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Climate justice: An ethical dilemma of existential proportions

Climate justice: An ethical dilemma of existential proportions

Climate justice: An ethical dilemma of existential proportions

“Calling for all countries to adopt net zero targets by 2050 […] is anti-equity and against climate justice.”

So declared a few days before COP26 the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs), a bloc of 24 nations comprising China, India, and major oil producers like Saudi Arabia that is collectively responsible for half of all annual carbon emissions.

These countries hold that developing nations should not be expected to stop burning fossil fuels anytime soon. Not because they don’t believe climate change is real or an existential threat, but rather because it’s not their fault.

Forget the pledges these countries made in Paris, Glasgow, and in between. None of those are legally binding. If you want to know how they really plan to respond to climate change, you have to understand what they’re getting at here. This they do mean.


Which is a big problem for the world, because the atmosphere couldn’t care less about who did what. All that matters when it comes to climate change is total emissions. And the science says there’s no conceivable path to global warming below 2 degrees Celsius—let alone 1.5°C, the current goal—where China and India don’t stop emitting carbon dioxide pronto.

This puts the equity debate squarely at the heart of humanity’s ability to avert climate catastrophe.

Climate inequity by the numbers

Carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. Unlike shorter-lived greenhouse gases like methane, CO2 doesn’t go away—at least not on a human timescale. This means that all the carbon that we’ve pumped into the air in the past is still heating the planet today and will continue to do so in the future. Scientists estimate that cumulative emissions since 1850—when humans started burning fossil fuels at scale—already caused global temperatures to increase by 1.2°C relative to preindustrial levels.

In total, we have released roughly 2,500 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere, largely from fossil fuels but also from land use and deforestation. Most of these emissions were released in the last 40 years. The United States is responsible for 509GtCO2, or about 20% of cumulative emissions. China comes second with 11%, followed by Russia with 7%, Brazil and Indonesia with roughly 4% each, and Germany and India with 3.5% each. The top 10 is completed by the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada with 2.7-3% each.

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Countries with the largest cumulative emissions 1850-2021Countries with the largest cumulative emissions 1850-2021Carbon Brief

Accounting for population size tips the blame scale away from China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia, which account for 42% of the world’s population but only 23% of historical emissions. Conversely, the US, Russia, Germany, the UK, Japan, and Canada account for 39% of cumulative emissions but only 10% of the global population. The US has burned almost eight times more carbon per capita than China and more than 25 times more than India.

These numbers make it clear that Americans (and to a lesser extent the citizens of other industrialized nations) are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change. That’s a fact.

But while the US is historically responsible for more global warming than any other country, it is no longer the world’s largest polluter. China surpassed it 15 years ago, its annual emissions now more than double America’s and over one-quarter of the global total. While emissions in the industrialized world have been declining for over a decade, they are still growing in developing countries, which account for two-thirds of global emissions.

Countries with the largest annual emmissions, 208 CTCO2eCountries with the largest annual emmissions, 208 CTCO2eCAIT

Yes, the average American still burns more than twice as much carbon as the average Chinese and ten times as much as the average Indian. That’s pretty unfair. Not only did rich countries get rich by burning fossil fuels—we are also able to maintain living standards other countries can’t even dream of by continuing to burn much more than them.

But just as the atmosphere doesn’t care about where carbon gets burned, it also doesn’t care about fairness.

‘Fair’ is off the table

In order to have an even chance of staying below 1.5°C of warming, scientists estimate that cumulative CO2 emissions cannot exceed 2,900GtCO2. That’s our carbon budget. But we’ve already used up 2,500GtCO2 through 2021, meaning that the world has only about 400GtCO2 left to burn, ever. That’s equivalent to 11 years’ worth of emissions at the current pace of 36GtCO2 per year.

Carbon budget to limit global warmingCarbon budget to limit global warmingGliobal Carbon Project

In other words, to limit warming to 1.5°C, global emissions have to go down by 8% every year from now until 2050. With every passing year that emissions don’t decrease by that amount—let alone stay flat or increase, as has been the norm—the magnitude and speed of the emissions cuts required become even more fantastical.

Who should bear the brunt of this burden?

The obvious answer is ‘developed countries,’ given their outsized part in blowing through 86% of the world’s carbon budget. True enough, the vast majority of developing countries are well within their fair share of the carbon budget relative to their population size. Conversely, the US and other wealthy nations have long past exceeded their fair share, such that even if they reach net zero by 2050 (a big if) their emissions will still overshoot their fair share by 3-4 times. In fact, the New York Times reports that Americans used up their fair share of the carbon budget in 1944 (!). Whatever little budget space remains belongs entirely to developing nations.


Beyond the fact that they’ve been living on borrowed (read: stolen) emissions since D-Day, there’s another compelling reason why rich countries should be expected to do more than poorer nations to curb climate change: they can. Developed nations are, well, developed, so they have more than enough resources to meet their citizens’ needs already (even if these are unevenly distributed). That means that they can afford to engage in aggressive mitigation without compromising their socio-economic development. By contrast, for developing countries, decarbonization would necessarily entail condemning much of their population to poverty.

Expecting wealthy nations to take on more than poor ones is not just about retribution, then. It’s also about not depriving billions of people of the right to develop—a right that industrialized countries exercise to this day. Had rich countries not emitted (so much) more than their fair share, developing nations would have plenty of room left to develop like industrialized nations did, without having to quit fossil fuels cold turkey before they have the means to thrive without them.

Alas, they did, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Unless scientists figure out a way to suck enough carbon out of the air to offset developing countries’ emissions past 2050, the only way that the world can reach net zero by 2050 is if all countries—poor and rich alike—reach net zero by 2050. Forget right and wrong—that’s math.

'Justice Scales', an artwork made by Extinction Rebellion activists to illustrate the unequal consequences of climate change near the COP26 venue.'Justice Scales', an artwork made by Extinction Rebellion activists to illustrate the unequal consequences of climate change near the COP26 venue.(Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

So, to answer the earlier question: Should developing nations pay for the sins of much wealthier countries? Absolutely not.

Must they? Barring a breakthrough in negative emissions technologies, unfortunately, yes. They simply cannot pursue the fossil-fueled path to development rich countries enjoyed and keep the planet from warming much further.

As climate scientist Robert Socolow put it, “What’s fair is no longer safe. And what’s safe is no longer fair.”

What it’ll take

We’ve established that fair or not (not!), developing nations have to decarbonize if the world is to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C. But will they?

I know of no country in history to have deliberately and voluntarily chosen to impoverish itself.

In fact, this is one of the main reasons why the climate crisis has become so acute in the first place: citizens of every nation, no matter how well-off, have consistently refused to pay even modest short-term economic costs in order to decarbonize.

Justice and Peace artist Greg Mitchell completes his climate-crisis themed mural in Edinburgh. Justice and Peace artist Greg Mitchell completes his climate-crisis themed mural in Edinburgh. (Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

Had Americans been willing to start cutting emissions back in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, the path to global net zero would have been fairly painless. So much more carbon budget left, so much more time to gradually transition out of fossil fuels… But this isn’t a uniquely American pathology. Even Norway, a country wealthier than the US and a vocal climate change activist on the world stage, recently voted to keep producing oil and gas to further enrich itself rather than settle for its current standard of living.

No wonder enthusiasm from developing countries to do more with less is low.

Which brings us to what developed countries can do to allow the poorest people in the world to get to a renewable future without having to take most of the burden on themselves:

  1. Accelerate their own emissions reductions as much as physically possible. Most industrialized nations used up their fair share of the carbon budget decades ago. Since then, they’ve been running up a debt with developing countries—one that current technologies don’t allow them to repay in kind. But if they can’t give back what they appropriated, the least they can do is stop using up the minuscule headroom that remains in the carbon budget. The sooner rich countries decarbonize fully, the more “atmospheric space” they can leave for the rest to catch up before they have to give up fossil fuels.
  2. Aggressively fund decarbonization and adaptation in developing countries. Carbon equity (in terms of per capita emissions) is not on the table; developmental equity can be. Technological progress—as illustrated by the rapidly falling price of renewable energy, which is now cheaper than dirty energy for 90% of the world—has made it possible for countries to grow cleanly. The challenge for the developing world is paying for the large upfront costs adopting these technologies entails. To the extent that money can now buy the development boost countries used to only get from carbon-intensive activities, rich countries have an obligation to help developing countries leapfrog fossil fuel development through unconditional grants and technology transfers. Unfortunately, some climate change is already baked into cumulative emissions, and developing nations are both disproportionately vulnerable to the negative impacts and least able to withstand them. Wealthy nations must make the necessary investments to make these countries resilient.
  3. Invest whatever it takes to develop and deploy negative emissions technologies and lower the cost of decarbonization. Massive public investments in R&D are needed not just to induce exponential cost reductions in renewable energy, but also to develop innovative carbon removal methods that can make negative emissions viable. Some carbon capture technologies already exist, but they are too expensive and energy- or land-intensive to be deployed at scale. More money can (maybe) change that. Carbon removal is the only way rich nations can truly right their wrongs, by allowing them to restore nature to a state that did not disproportionately hurt poor countries through no fault of their own.

All three elements have to be pursued in tandem. The prospect of carbon removal technologies in the future cannot give wealthy nations license to keep polluting. Resource transfers to poor countries do not negate the need for much faster mitigation at home. And successful decarbonization at home would not in the least diminish their responsibility to invest in decarbonization abroad.

Environment activists march outside the British Embassy in Jakarta.Environment activists march outside the British Embassy in Jakarta.(Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Most importantly, these things actually have to get done. Developed countries failed to meet their promise to shuttle $100 billion per year in climate finance to the developing world by 2020, itself a woefully insufficient target. They are also still off track to meet their own decarbonization goals. If we want developing countries to pony up, there can be no more empty promises and unmet pledges.

Unless we’re willing to put our money where our mouths are, we’re going to see not 1.5°C warming, not 2°C, but rather the 2.7°C the planet is currently on pace for—a catastrophic scenario.

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