Norms and Values
International Institutions: Fighting Inequality

In the context of India’s G20 Presidency, Prime Minister Modi's LiFE (Life for Environment) programme is becoming an extremely important mechanism for creating fair new values of equality, both in access to fuel and energy, and in production and consumption for the future of mankind, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

In 2023, India took over the G20 Presidency. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s article on setting priorities for the Indian Presidency paid a great deal of attention to the problem of global inequality and the challenges of combating it. According to Modi, in order to achieve this, a “fundamental mindset shift” is needed. First of all, in order to ensure that all humanity benefits from global development, rather than just select groups of rich countries.

This topic of inequality was therefore the focus of the first kick-off conference of Think20, a community of think tanks within the G20, which was held in New Delhi in January 2023. Under the Indian Presidency, both experts’ and policymakers’ activities are supposed to be focused on this issue. Moreover, since two other developing countries, Brazil and South Africa, will chair the G20 after India, it can be expected that the topic of combating global inequality will not remain just a formal one-year exercise, but will really determine the G20 agenda in the medium-term. At the very least, it is worth hoping that three years is enough time to consolidate in global public opinion the “mindset shift” that Narendra Modi spoke about, and to firmly introduce the theme of equality into the number of global values shared by all of humanity.

Like the G20, BRICS has been focused on the topic of combating inequality and building an inclusive and equal world order. This is understandable due to the very nature of BRICS as a structure that unites, among other things, the largest developing countries from different continents. Year after year, the BRICS summit communiqué persistently formulates the task of combating global inequality. Within the framework of the BRICS value package, which at the conceptual level seems to us already sufficiently formalised and representing a pronounced alternative to the approaches of the Collective West, the theme of equality occupies a key place. This year, the BRICS chair is South Africa, and the promotion of the theme of global equality and justice has also taken an important place in the programme of that country as chair.

In the 21st century conditions, in addition to general socio-economic inequality, new forms of inequality are becoming increasingly important. One of them is closely connected with the climate agenda, as a large-scale green transformation is now on the agenda of certain international institutions and individual states.

With regard to climate inequality, it is important to note the following: the least developed countries of the Third World have made almost no contribution to the anthropogenic pollution of the atmosphere and resulting climate change. At the same time, due to their geographical location, many of them are poised to be the main victims of global warming. This is due to both the desertification of territory and the flooding of coastal areas and small island states. However, the trend that is emerging as part of the global green transformation does little to differentiate between developed and developing countries. Both groups, due to political and economic pressure, will very soon face the need for a sharp reduction in the use of fossil fuels, primarily coal. Such an approach will put poor countries in an extremely unequal position due to the lack of resources for the majority of their population to buy green energy.

Further aggravating this problem is the trend towards the global rejection of firewood as a fuel in order to protect forest resources. In poor countries, the implementation of this principle will actually push a significant part of the population to the brink of even greater poverty. Another global trend – to limit methane emissions – if also implemented in an undifferentiated manner, can drastically limit the opportunities for the development of cattle breeding in poor countries. Thus, unresolved global economic inequalities can only be exacerbated by new climate inequalities. Therefore, in the public opinion of developing countries, one can increasingly hear fears about “climate neo-colonialism,” when an undifferentiated green transformation will only lead to the final consolidation of inequality and deprive the poorest countries of the right to development.

Therefore, the developing countries have brought forth a completely legitimate demand: the principle of cementing the responsibility of the countries of the Collective West for the anthropogenic pollution of the atmosphere.

It is the activities of the developed countries that have led to the processes of global warming and climate change. This responsibility, among other things, must be expressed financially.

Under pressure to adopt this approach, developed countries have announced the creation of a special climate fund to help the poorest countries. However, this is seen as insufficient. In addition, the new green transformation challenges of moving away from coal, firewood and methane emissions make the required amount of this financial support even more ambitious.

In addition to financial support, it is also important that these processes for coal, firewood and methane be introduced in developing countries with fundamentally less persistence (and the absence of financial and tariff sanctions for their violation) than in the developed countries. Without this, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which seems to be enshrined in the relevant documents, will remain just more beautiful words on paper, and a lot has already been written in various political texts.

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Equally important is the differentiation of approaches in relation to consumption. One of the goals of green transformation is sustainable consumption. But the reality here is far from ideal. These processes are tangibly influenced by the policies of corporations, manufacturers and distributors, which actually encourage behavioural and social patterns of unsustainable consumption, by advertising temptations to purchase new versions of gadgets, household appliances and other things. This, in turn, provokes further unsustainable production and the waste of energy. Under these conditions, and given the risks associated with climate change, the risk of additional market pressure on price increases could become even more serious. According to expert estimates, if we extend the existing level of overconsumption in developed countries to every inhabitant of the Earth, we would require the resources of not one, but three to five planets like ours. The apparent global imbalance of resources directed to overconsumption in the developed world leads to the fact that there are simply no resources left for the developing world, and as a result we see massive under-consumption there.

Therefore, the on-going global trend towards unsustainable consumption and production, primarily in the rich societies, can increase the imbalance and inequality between developed and developing countries. Moreover, developing countries can become the hostages and victims of the dominant consumer behaviour in the developed world. It is very easy to imagine a situation where, instead of fighting overconsumption in the developed world, the countries of the Collective West will tacitly restrict the right of developing countries to decent and wholesome consumption. As a result, this can completely shift the focus and values: instead of limiting overconsumption, barriers will be placed in the way of the elimination of under-consumption in developing countries. This approach may become another form of neo-colonialism in the 21st century. 

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Expert Opinions

The solution of these problems is possible only through additional compensation being provided by the developed countries to the developing world. It is necessary to actively use and implement best practices and technologies around the world that will ensure sustainable consumption and production that do not exacerbate climate change, including by providing equal access to mineral fertilizers for developing countries. The use of the system of financial innovations should also become widespread. This will require a high level of solidarity on the part of the rich countries towards the poor. It is also critical that the global policy focus should be on eliminating overconsumption in the developed world, rather than perpetuating barriers to under-consumption in the developing world. In the context of India’s G20 Presidency, Prime Minister Modi's LiFE (Life for Environment) programme is therefore becoming an extremely important mechanism for creating fair new values of equality, both in access to fuel and energy, and in production and consumption for the future of mankind.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.