Overcoming The North-South Divide in Climate Change Research and Policy

by Claudia Chandra

Nature Climate Change published a research paper in January 2017 by Malgorzata Blicharska and her associates from countries including Brazil, Kenya, Sweden, South Africa and India. The paper discusses the global North-South divide in climate change research, policy and practice, which originates from the Southern countries’ smaller capacity to undertake research. Countries are categorized into either “Northern” (members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development such as Europe, North America, East Asia and Australasia) or “Southern” (lower income economies such as Asia, Latin America and Africa.) The report highlights how the disparities that exist between Northern and Southern countries, in terms of science and knowledge, will become a greater hindrance to the development and practice of effective climate change reduction actions and policies. The researchers explore the extent of this particular North-South divide, study the underlying issues associated with it, and examine the potential consequences for climate change policy development and implementation.

The North-South discrepancy in climate change research is in need of significant development as this divide leaves developing countries and small island developing states (SIDS) most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. As these countries contribute the least towards climate change data and research, they are often unable to respond to its effects appropriately. The extent of the North-South divide is substantial, as exemplified by the World Bank’s data which states that expenditure on R&D in Southern countries was 0.38% of their GDP and 1.44% in Northern countries. Additionally, the number of scientific and technical journal articles published in 2011 by Northern countries was 10,442, a notable difference to the 1,323 published by Southern countries that same year.

The study also points out the underlying issues associated with the North-South divide; it is much easier for Northern countries to collect information and form knowledge on climate change as they have more resources and better chances of securing funding. Moreover, there is a prejudice regarding the ability of Southern research institutes to lead North-South partnerships in research, which additionally hinders Southern scientists’ ability to become lead authors in their work. Blicharska and her associates reference a previous study by Barrett et al. which suggests that further collaboration between Northern and Southern researchers is required so that Northern countries can better understand the social and environmental differences that a Southern country has if they wish to implement effective action plans to reduce climate change. This is because, at the moment, most studies on global assessments are more focused on climate issues affecting Northern countries with results that are not transferable to Southern countries.

In order to address the North-South divide and its effects, the researchers have provided practical solutions based on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These solutions emphasize the need to strengthen the technological and scientific capacities of Southern countries, ensure policies conducive to fostering their development, and foster international cooperation in science and innovation. Some of the suggested solutions include the establishment of North-South research programs, funding projects where the lead researchers are from the country that the research focuses on, and increasing the representation of Southern researchers in the media. These actions are beginning to take place as evidenced by the many Northern programs that sponsor Southern researchers such as the Wellcome Trust, which launched in March 2016 and assists scientists from non-G7 countries who have previous experience in the UK or US but wish to pursue their work in their country of origin.

The scientists note, however, that some limitations exist for their suggested solutions. One is that empirical evidence of the underlying causes of the North-South divide is lacking, which therefore makes it hard to develop appropriate plans and policies to suitably address this divide. Another is that Southern countries have a bigger need for socioeconomic development before they are able to allocate more resources into research. Thus, as suggested by T. Edejer, “only the development of national capacity [of Southern countries] will eventually put the South on an equal footing with its northern partners.”



Blicharska, M., Smithers, R.J., Kuchler, M., Agrawal, G.K., Gutiérrez, J.M., Mshinda, H.M., … Mikusiński, Grzegorz., 2017. “Steps to Overcome the North-South Divide in Research relevant to Climate Change Policy and Practice.” Nature Climate Change.








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