This post is part of the Africa at LSE, South Asia at LSE and IGC cross-blog series on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Here LSE’s Martin Namasaka and Milou Vanmulken argue that global initiatives, whether through global governance, technology or market mechanisms, are neither effective in reducing emissions or in financing sustainable development.

The debate about climate change mitigation and adaptation for developing countries has gained fresh prominence ahead of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit from the 25-27 September 2015 as well as the much anticipated Paris summit in December 2015, where 196 countries will meet to sign a new climate change agreement to reduce emissions.

However, since the inception of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its key treaty, the Kyoto Protocol (1995), climate change has predominantly been framed as a problem of the global commons to be solved by global collective action. Twenty years on, this unitary global approach focusing on mitigation by national actors, has failed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, thereby devastating the most vulnerable local communities across the world, and failing to address the needs of developing countries. There are various limitations inherent in the current global initiatives to tackle climate change, which act as a hindrance to meeting the SDGs on climate change.

A dry river bed in Kenya following drought Credit: Shever via Flickr (  CC BY NC-ND 2.0

A dry river bed in Kenya following drought Credit: Shever via Flickr ( CC BY NC-ND 2.0

First, global initiatives are influenced by domestic factors such as national interests and discourses which detract from the collaborative global approach needed to effectively tackle climate change.  These factors influence whether political parties are likely to undertake policies in line with global initiatives to tackle climate change – for example, pursuing government regulation on business or introducing tax interventions – and whether economic needs are met for domestic producers in maintaining competitiveness.  Demonstrating leadership in clean energy poses a challenge even for industrialised countries, where the fear of losing competitiveness to developing countries limits action(Harrison and Sundstrom 2007:16).

Developing countries often argue about the need for economic growth through increased industrial activity; commitments to lower carbon emissions would jeopardise the level of industrial activity that could be undertaken and therefore the extent to which the economy can grow.  As much as this is valid – particularly as developed countries have achieved economic growth through industrial activity while bearing little of the climate-changing consequences – it is also short-sighted.  Pursuing clean energy and sustainable development can allow individuals the processes and opportunities to realise their capabilities and therefore influencing both their own welfare and that of their economies.

Second, global initiatives assume economic growth as the overarching need of developing countries, which impact on the reach of such initiatives. The needs of developing countries, then, cannot be defined solely in the achievement of high economic growth.  As Sen outlines in ‘Development as Freedom’:

Without ignoring the importance of economic growth, we must look well beyond it […] Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy.  Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live. (Sen 1999:14-15)

Integrating this definition of development and whether global initiatives to tackle climate change are addressing the needs of developing countries has profound implications.  Sen’s approach reverses the causal mechanisms implied: if “Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world” (18), then it is the agency of people, as individuals and as participants in wider processes, that can meet the needs of developing countries in tackling climate change, thereby influencing global initiatives.  Famines, for example, occur not based on a nation’s Gross National Product (GNP), or the available food supply, but on whether or not that country is democratic; whether or not citizens have the freedom to participate in political processes and make national leaders aware of limits to their welfare (Sen 1999: Ch.7).  Governments must see development beyond the economy and look to the end goals of development as the means by which those goals are achieved.  In doing this they allow the success of global initiatives to be dictated, not by financial outcomes, but by letting primary concerns of individual wellbeing, the protection of citizens and the fulfilment of human rights unite approaches to global agreements and find coherence.

Third, current market mechanisms are intrinsic to global initiatives, and have either been seen as hyper-solutionist or hyper-destructive in how they help or hinder climate change depending on particular pre-held views of liberalised market theory (Bernstein et al. 2010; Klein 2014). A broader perspective of development is imperative to its success, yet the timescale for effectively tackling climate change requires urgency that redefining development will not achieve alone.  Current market mechanisms both help and hinder global initiatives to tackle climate change.

While production and transportation ‘emissions costs’ can be high in a liberalised market, the World Trade Organisation argues that open borders encourage shared innovations and enable more widespread adoption of renewable energy and techniques for sustainable development (World Trade Organisation 2010).  Technology is often cited as a climate ‘fix’; experts argue that renewable energy technologies and geo-engineering mechanisms that control carbon emissions can solve the world’s climate problem (Billatos and Basaly 1997).  However the adoption of ‘green’ technology has not been sufficient to address the needs of developing countries.

There are initiatives to tackle climate change within the current market mechanisms that may prove realistic, and which may have bear positive outcomes in steps towards achieving the SDGs on climate change.  “Carbon markets have become a dominant feature of global climate change governance, both within and outside of the multilateral treaty process” (Bernstein et al. 2010:164).  Carbon markets fit well within the current deregulated, liberalised trade system; commodifying carbon to mitigate climate change while continuing to advocate trade liberalisation for economic growth.  While the current cap-and-trade mechanism is sometimes seen as superfluous, refining the rules of cap-and-trade could bring a significant reduction of carbon emissions while allowing investment in sustainable technology for developing countries.

Carbon markets are not an independently sustainable solution, but they could form part of a realistic initiative to reduce carbon emissions and meet the needs of developing countries. When implemented with strict regulation that gradually transforms energy systems, carbon markets tackle climate change at its roots.  More research needs to be done to identify viable market mechanisms that can impose carbon reduction targets while appeasing those in power, maintaining political stability and promoting sustainable development.

Therefore, global initiatives, both through global governance and technology and market mechanisms, are not tackling climate change.  They are neither effective in reducing emissions or in financing sustainable development. Thus, they do not address either the economic or social needs of developing countries.  The tobacco industry shows that only strong legislation and government intervention can contest the exploitation of human wellbeing to facilitate financial gain (Brownell and Warner 2010).  Corporations need to ‘come clean’ about the way in which industries are damaging the environment and perpetuating lifestyles that induce environmental degradation and global warming.

Strong legislation and capped carbon emissions would encourage a transition to clean energy and mitigate the effects of climate change, particularly for developing countries. Effective, regulated market mechanisms would mean a shift from the status quo, but this does not have to be disruptive to political settlements and can be achieved in a gradual transition utilising cap-and-trade. Capping carbon emissions is the most effective form of mitigation, and simultaneous investment in sustainable development, by developed countries, will tackle climate change and meet the needs of developing countries, both by resourcing clean economic growth and by protecting the most vulnerable from the negative impacts of the changing climate.  By learning from historic global crises and seizing the opportunities presented in the current global system, global initiatives to tackle climate change can effectively address the needs of developing countries.


Martin Namasaka and Milou Vanmulken are Masters students at LSE. Follow Martin on Twitter @Martinnamasaka.


This post forms part of a cross-blog series on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development run by the Africa at LSE,  South Asia at LSE, and IGC blogs. View more posts in this series.


The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.