Can We Quantify Climate Debt And How Do Developed Nations Address Their Duty To The World On Climate Change?


“The point of discussing climate debt need not to be to assign guilt, but merely responsibility for bearing [the] cost.” So wrote Pickering and Barry in their essay on climate debt. The point of conceptualizing and quantifying a climate debt is not to lambast the wealthiest or highest emitters simply because of the fact they have contributed more to climate change to date. Rather, it is to acknowledge historical reality in the hope that international efforts to fight climate change work equitably. Climate debt as an analytical framework may also help resolve inherent tensions in international climate forums and any future agreements.

Developed countries have fully industrialized and moved into a post-industrial society characterized by high standards of living and the ability to mitigate against the worst of climate change. To get to that point, they have universally gone through some form of the industrial revolution including burning huge quantities of fossil fuels, which has now created a huge imbalance in the levels of emissions between different countries as well as a wealth disparity. There is also a power imbalance that goes along with that. The U.S., EU, China and Russia remain the most powerful nations in the world and are also the largest emitters of carbon. The situation is therefore that the most powerful countries on earth are those that are already rich but have used up most of the Earth’s capacity to act as a carbon sink

In terms of carbon emissions, the U.S. is responsible for roughly 25% of all emissions ever emitted, whilst EU nations are responsible for roughly 22% and China responsible for roughly 14%. It is, of course, difficult to any climate scientist to be completely precise and different reports vary somewhat but this illustrates where a large bulk of emissions have come from historically. China is currently emitting more than double any other country and if current trends continue, it will be responsible for the most emissions of any nation in history within 20 years.

When looking at emissions figures, however, the numbers such as those presented above only account for emissions produced within the borders of a country. This has had the effect of allowing some nations to falsely claim they are lowering their emissions more than they are, due to them importing carbon intense goods. For instance, according to Carbon Brief, “…even though domestic emissions have fallen 27% in the UK between 1990 and 2014, once C02 imports from trade are considered this drops to only an 11% reduction”. Viewed through a lens that incorporates emissions within imports, China’s emissions are 13% lower, the U.S. is 6% higher, the U.K. 36% higher and Russia 15% lower. The point of acknowledging imported and exported emissions is to show that developed economies which rely less on manufacturing and more on less carbon-intense industries are actually still responsible for more pollution presently than they would otherwise acknowledge which must be incorporated into the climate change decisions that are made in international agreements when it comes to emissions and consumption levels.

At international climate summits, the tension has played out time and time again. Most recently in 2018 at the UN climate summit, against the backdrop of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which detailed a 12-year countdown to a tipping point against irreversible climate breakdown, the Guardian reported that “The U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait joined forces to prevent the conference fully embracing the IPCC’s findings, watering down a statement to a weak commendation of the timing of the scientists’ report”. It comes as no shock that some of the world’s largest producers of oil would pressure the summit to make that alteration. Greenpeace’s Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said at the time that “governments let people down again as they ignored the science and the plight of the vulnerable”, whilst the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Head of Climate Change Gareth Redmond-King said, “…everyone’s future is at stake. We need all countries to get much more serious about climate ambition”.

Mr. Redmond-King is exactly right: the richest and most responsible countries have to do something drastic to correct the historical disparity in wealth and effect of industrialization and climate change. There are certain policies that developed countries can do relatively painlessly and some that might take a more concerted effort that governments will be reticent to adopt. I will outline different policies that could be achieved, with varying degrees of ease and likely resistance to adoption. The first easy legislation that could be passed is banning the use of private jets for all but absolutely necessary circumstances. We know how harmful flying is and this is one easy way to reduce emissions. More broadly, flying, in general, has to be taxed at a much higher rate. This could be means-tested so that the wealthier you are, the more you pay. The IPCC’s best estimate is that aviation is responsible for 3.5% of climate change with the potential to rise to 5% despite improvements in efficiency as fares drop but consumption increases. Therefore, increasing the price to at least capture the effect of the climate change that flights cause is vital. To coincide with that, massive spending on public transport infrastructure should coincide with a drastic reduction in domestic flights so that it is never cheaper, and if possible, barely quicker to travel somewhere by train as opposed to flying within a smaller country like the U.K..

Secondly, developed countries have to try to eat less meat, especially red meat but also other livestock and dairy products. Whilst it is improbable that governments will even get close to eliminating meat or dairy from the diets of their nations, new evidence in a study conducted by Poore and Nemecek shows that meat and dairy are responsible for only 18% of calories consumed but require 83% of farmland between them as well as producing 60% of the agriculture industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Individual consumers can make the choice, for instance, to go vegan but actually the changes that are necessary should be coming from the government, be it ending subsidies to the meat and dairy industry, or subsidise plant-based nutrition.

The land that could be repurposed from meat and dairy farming can be used to plant an abundance of trees within a larger process of rewilding. Rewilding is roughly defined as using human engineering and reintroduction of species where necessary to return ecological systems to their natural state of being. One scientific study into global tree planting titled “The global tree restoration potential” found “mind-blowing” potential for simply planting masses of trees even on currently available land, which would equate to 11% of Earth’s land. Half of that land is in the U.S., China, Canada, Brazil, Australia and Russia. The cost was estimated at £240 billion which is the most cost-effective way that we presently have to deal with climate change and is equal to roughly 1.4% of the U.S.’ total GDP. On top of that, wealthy nations should be providing monetary incentives to heavily forested nations, such as Brazil, to compensate for them protecting rainforests.

The penultimate policy I will consider is that developed nations in the Global North have to stop the pro-growth agenda that currently informs all high-level decision making. Another way of saying that would be to massively decrease the discount rate so that future environmental damage is costed like it was happening now. There are multiple reasons for that, the first being that growth now, at its current rate will simply lead to climate breakdown due to the need for ever-growing consumption to fuel growth. Second of all, the measure of growth, GDP, can’t accurately account for future costs of mitigating against or repairing damages from climate change. Thirdly, developed countries have to stop pursuing growth in order to fund the measures to prevent climate change so that developing countries have a fair chance to lift themselves out of poverty, just like developed countries have done in their histories. For these three reasons, growth in the global north has to be put on hold.

The final policy point to mention is that however many climate refugees are created from future natural disasters caused by climate change, developed countries must accept them without question. Per capita, it is, of course, those in Europe and North America that have by far and away from the highest carbon footprint (with a few small countries being exceptions to that). Those in the Global South have not created any future climate catastrophes and so the Global North would be doing the bare minimum by giving safe passage to those who are displaced by a crisis they didn’t create. Hopefully, the other policies discussed previously might mitigate the worst of the human suffering that climate change could cause.

Matthew Gold