The very slow progress being made by the international community in its conferences to come up with a framework to prevent climate change shows that relying on the nation state, either developed or developing, is not the way forward.  Instead individual action and changes to lifestyles are the way forward – all governments should be doing is encouraging this by making it possible to choose a low carbon lifestyle and if necessary penalizing the highest emitters.

According to Joan Ruddock, former UK Energy and Climate Change Minister “over 40 percent of the UK's CO2 emissions a result of personal choices, [so] there is huge potential for individual behaviour change to lower emissions.”[1] We are already seeing that individual action can happen. There are many ways in which individuals do a little to prevent climate change, carbon offsetting is a good example. Individuals can choose to offset their emissions, either all their emissions or emissions from individual activities such as flying, by paying for projects that reduce emissions elsewhere which usually means either funding renewable energy or tree planting.[2]

[1] Reuters Africa, ‘Few in UK think climate change will hit them, kids’, Thompson Reuters, 8 October 2009,

[2] Directgov, ‘Carbon offsetting’,


Individual action will never work without government intervention and government intervention requires some countries to take responsibility. Individuals will take the easiest option or the cheapest option. At the moment these options involve more pollution. For example cars are the easy option for transportation – and without government intervention to create comprehensive and cheap public transport systems individuals will never switch away from their cars. Businesses will take the cheapest way to make their products, which means polluting unless the government imposes a cost on them for doing so. Individual action therefore first needs prompting by government if it is to have an impact beyond a small minority.

Developing nations are just as capable as developed nations of taking on the burden of combating climate change

By taking on disproportionate amount of obligation, developed nations intrinsically claim that developing ones are not capable of finding solutions.  This is demeaning to developing countries by as it assumes that the developing world lacks the creativity and the innovation to lead the way on solving climate change. This approach is unlikely to incentivise developing nations to do their own research into cutting emissions. This will lead to less emission cuts over all as developing nations see that they are not considered capable of contributing.

This is of course wrong, it is a view taken because the assumption is that the solutions are technological so the developed world with its large science and research infrastructure will have to be the ones to make the breakthroughs. This is however not always the case. Small solutions can potentially have a big effect in developing nations. For example changing cooking stoves in the developing world for only $25 per stove will not only improve health but will also cut emissions.[1] Other low cost solutions to climate change are just as likely to come from the developing world as from the developed world.

[1] Aroon, P.J., ‘Secretary Clinton is promoting cookstoves to save the world. Seriously’,, 22 September 2010,


This is not paternalistic because developed states are the most capable of cutting emissions. Techniques developed by the developed world will be made available to developing nations, who do have a responsibility at that point. Moreover that developing nations may have the capability to create their own solutions to climate change does not mean that they should have the responsibility to do so. The idea that pinning responsibility on developed nations will somehow stunt the efforts of developing nations is absurd. Solutions such as cheap stoves will continue to be developed regardless because such solutions are beneficial in all sorts of ways and so it makes good business sense to look for such low cost solutions.

The economy is a global system; the solutions need to be global and involve everyone

The world today is globalized and interlinked. It is not economically viable to expect developed nations to use more of their resources to combat global warming. The global economy depends on wealthy developed countries because it is them which create the high demand for the work performed by developing nations allowing countries like china to develop based upon exports. Just as the economic system is global as is pollution. There is no point in a developed country cutting its emissions in half if a developing nation replaces all those emissions and more.  For example China’s emissions are expected to rise to between 9.7billion and 12 billion metric tons[1] up from 2008’s 7billion.[2] The European Union emits 4.2 billion metric tons so China could easily offset EU emissions losses even if the EU makes very extensive cuts.[3] With the world being so linked the responsibility is equally linked it is therefore not for individual nations or even a particular group of nations to be considered to have a higher obligation but all nations are equally obligated to prevent climate change.

[1] Chao, Julie, ‘A Surprise: China’s Energy Consumption Will Stabilize’, Berkeley Lab, 27 April 2011,

[2] United Nations Statistics Division, ‘Carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), thousand metric tons of CO2 (CDIAC)’, Millennium Development Goals Indicators,

[3] Wikipedia, ‘List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions’,, accessed 20 February 2012


The very fact that pollution emissions from one country affect everywhere is what makes it possible for one country to be more responsible than another. Countries that have contributed more of the pollution to the global commons than their fair share should be obliged to clean up that global commons. While rich nations reductions might be offset by developing countries increases in the short term in the long run developing nations will need to reduce their emissions in exactly the same way. They simply need more time and can take advantage of not being responsible for the current pollution.


Aroon, P.J., ‘Secretary Clinton is promoting cookstoves to save the world. Seriously’,, 22 September 2010,

Baker, M., ‘Is there a connection between the ozone hole and global warming’, Union of Concerned Scientists, 13 July 2009,

Boden, Tom, and Blasing, T.J., ‘Preliminary CO2 emissions 2010’, Carbon Dioxide Analysis Center,

Cascio, Jamais, ‘Leapfrog 101’,, 15 December 2004,

CBC News, ‘Canada pulls out of Kyoto Protocol’, 12 December 20111,

Chao, Julie, ‘A Surprise: China’s Energy Consumption Will Stabilize’, Berkeley Lab, 27 April 2011,

Directgov, ‘Carbon offsetting’,

Environmental Protection Agency, ‘History of the Clean Air Act’, 16 November 2010,

Inman, Mason, ‘Carbon is forever’, Nature Reports Climate Change, 20 November 2008,

Mowery, David C., and Nelson, Richard R., Sources of Industrial Leadership Studies of Seven Industries, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.222,

Philpott, Dan, ‘Sovereignty’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Reuters Africa, ‘Few in UK think climate change will hit them, kids’, Thompson Reuters, 8 October 2009,

Sandbach, Lucy, ‘Nitrogen – The Bad Guy of Global Warming’,, March 2007,

Shaw, Malcolm N., International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.88,

Stavins, Robert, ‘Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments’, An Economic View of the Environment, Harvard Kennedy School Belfast Centre for Science and International Affairs, 29 November 2009,

‘Climate Change & the World Bank’, The World Bank,

The World Bank, ‘New Global Poverty Estimates – What it means for India’, 26 August 2008,

‘CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita)’, The World Bank,

Tollefson, Jeff, ‘Durban maps path to climate treaty’, Nature, Vol. 480, Issue 7377, 13 December 2011,

Tuckness, Alex, ‘Locke's Political Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

United Nations, ‘Article 3 Principles’, Full text of the convention, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,

United Nations Statistics Division, ‘Carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), thousand metric tons of CO2 (CDIAC)’, Millennium Development Goals Indicators,

Vaughn, Adam, ‘A history of CO2 emissions’, Datablog, 2 September 2009,

Walt, Stephen M., ‘What happened in Copenhagen’,, 21 December 2009,

Wikipedia, ‘List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions’,, accessed 20 February 2012