Academic journal article Trames

Carbon Debt and the (In)significance of History

Academic journal article Trames

Carbon Debt and the (In)significance of History

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

1.1. Aims and structure

My aim in this paper is to discuss the so-called carbon debt from the point of view of normative political theory. I want to suggest that the retrospective character of carbon debt need not be given as much importance as is often assumed and that taking past events into account should not be interpreted as a call for reparations. The motivation behind acknowledging the effects of history is not to restore some previous 'just' situation. Instead, the reason why the past ought not to be ignored altogether is to show how past events have contributed to the current situation where some individuals today suffer undeservedly from not having had a fair starting position in life while others have been greatly advantaged, equally undeservedly. My main aim is to affirm the view that those in the affluent countries with the ability to pay ought to accept duties to pay a substantial portion of the costs associated with (anthropogenic) climate change resulting from past and present carbon emissions.

The paper is structured as follows: I will start with an introduction to the idea of carbon debt. In the second section I will briefly state my basic moral and environmental position. This includes a short discussion on the entitlements that humans have and the importance of resources. The third part of the paper returns to the question of fair shares touched upon in part one. Part four will be a short exploration of the causal responsibility principle and will function as a preliminary to section five which will examine the beneficiary pays principle. This will also be the largest section of the paper. In section six I will suggest how we might reinterpret the beneficiary pays account as, what I term, the advantaged pays principle. In this section I will also argue against interpreting carbon debt along the reparations line. In section seven I will offer a short account of what I see as the proper role of history when determining who should bear the costs of climate change. Section eight is the conclusion.

1.2. Carbon debt: introduction

Christian Aid defines carbon debt as follows: "Those countries that are using more than their fair share of the climate, and adding more to the damaging effects of global warming, are running up a debt to those countries that are using less than their fair allocation" (1999:5-6).

The above definition is, I think, illustrative of how carbon debt is typically conceived. First, the debt is seen as that between countries. Second, carbon debt is conceived as having two different aspects: On the one hand, it is argued that industrial countries are accruing carbon debt due to the damage done to the atmospheric system by the high levels of carbon emissions that these countries have produced (and continue to produce) as a result of which present and future humans are exposed to adverse effects of climate change. On the other hand, it is claimed that carbon debt is owed as a result of overuse of 'carbon space', that is, by exceeding what is considered to be a fair share of the Earth's absorptive capacity. I think that all of the above points are somewhat problematic and require further examination.

First of all, it is important to recognise that it is not the case that all countries (and/or other relevant actors) should have a certain share of carbon sinks and reservoirs 'just because' but, rather, entitlements and restrictions to emissions become a matter of justice when the damage aspect enters the picture. The reason why carbon emissions matter is that when total global emissions exceed the acceptable, or safe, level determined by scientific knowledge this leads to various changes in the environment, with ensuing adverse effects on humans (and other species). Various problems associated with climate change have been increasingly reported and publicised in recent years (see e.g. Parry et al. 2007, Stern 2007, especially part II). …

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