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Can Sustainable Development Address The North South Divide Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3403 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The North-South divide, is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, it can also be seen as a critical factor for achieving global sustainability. During the course of this text, key ideas and actions related to this issue, will be considered. Sustainable development and the North-South divide will be introduced, followed by an overview and discussion of the situation and status quo. The divide and its solution will be summarised and the text will conclude, with my perspective on the issue.


The word sustainable means to sustain, to keep from failing during stress or difficulty. Therefore, an action can be considered sustainable, if it has the capacity to sustain. So what does this mean for our society? Plainly speaking, any instance were actions as a result of our survival, sustain, leave intact or protect the environment, from the stress of our existence within it, can be considered to be sustainable. The most commonly recognised threat, albeit debatable by some, is the impact of climate change on the environment (Carter, 2001). This and other environmental problems such as biodiversity and overconsumption, have resulted in sustainable development becoming a prominent and central issue in international politics (Carter, 2001).

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“The ability of the present generation to meet its needs without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (Carter, 2001)

The definition of sustainable development quoted from Carter (2001), arose to suggest that, it is possible to have economic development and protect the environment at the same time. The definition above is as abigious as the concept, which is still being debated. Notwithstanding, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in 1992, to oversee and implement the concept in different countries (Carter, 2001). Sustainable development, gives priority to the world’s poor both in the North and in the South, providing the opportunity to live a ‘good life’ to all. It also recognises, the need to moderate our demand on resources, from the enviornment (Carter, 2001).


The International Monetary Fund (IMF), was developed to reach a goal of an internationally managed economy. However, the fund is much smaller than the original proposed in 1942, by Keynes and together with the World Bank, it served to aid primarily the global North (Raffer and Singer, 2001). The current system is an incomplete version of the Bretton woods system, lacking Keynes’ International Trade Organisation (ITO), among other pillars of support. The general idea of the system, was to sustain the economy and prevent another great depression, both in the global North and South (Raffer and Singer, 2001). In addition, the system intended for the IMF and the World Bank to be agencies of the United Nations (UN), guided by the UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council, to achieve its goal. As a result of the incomplete system being modified and implemented to suit, countries in the global south experienced balance of payments crisis and the subsequent debt crisis (Raffer and Singer, 2001). However, it left intact and in some cases fuelled the growth of economies in the North, driving a biased development. The quote below, puts into perspective the current issue and the reason for a need of consensus between the North and South, bridging the divide on the issue of climate change mitigation.

“For the next decades, we are locked-in to an unavoidable rise in global mean temperatures by virtue of our past emissions, due to factors such as the large thermal inertia of the earth’s oceans. This is unlikely to pass wihtout creating serious climate hazards (…) under BaU conditions – the number of people affected by weather related disasters in 2030 would be somewhere between 220 and 860 million in the worst case (…)” (Muller, 2002)

During the percieved ‘economic growth’, globalisation and the IT revolution, swept the world. This wave created a division between the countries that, successfully took advantage of the revolution and those that did/could not (Kawaguchi, 2002). Taking advantage of the scenario, the subsequent economic growth that followed in the North -which was driven by fossil fuel- further widened the economic divide between the North and the South (Koehn, 2004). This divide and the following growth and development experienced by the North, can be seen as a catalyst or root cause, of the current North-South divide on the climate issue.

The divide between the North and South on the issue of mitigating global climate change has been confirmed, it was stated that the most important issue for developing countries (the global South) is the dissproportionate human impact burden, which has until recently largely been ignored by the North (Muller, 2002). For example, consider for a moment the agenda for emissions mitigation, which has been firmly set by the industrialised world (Muller, 2002). This agenda, places disportionate burden on countries around the world. Especially those that cannot afford it and those more concerned with other immediate issues (Evans, 2009).

The nature of the climate change equity problem, clarifies the stance both North and South side take, in dealing with the current climate crisis. In the North, it is regarded as a need to allocate emission mitigation targets, while in the South it is regarded as a need to assign responsibility for and the sharing of climate impact burdens (Muller, 2002). In addition, it is the perspective of the South, that the proposals for reductions in emissions do not account for disporportionate historical contributions of developed countries. Further adding, that the in effect the structural inequities embedded in the current international economic order, have been extended (Koehn, 2004; Evans, 2009). The North’s response to this perspective, is to disregard historical contributions and system inequities, focussing instead on gross emissions and future projections (Koehn, 2004). The reason for this is that, climate change in the eyes of the North is seen as a problem of polluting the environment and while impacts on human welfare are regarded as potentially life-style-threatening, they are seen to be deserved (Muller, 2002). This presents an overriding moral purpose of environmental integrity. To put it plainly, there is the acceptance of pollution from industralisation, being the cause of the climate crisis. However, there is also denial of the disproportionate nature of the proposed solution, resultant burden and welfare issues’ relevance. In the South however, the situation is very different (Muller, 2002). Climate change is seen as a human welfare problem, with the people as its prime victims. In addition, there is also the issue of equity between the human culprits and the human victims (Muller, 2002).

There is compelling evidence that human-induced climate change is warming the earth’s atmosphere. The global heat poses a threat to ecological sustainability in the North and South (Koehn, 2004; Evans, 2009). In higher lattitudes this will cause rising sea levels and increase the likelihood of natural disasters, as well as increasing the vulnerability of human populations (Koehn, 2004). This presents a scenario of the inevitibility of climate change impact and its associated burdens, both in the global North and the global South. As an obvious consequence, there is the need to make ready and present innovative and effective solutions by the collective nations, for climate change impacts in the near and medium-term. This will provide the oppourtunity to mitigate and reduce the inevitable impact, in the North and in the South (Evans, 2009). The report, Bridging the Divide: Redressing The Balance, argues that we have reached a point where we must face the inevitability and begin to prepare disaster responses (Muller, 2002).

Notwithstanding, there are nations that are still in disagreement. Gurdial Singh Nijar who represented the Asia-Pacific group, says that without fair and equitable access and benefit-sharing (ABS) protocol, there will be no agreement. Leahy (2010) in his press release goes on to say that, there is concensus that countries, which supply valuable resources to the industrial world should be compensated. However, the situation may not be as straight forward as it seems, since the national representatives have been undergoing complex negotiations for six years (Leahy, 2010). So far, the negotiations have played along the traditional North-South divide, posing the danger of turning them into a sort of collective bargaining. Furthermore, as a result of current rise in economies of some developing countries, this approach has become obselete (Kawaguchi, 2002). To put it all more simply, the problem is the inability to agree on a soltuion, for the inevitable unfair distribution of climate impact burdens (Muller, 2002).

“In one of the preparotory sessions, a delegate from the North and one from the South were discussing the form of the Charter. The Northern delegate offered that the Charter should be a short, poetic statement that could be reproduced on posters (…) on the walls of childrens bedrooms (…) as a message of inspiration (…) The Southern delegate responded that most children in the South do not have their own bedrooms and many of them are unable to read.” (Wapner, 2003)


The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg supported the sustainable development concept, which suggests that the environment can be cherished without sacrificing economic growth, especially in southern (developing) countries (Kawaguchi, 2002). In addition the summit recognized that poverty alleviation cannot come by safeguarding the natural environment alone, but requires actively intervening in the economic system. Futhermore, this can be best achieved, by rigorously considering networks and partnership models of economic development, which are linked to empowerment drivers (Kawaguchi, 2002). The WSSD also recongnises, that access to natural resources plays a major role in development, while in developing countries it also under pins Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Petrie, 2007). A key contribution of the WSSD, was to establish partnerships. Thereby, translating overall principles into hands-on actions, towards adressing specific challenges of sustainable development (Wapner, 2003).

It is the perception, that sustainable development has failed to bring together the North and the South. As a result, a lot of effort has gone into modifying the concept, so that it can meet interests of both sides (Wapner, 2003). One example of such efforts, is Kawaguchi (2002) proposal of the concept of global sharing, which encourages the sharing of strategies, responsibilities, experiences and information.

“I understand the importance of fossil fuels to the American people. Dick Cheney understands that. The president understands that” – Frederick D. Palmer, Executive Vice President for Legal and External Affairs at Peabody (Koehn, 2004)


The UN says that without an ABS (access and benefit-sharing) agreement, countries have shut down their genetic resources. As a result, a species of fly attacking mango populations in Kenya, cannot be properly controlled since the fly’s natural predator in Asia cannot be obtained (Leahy, 2010). The solution to a problem of this magnitude is not simple, made harder still by the lack of sufficient hands-on action to mitgate the threat. Although, there are some schemes, strategies and innitiatives, these should not wrongly be seen as being able to sufficiently sustain the weight of the climate change impact. The task is still very much incomplete, after all, the goal is to create a system that will sustain us (and the environment) through the climate threat. For that to happen, action must be taken. Actions like a complete UN inspired by Keynes or actions like bridging the divide between the North and the South.

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There have been a few attempts in the past to bridge the divide. The first was a Joint Implementation (JI) mechanism, which was based on the concept that transferring clean technologies to other nations, towards reducing green house gas (GHG) emisssions, could count towards obligations of the nations suppling the technology. The JI mechanism was meant to lower the compliance costs for Northern nations under the Kyoto protocol (Evans, 2009). To the South, this is clearly biased as the benefits will almost surely fall soley in the North, giving Northern nations the oppourtunity to force weaker nations to meet obligations for them. In the end JI was incorporated as a mechanism used amongst Northern nations (Evans, 2009). The second attempt, dubbed the Brazilian proposal was the Clean Development Fund (CDF), designed to provide financing for emissions mitigations projects in Southern nations (Evans, 2009). This would be done by allocating funds collected from Northern nations, who failed to meet their Kyoto requirements. However, Northern nation opposed this structure arguing that it is politically toxic, going on to create a more ‘positive’ cooperative mechanism. This is how the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) came to be (Evans, 2009).

Kyoto protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), is currently the only policy initiative linking developing nations emissions to international cooperative efforts on climate change. It has been hailed as the grand compromise of the North-South divide over climate change mitigation (Evans, 2009). CDM is a market based mechanism, which allows Northern nations with binding emissions reduction commitments under the Kyoto protocol, to earn credits towards meeting their commitments. They do so by implementing emission reduction projects in Southern nations, where it is most cost effective. Southern nations in exchange, gain from the transfer of project related sustainable development benefits (Evans, 2009). However, what a ‘benefit’ is in terms of sustainable development under CDM is left undefined, creating vagueness and subsequent conflict of interests.

As a result, Southern nations place more emphasis on the development aspect of susatianable development, while the North tends to focus more on the GHG related definition of sustainability when assessing the benefits of CDM (Evans, 2009). This serves to drive continued tension over the issues of compensation for historical debt and equity of the South, and the Northern proirities of cost-efficiency and free markets, even with CDM in place (Evans, 2009). It is also thought that instead of facilitating enviornmentally sustainable development efforts in Southern nations, CDM can deter them from pursuing sustainable development paths, as doing so would decrease their ability to attract CDM investment in the future (Evans, 2009).

The current means of evaluating the efficiency of CDM is synonymous with cost-effectiveness, however CDM is not meant to just facilitate low-cost emissions reductions. Rather it is designed to engage Southern nations in the global effort to reduce emissions (Evans, 2009). As a result it is more important to focus on factors of the mechanism that concern the South. The efficiency therefore should be, synonymous instead with mitigating the North-South divide, towards reconciling the interests of both sides. Despite the existsence of North-South cooperation in CDM today, the divide nonetheless spreads throughout the mechanism, resulting in divergent demands and expectations based on different priorities and perceptions of what the CDM should offer (Evans, 2009).

“The earth is a complex geo-biochemical entity whose precise functioning, as well as the complex interactions that occur among its myriad elements, we are yet to understand fully. Its fragile self-regenerative systems (e.g. the carbon cycle) have limited capacity for processing anthropogenic environmental contamination (…) the excess accumulates to disrupt or disable the systems themselves (…) this is the main reason for the mounting environmental predicament confronting us today.” (Nath, 2004)


Under the current regime, the old has been abandoned and the North no longer only care about the environment, neither do the South only care about development, both unable to concieve of one factor deviod of the other (Wapner, 2003). However, Northern governments are letting fall environment issues in favour of economic development (Wapner, 2003). The UNFCCC says that, developing countries will play a significant role in determining the success of multilateral climate change regime. It is accepted that there is a need for increasing attention towards accomodating Southern interests in the CDM specifically (Muller, 2002; Evans, 2009).

The economy has been seen to drive growth and development. However, it is also the problem and the best solution towards our survival, is to embrace growth via knowledge and science. It will be necessary to abandon the driving psyche of the economic bottom-line, as well as the excessive consumption of our resources, otherwise our survival is forfiet. The brundtland report stated that, the adoption of less-consumptive and less-polluting life-styles, is required to progress towards global sustainability (Nath, 2004). However, since the rich and powerful are as unlikely to renounce their wealth, as the poor are unlikely to rein in their developments towards a better life, there is a fundamental problem.

Ideas in the North, like sustainable consumption a concept which provided policies and strategies in the Netherlands, to curb levels of consumption, attempt to reduce the nation’s impact on the environment (Spaargaren and Martens, 2005). On the other hand, even though the role of the resources sector in sustainable development is disconnected from the social fabric of life in the developed world, it is seen as the lifeblood of the economy in developing countries (Petrie, 2007). Once again the bottom line inhibits our progress and survival, it is not the economy or planet that needs saving, it is us. Although they are important, if we are not around to support the economy it will crash and the planet, well it will survive whether we do or not. Our prime directive in this crisis should be human welfare and welfare growth/development; charity they say begins at home.

“You Americans raped your environment in order to develop your country and raise your standard of living. Now we Jamaicans reserve the right to do the same.” – Jamaican Official (Evans, 2009)


It is reasonable to conclude that an abandonment of market mechanisms may be necessary to facilitate the substantive perticipation of Southern nations in global emissions abatement efforts which is required by the severity of the climate crisis. After all, a crisis of this magnitude will undoubtedly drain the ‘piggy bank’, those who do survive will be more valuable than abstract numbers and values, especially when it comes to rebuilding. Therefore, it is imperitive we accept that, protecting the economy in favour of the environment and/or human welfare is detrimental to our survival.

It is clear that the crisis is inevitable just as it is clear that we are entangled with the fate of the planet, for better or worse. Where sustainable development has failed CDM seems to fair better, even though it too has not completely solved the problem. The solution does not lie solely in the realm of policy but also in the state of mind of the people. Just like a train changes from a dead end track to a clear one, so also do we need a change of paradigm. In addition, science, knowledge and a true, unified UN will be indispensible tools in our efforts. Furthermore, these tools will aid to bridge the Nouth-South divide on the climate issue, putting both sides on the same page.


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