Historical Carbon/Climate “Debts,” and Implications for State Responsibility

CaptureAs this blog is being penned, the Parties to the UNFCCC are convening in Paris for COP21. The cynosure of the meeting is the mandate “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” to enhance climatic commitments. Thus, questions of fairness and equity in allocating emissions reductions and State responsibility are front and center. A new study by Damon Matthews in the journal Nature seeks to provide pertinent metrics to guide this inquiry. The study quantifies historical “carbon debts” of States, defined as the cumulative (since 1960) debt of countries whose emissions exceed an equal per capita share, and “climate debts,” defined as “the accumulated difference between actual temperature change caused by each country … and their per-capita share of global temperature.”

Among the findings and conclusions of the study:

  1. In terms of the “carbon debt,” the cumulative world debt (and “credit” for some countries) is 500 GtCO2 since 1960, and 250 GtCO2 since 1990. This translates into 40% of said emissions produced by countries in excess of levels consistent with their shares of world population;
    1. The United States is the leading “debtor” under these calculations, with the leading “creditors” being China and India, given historically low per-capita emissions. However, the landscape has changed more recently in terms of China, with its per capita emissions now pegged above the global average;
  2. In terms of so-called “climate debt,” the United States is responsible for 32% of the cumulative debt since 1960, with other significant debtor countries including Russia (10%), Brazil (9.8%), as well as Germany, Australia and Indonesia. Brazil and Indonesia’s debt is largely attributable to high levels of deforestation and methane and nitrous oxide emissions associated with the agricultural sector;
    1. Countries with the climate “credits” include India (35%), China (26%), Bangladesh (4.9%), Pakistan (4.3%) and Nigeria (2.4%)
    2. The total climate debt translates into 0.11C temperature increase form 1990-2013, or approximately a third of warming since 1990
  3. The decision as to whether to assess emissions based on territorial/production-based emissions or a consumption-based approach that allocates emissions associated with consumption of goods to consumer countries, can make a profound difference in the calculations of the “debt.” For example, China’s exported carbon debt is almost twice as large as its production-based value, and Russia’s transferred debt/credit is almost 35%. The same is true for large importers, such as Japan, Germany and the UK.

Among the class discussion questions that this article could raise are the following:

  • From an equity perspective, should a major product exporting country, e.g. China, be responsible for the emissions associated with said products when they are consumed in other countries? Does the fact that they derive profits from such production influence your answer?
  • The article suggests that we might wish to modify the per capita emissions metric for carbon debt to acknowledge differences in circumstances, e.g. cold temperatures. Do you think this would be a good idea, and if yes, what factors would you include and how would you weight them in the carbon debt equation?
  • The study pegs the respective carbon/climate debt and credits of countries based on emissions beginning in 1960. Would you establish a different baseline, and why?

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