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Dickinson to Durban » Climate Change, Key COP17 Issues » How to Balance Climate Justice with Collective Responsibility?

How to Balance Climate Justice with Collective Responsibility?

North vs. South - Who Should Shoulder the Burden of Climate Change?

Everyone is responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to global climate change, but some much more so than others. In an atmosphere that doesn’t care whether GHGs come from the rich or the poor, how do we balance the need for drastic emissions reductions with a mutually agreeable sense of fairness?

In chapter five of their book A Climate Injustice, Roberts and Parks explain four approaches from which to consider the question of fairness: grandfathering, carbon intensity, historic responsibility, and emissions per capita. Each perspective has differing implications for developed countries (the global North) and developing countries (the global South).

Grandfathering allows a country to make its GHG reductions relative to a baseline from their past emissions. The Kyoto Protocol is an example, as countries agreed to reduce their emissions a certain percentage from their 1990 levels. This approach favors the North, as it does not demand significant changes to the status quo. Carbon intensity looks away from the absolute amount of emissions to evaluate the quantity of emissions required for a certain level of economic output (measured as Gross Domestic Product – GDP). The idea is that countries would increase their efficiency to reduce emissions while still being able to grow economically. It fails, however, to actually limit emissions and disproportionately benefits developed countries, which have technology and resources to enable efficiency that the South lacks. Historic responsibility weights the primary contribution the North has already made to the problem, and calls upon them to make deep cuts while the South has time to engage in its own emissions. Finally, the emissions per capita approach takes the egalitarian viewpoint that every human being should have the same share of atmospheric GHG capacity. Such a plan would require severe reductions from the North, while the South could increase its emissions until reaching the common limit.

Dividing the Climate Pie - Can Everyone Share an Equal Slice?

What does all this mean? Deciding upon “fair” is no easy task. Roberts and Parks rightly state that “it is therefore…unlikely that a North-South fairness consensus will spontaneously emerge in the immediate future on the basis of one of these four approaches. Rather, what is needed is moral compromise…” (Roberts 150). But what would such a compromise entail?

I will not claim to know the answer, though there are several points I think should be included in it. First, the North needs to be willing to take the initial steps in seriously reducing GHG emissions. Second, it must also provide meaningful technological and financial assistance to the South to help them minimize emissions increases while still developing a reasonable standard of living. Finally, the South must be willing to accept that the Earth really cannot afford for them to repeat the North’s emissions history. To me, this seems like a true compromise; the North concedes to a significant burden of responsibility for action, while the South concedes to a development path that does not follow the expansive (yet emissions intensive) economic trajectory the North took. Setting the ultimate, long-run goal to reach the global balance called for in the emissions per capita approach would be the icing on the compromise cake.

Only time will tell if the North and South can reconcile their individual interests in order to reach a compromise like this and thereby provide the greatest good for all. Hopefully our trip to COP17 will bear fruitful insight into realizing this possibility.

Work Cited

Roberts & Parks, 2007. “Fueling Injustice: Emissions, Development Paths, and Responsibility.”  In Roberts & Parks, A Climate of Injustice, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 133-184.

For further reading on North vs. South in climate negotiations: see this article from COP15.

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3 Responses to "How to Balance Climate Justice with Collective Responsibility?"

  1. learyn says:

    The elements you propose for a moral compromise are appealing, and much of the discussions within the COP echo these points. The difficulties come in defining precisely and agreeing what different parties should/can do in each of these areas.

    The article that you link to at the end,”G77+China: least developed countries vs. major developing economies” is one that all of us should read. It describes splits among the G77+China bloc that emerged at COP 15 — and which also came out in our mock negotiations of Thursday evening.

    Neil Leary

  2. Timothy Damon says:

    You are correct; what I suggest sounds very nice, but the devil is in the details. Our mock negotiations really drove this point home, I think, when we all wanted to reach an agreement but got mired in the actual percents of emissions reduction and dollars of mitigation/adaptation aid. The principles were there, but the precise implementation was not.

  3. merive says:

    the book put something very crucial across. With our stat and data we are not even sure who takes a greater share and it now doesn’t matter the amount you put carbon you emit in the air…cross section (for all regions in the world) efforts are key in reaching COP17

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