Time to Pay our Climate Debt

Nick Dearden

Since industrialised countries are most responsible for global warming, they owe poorer countries a ‘climate debt’. Rich countries need to pay off that debt by helping poorer countries adapt to climate change and by sharing the world's atmospheric space more fairly, says Nick Dearden at Share the World's Resources.

Climate JusticeLast week’s G8 meeting presents a worrying model of how climate talks will play out in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December. While rich countries fail to grasp the scale of the solution required to deal with climate change, larger developing countries are blamed for a lack of ambition.

While the very richest can’t agree on meaningful, let alone ambitious, targets for reducing their own emissions, one of Ed Milliband’s key challenges for the year is to get developing countries to “move away from business as usual”. 

The hypocrisy springs from an inability or unwillingness to grasp the nature of the environmental problem. Meanwhile, countries like Bolivia are proposing real solutions, and ones which terrify Western leaders: you can’t, they believe, deal with climate change unless you accept that rich countries are in significant debt to the poorest and embrace the concept of redistribution.

Their argument is simple and based on a premise which isn’t disputed. The rich world has gobbled up far more than its fair share of the earth’s atmosphere in order to develop. In essence, industrialised countries colonised the atmosphere, in the same way they did other resources.

Those rich countries now owe poorer countries a two-fold ‘climate debt’: first for over-using the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases and thereby denying atmospheric space to those who need it most. Second for the destruction that those emissions are causing.

The solution: rich countries need to ‘pay’ through redistributing a fairer share of limited atmospheric space, as well as helping poorer countries adapt to the mess they find themselves in. Environmental justice is little different from other forms of economic justice – redistribute resources so that those who’ve lost out from a specific model enjoy the same benefits as those who’ve done well from it. 

But ‘those who’ve done well’ often don’t see things in the same way. The limited and hazy agreements made by the G8 go nowhere near a fair distribution of the earth’s atmosphere. Right up to 2050, even if an 80% cut in emissions were to be implemented, the G8 will consume far more of the earth’s limited resources than they deserve, such is the scale of their current over-use.

The G8 could get away with cutting emissions by less than they should because they are demanding steep developing country cuts as well – recognising the need for overall emissions to shrink. In effect developing countries would ‘subsidise’ the necessary reduction which rich countries should really be taking, thereby preventing the developing world accessing the environmental space they need to build decent standards of living.

The climate debt of the rich world would just keep getting bigger. But rather like the banks who gambled with the future of millions of people, the richest propose that many of their debts to the poor simply be written off. 

Payment of the other part of the debt – to help clean up the mess – is even further ‘off track’, with tiny amounts of money committed to helping developing countries adapt and develop (or share, through relaxed intellectual property rights) new technologies to help their lower-carbon growth. Instead, proposals on the table to date include large quantities of new loans (so the real creditors become the debtors in economic terms) run through the World Bank, an institution which has championed high carbon growth for decades.

So the battle lines are drawn. Developing countries will not sit idly by while the rich go on consuming their dwindling chances for development and justice. They don’t see why they should make the first move – sacrificing their own development before the rich pay off their debts.

That’s why Bolivia has received substantial support for its proposals from a range of developing countries. It has also received support from civil society across the world, especially the Climate Justice Now Network, an umbrella covering groups like Friends of the Earth, World Development Movement, People & Planet and Christian-Aid.

Developed countries will spend the next six months in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit trying to marginalise these countries – doubtless with a good bit of bribery and arm-twisting along the way, helping them to meet the ‘ambition’ the rich feel that the poor somehow owe them. 

Of course, achieving a just outcome would not be easy. Predicting the future impacts of climate change is very difficult. Moreover, it would mean big changes to the way those who currently run the world live, and more political vision than we’ve seen for many decades. But the principles are clear: that the polluter pays for the excessive consumption of the rich, not the poor, and that in a civilised society redistribution is a critical way of righting historical injustice.

The developing world has set out its ambitious agenda. It’s for us to move away from business as usual if we’re to come close to meeting it.

Nick Dearden is Director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign. You can view the JDC website and join the campaign by visiting: www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk

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  • Posted on July 27, 2009. Listed in:

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