The Global South’s contribution to the climate crisis – and its potential solutions

By Harald Fuhr, Professor of International Politics at the University of Potsdam, Germany

DEVELOPMENT-MATTERS-emissionsGlobal CO2 emissions in 2017 totalled some 36.2 gigatonnes (Gt), of which the Global South1 emitted some 21 Gt CO2 or 58%. In the same year, the Global North (including Russia) emitted some 13.7 Gt and contributed to some 38% of global emissions. The remaining 4% are mostly emissions from shipping and aviation (international bunkers).

CO2 emissions in the Global South are heavily concentrated. The top 10 countries of the South contribute some 78% of the group’s emissions (see Table 1). With some 9.8 Gt CO2, China is by far the world’s biggest emitter. In 2017, it emitted more than the US (5.3 Gt CO2) and the EU-28 (3.5 Gt CO2) combined. Just two countries, China and India, are responsible for almost 60% of the Global South’s emissions, followed by other countries in the range of only 2-3% each. In 2017, 56 upper middle-income countries contributed to 46% of global emissions, while 34 low-income countries, most of them in Sub-Sahara Africa, contributed to only 1% of the total. Despite the fact that the latter group hardly contributes to global warming, its countries are likely to be the ones most severely affected by extreme weather events.

The “rise of the Global South” (UNDP 2013) during the 1990s has been accompanied by “shifting wealth” towards emerging economies (OECD 2010). The Global South’s high energy (and carbon) content, however, has also contributed to a huge environmental footprint. While global CO2 emissions increased by 63% from 22.2 Gt (1990) to 36.2 Gt (2017) (see Table 2) with an average annual increase of 1.8%, annual CO2 emissions in the North have essentially remained flat since 1990, fluctuating between 13-14 Gt CO2. They actually decreased by 0.4% per year on average over the entire period. However, emissions in the South have increased by an average of 4.1% per year from 7.1 Gt (1990) to a staggering 21 Gt CO2 (2017). Within the Global South, China’s and India’s rises have been even more striking. China’s emissions have increased by 307% and those of India by 300% since 1990, with an annual increase of 5.3% for both from 1990-2017.2

If we add the emissions from land-use changes and forestry (LUCF) from 1990 onwards (see Table 3), Brazil and Indonesia join the world’s top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG), and the Global South’s share in global GHG emissions rises to 63% in 2014. Once per capita GHG emissions are calculated, several countries of the Global South receive surprisingly high values, some of them way above the EU-28 average (7 t), such as Paraguay (26 t), Zambia (24 t), the Central African Republic (14 t) and Bolivia (13 t). Although, countries of the Global South generally have lower CO2 emissions per capita (from fuel combustion), once total GHG emissions including LUCF (such as through deforestation) are calculated, per capita GHG emissions can rise significantly.

What about the historic emissions and the ‘’common but differentiated responsibilities’’ of governments that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stresses? From 1850 to 2016, the Global South emitted some 889 Gt CO2e of GHG (37%), while the Global North with 1 490 Gt CO2e cumulated significantly more (62%). However, if we take the period from 1990, the (Kyoto) base year for carbon emission reduction targets, up to 2016, the Global South has cumulatively emitted about the same amount (518 Gt) as the Global North (513 Gt). And if emission trends since 1990 were to continue in the years to come, cumulated historic emissions (since 1850) from the Global South would exceed those of the North in the early 2040s. Although such a scenario is very unlikely given our international commitments, it shows the Global South’s overall importance for solving the climate crisis.

The conventional narrative that the Global North is “responsible” for global warming, and that the Global South can wait and delay reduction efforts until it has achieved higher levels of development, is dangerously overstated. Given the adverse effects of climate change, particularly in low-income countries, this storyline entails a risky strategy: it protects the “high-carbon South” from changing its developmental pattern and reduces the welfare in the “low-carbon South”. In other words: arguing about historic responsibilities tends to ignore current trends and the need for swift transitions towards “decarbonisation” both in the North and in the South, particularly in their high emission countries. Given the global net-zero target in 2055, the longer the Global South’s delays its peak emissions in the upcoming years, the steeper its emission cuts will have to be. This will be particularly challenging in the upcoming decade, since consumption-oriented global middle classes are growing fast. For example, Asia’s middle class alone is likely to increase from 1.4 billion (2015) to 3.5 billion (2030) people as Kharas (2017) points out.

But the news is also good. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Investment 2019 report, “global power investment is shifting towards emerging and developing countries [with] remarkable investment in renewables … In most regions, low-carbon sources were the largest part of generation spending … [and] in India, total renewable power investment topped fossil fuel based power for the third year in a row” (IEA 2019: 56, 58, 60).

Interestingly, the narrative seems to change as well. Although “progressive decarbonisation” and a transition from high-carbon to low-carbon development will not be easy, addressing climate change can unlock plenty of new opportunities. If carbon transitions are managed well and equity concerns addressed properly, then most countries will benefit enormously from a new cycle of green, long-term low-carbon investment. Over time, green growth could create new jobs as well as restore and protect the environment.

Quite clearly, no “single” climate strategy for the Global South exists, and climate action will differ from country to country. Just as with development strategies in general (see the OECD’s “Perspectives on Global Development 2019”), moving out of carbon will also require reviewing and addressing a country’s specific needs, capacities and local contexts. While larger emitters would need to focus their efforts on mitigation, the poorer, low-emission countries of the Global South, with more exposure to global warming and greater vulnerabilities, would need to focus on swifter adaptation.

Although encouraging initiatives and government commitments to move towards low-carbon development are many, it is far from clear whether countries in the South, especially its top 10 emitters, will be economically and politically able to significantly lower their emissions and contribute to keeping global warming well below 2°C. This is a concrete challenge, particularly if the North – and its middle classes – maintain their current, ambiguous stance.







IEA. World Energy Investment 2019. Paris: IEA, 2019.

Kharas, H. The Unprecedented Expansion of the Global Middle Class. An Update. Washington, DC: Brookings, 2017.

UNDP. Human Development Report 2013. The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. New York: UNDP, 2013.

OECD. Perspectives on Global Development 2010: Shifting Wealth. Paris: OECD, 2010.

OECD. Perspectives on Global Development 2019: Rethinking Development Strategies. Paris: OECD, 2019.

1. “Global South“ is a contested term.  For the purposes of this article it includes countries that are members of at least three of the five following groups:  low to middle-income economies (according to the World Bank’s 2017 classification); countries with low to high Human Development Index (according to the UNDPs 2017 classification); Non-OECD countries; G-77 members; Non-Annex 1 countries (of the Kyoto Protocol).

2. All calculations are based on territorial (production-based) emissions. In the Global South, production-based emissions are some 10-15% higher than consumption-based emissions, while the opposite holds true in the Global North.