Climate Change: Importance of the Global South

Last week’s COP25 Summit in Madrid should be an opportunity to focus attention on a global issue – of concern for all 7 billion people on the planet. Unfortunately, such global gatherings rarely succeed in considering the needs of the 6 billion who live outside of the Western world.

Instead, the summit will probably focus media attention on the precocious Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who has become the poster-girl for climate change activists around the world in recent months. She is undoubtedly passionate and charismatic, but her casting as the voice of the global youth does not ring true: ultimately, Ms Thunberg is a wealthy, well-educated and privileged young woman from a rich, prosperous developed nation in Europe. Much of the global youth does not have access to the opportunities or material riches that have graced Greta’s life: and the danger is, yet again, that casting rich Europeans at the forefront of this COP summit will mean that poorer people in Africa and Asia are forgotten and left behind.

Let us consider the case of another 16-year old girl – let’s call her Anizah – who grows up perhaps in Sumatra or Sabah. The global environment matters to her, as it does to Greta Thunberg, but Anizah also has more pressing concerns. She worries about her family having enough food to eat; about access to medicines and healthcare; about the provision and affordability of education. She cannot take for granted a prosperous future: she and her family must work hard for it every day. In regions such as Sumatra and Sabah, planting oil palm has for decades been a proven path out of poverty and towards prosperity. Studies and data illustrate this essential fact. Anizah is not alone: over 2 million families in Indonesia alone depend on palm oil for their incomes and livelihoods. That number likely includes thousands of 16-year olds who have never seen a racing yacht, but who yearn instead for a regular income, and access to education.  And yet, the European Union is banning Anizah’s palm oil exports, in the name of climate policy. NGOs and EU governments wrap heavy restrictions and red tape around the palm produced by Anizah’s family. It surely cannot be right that the poorest are bearing the burden of climate regulations, while the richest take the media plaudits.

The blame game must end; the demonization of palm oil and other developing world exports must end; and the UN SDGs need to be restored to the heart of global policymaking.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demonstrate a path forward, to avoid such negative consequences. The SDGs are a series of promises – a covenant – by the nations of the world to all the millions of 16-year olds, like Anizah, across the Global South. The SDGs are a promise to lift their lives – wealth, health, education, and so on – towards the prosperous life led by teenagers in Europe and the West.

In southeast Asia, and parts of Africa and Latin America, palm oil is an essential driver of meeting these SDGs. Palm oil contributes to at least 14 of the 17 SDGs. And yet, its production is being scapegoated by European climate activists. It is shameful that so many of those who present themselves in Madrid as enlightened souls, are pushing EU-backed regulations that condemn millions of palm oil small farmers to the darkness of poverty. That is not leadership: it is willful blindness at best – many would describe it as neocolonialist.

There is a massive disconnect in the current climate debate. Germany opens new lignite coal mines; Australia and Russia set records for land-burning; soybean and rapeseed planting continues apace, despite the massive and well-known inefficiencies. The target of the EU’s regulation, though, is palm oil. The target of media ire is Brazil, and Indonesia – not Germany or Australia. The developing world is today being lectured, and blamed, by those who for the past century have emitted carbon dioxide and other GHGs without a second thought.

This disconnect must end. The promises to the world’s poor – the UN SDGs – must be put back in the centre-stage where they belong. The facts of global poverty must be agreed globally, just as climate science is agreed globally. Palm oil production in rural areas lowers poverty, and raises incomes. It increases food production, and decreases hunger. These facts are not in dispute: the science and data are clear.

If there are environmental questions about palm oil production – and clearly, in some quarters there are – then let us have that debate, but let us do so honestly. Expansion of oil palm plantations has been capped in Malaysia, and paused altogether in Indonesia. Forest area in Malaysia and Indonesia is higher than 50 per cent of land area. The EU barely scrapes above 35 per cent. COP delegates must understand how disconcerting it is for palm oil producing countries to be cast as the bad guys – when the West has gotten richer, healthier and happier through decades of deforestation. COP delegates must recognize that shutting off economic opportunity for millions of developing world farmers will only deepen these suspicions and divisions. The blame game must end; the demonization of palm oil and other developing world exports must end; and the UN SDGs need to be restored to the heart of global policymaking.