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As a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, developed countries (the North) have an indisputable responsibility to address global warming. But many developing countries (the South) and their advocates embrace an additional principle: As ostensibly blameless victims of climate change, poorer countries should be unfettered by emissions regulations and left alone to develop along a carbon-fueled path for decades into the future. In this CGD working paper, senior fellow David Wheeler and research assistant Kevin Ummel empirically test that assertion and come to a startling conclusion: The South would soon face a climate crisis even if the North and all its emissions had never existed.
With the best available data on historical carbon emissions in hand, Wheeler and Ummel use a carbon cycle model to translate cumulative emissions from the North and South into their respective concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Using scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to project Southern emissions into the future, they find that a carbon-intensive, isolated South would witness unequivocal global warming, widespread glacial and polar melting, and a rising sea level by 2040 at the latest. And by 2060, atmospheric carbon dioxide would pass critical thresholds that the IPCC associates with large, irreversible impacts on developing countries. Even in the world spared the historical and future emissions of the North, a carbon-intensive South would undermine its own development long before reaching prosperity.
Wheeler and Ummel conclude that the conventional wisdom is dangerously misguided. For its own sake, the South and its advocates must recognize this hard truth, accept the necessity of serious, immediate mitigation, and embark on a low-carbon development path with the assistance of the North.