Must we Keep the Developing World ‘Underdeveloped’ to Avoid Catastrophic Climate Change?

It is no surprise that the world’s least developed countries are also the most susceptible to the devastation of climate change. Increased exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather patterns are just the beginning of the climate poverty cycle in the developing world (Bulkeley and Newell, 2015). A case may be made for these impoverished countries to follow the mainstream path to development, which was used by today’s most prosperous nations to eradicate these injustices. Industrialisation would strengthen infrastructure and stabilise economies, reducing vulnerability to intensifying climate change. However, as we see the costs of developed countries’ industrialisation reflected in our current climate distress, the evidence is obvious — industrialisation is not a sustainable approach to development. Further processes would only accelerate current pollution levels into a climate catastrophe (Adger, 2006). It is this pressing no-win situation that remains a topic of contestation across academia, intergovernmental bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Such debate is usually framed within the question: must we keep the developing world ‘underdeveloped’ to avoid catastrophic climate change? In response, I propose a reframing of the question as the developing world should not be the focal point in a question of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Instead, it is the developed world that is both most responsible and best equipped to mitigate a future climate disaster. As such, increased action from the developed world could reduce environmental injustices, while giving agency to developing countries to approach economic growth as they see fit.

The Centre for Global Development revealed that developed countries - USA, EU, Japan, Russia and Eurasia - are responsible for 79% of historical carbon emissions between 1850 and 2011 (CeGD, 2015). Processes of mechanisation, globalised transport networks and multi-national corporations are but a few drivers of this statistic. Bulkeley and Newell (2015: 50) restate that “the richest 20% of the world’s population is responsible for over 60% of current emissions of [greenhouse gases]”. Though the damage is largely irreversible, responsibility lies with these countries to collectively strive for the mitigation of a climate catastrophe.

It is also important that historical pollution levels are not considered as entitlement to future emissions allowances. This assumption of entitlement, known as grandfathering, is the belief that historical pollution levels entitle future emissions claims (Knight, 2013). This fallacious parti pris is a rare bipartisan dogma in US politics, recently shown by President Trump’s rollback of 27 emissions-related regulations and championing of the coal industry (Buchholz, 2020). This nationalistic attitude is not only self-defeating, but also fails to acknowledge the responsibility the US has to global mitigation efforts. In taking a large share of responsibility, major global players can alleviate climate injustices and collectively avoid catastrophic climate change, regardless of the economic growth trajectory of less-developed nations.

The notion that developed countries must take the larger share of responsibility for climate change and action is reflected in international institutional policy. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) approach of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ acknowledges the global inequalities of contribution to emissions (UN, 1992). It also calls upon those most liable for emissions (UN, 1992). As an extension of the UNFCCC, The Kyoto Protocol categorises nations into either Annex 1 (industrialised and responsible) or non-Annex 1 (vulnerable and not responsible) (UN, 1997). It deploys the concept of common but differentiated responsibility in its’ committing of only Annex 1 countries to emissions-reduction targets (UN, 1997). The recognition by intergovernmental organisations, such as the UN, that industrialised countries hold most responsibility for the current climate only solidifies the argument that our primary concern should be the developed world when deliberating the avoidance of a climate catastrophe.

In addition to causing the majority of historical pollution (CeGD, 2015), the developed world is also largely to blame for the perpetuation of greenhouse gas emissions today. Specifically, many multinational corporations - often based in developed countries - are premised upon neoliberal ideology. Within this, they are repeatedly prone to ‘greenwashing’, the performance of appearing environmentally friendly while continuing to prioritise business growth and profit maximisation (Greer and Bruno, 1998). Most culpable for greenwashing are fossil fuel companies. For example, transnational oil corporation Royal Dutch Shell poses as a benefactor of the Royal Geographic Society despite continued environmental exploitation across the world. For Shell, the 1990s Ogoni Conflict in the Niger Delta, Nigeria exhibited the proliferation of environmental degradation into social unrest (Greer and Bruno, 1998). Greenwashing and the neoliberal mantra of ‘profits over people’ poses the main obstacle to the global mitigation of climate change, especially given the increasing power of the private sector to influence international environment policy (Bulkeley and Newell, 2015). Therefore, it is not the developing world’s ‘underdevelopment’ that will mitigate a climate disaster, but the regulation of the developed world’s neoliberal ideologies of economic growth and performative attitudes towards the environment that is likely to be more impactful.

Finally, developed countries are not only most responsible, but also best equipped to avoid global catastrophic climate change, with abundant economic and technological resources to encourage innovative climate strategies. Across the developed world, multi-scalar efforts are being made to create new climate initiatives. One example is the Irish app, FoodCloud, a technological platform connecting food-based businesses with local charities to distribute surplus food and support the youth and homeless communities simultaneously (FoodCloud, 2020). The recent approval of the European Investment Bank’s €1 trillion green budget exemplifies the large-scale financial and political resources available in the developed world that promise to support projects such as FoodCloud (Jones, 2020). Intergovernmental funds not only create opportunities for local climate initiatives, but also investment in large-scale solutions such as carbon capture and storage.

However, developed countries need to be mindful of the broader implications of these large-scale climate mitigation strategies. For example, the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism has received criticism for reproducing North/South power hierarchies and widening the ‘development gap’. This is because it permits wealthy countries to offset their emissions by investing in an emissions-reduction project in a developing country, as long as they can afford to (UN, 1997). It is this type of ‘environmental colonialism’ that Agarwal and Narain (1991) hope developed countries avoid in their approach to climate change mitigation. Nevertheless, the developed world, in comparison to less prosperous world regions, holds great promise for the production of innovative and ethical strategies due to its access to a seemingly infinite capital.

It is clear, once the complexities of this impending crisis are investigated, that the simple notion of keeping the developing world ‘underdeveloped’ is not a viable solution to avoiding a climate catastrophe. Instead, global strategies must recognise the developed world as both the most responsible and the best equipped to mitigating climate change. Industrialised nations bear responsibility for the greatest contribution to global emissions, both historically and from neoliberal greenwashing. They also possess copious financial resources for innovating effective solutions. Thus, the pressure is relieved for developing countries to redirect resources away from climate recovery and towards their own path of economic growth.


Adger, W. N. (2006) Vulnerability, Global Environmental Change, 16, pp.268–81.

Agarwal, A., and Narain, S. (1991). Global warming in an unequal world: A case of environmental colonialism (Vol. 17). New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Buchholz, K. (2020) Trump Administration Reversed 100 Environmental Rules. 15th October 2020. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17th November 2020].

Bulkeley, H. and Newell, P.J. (2015) Governing Climate Change. London: Routledge.

Centre for Global Development (2015) Who Caused Climate Change Historically?. 8th August 2015. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15th November 2020].

FoodCloud (2020) How It Works. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 17th November 2020]

Greer, J., and Bruno, K. (1998) Greenwash: The reality behind corporate environmentalism. Malaysia: Third World Network and New York: Apex Press.

Jones, M. (2020) EU's lending arm approves 1 trillion euro green plan. Reuters. 12th November 2020. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 17th November 2020]

Knight, C. (2013) What is grandfathering?, Environmental Politics, 22:3, 410-427

United Nations (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Available at: [Accessed: 17th November 2020].

United Nations (1997) Kyoto Protocol to The United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change. Available at: [Accessed: 17th November 2020].

[FCM(1]This doesn’t really make sense. Climate change can intensify, heat can intensify etc but the climate intensifying doesn’t really mean anything.