A couple of articles at Slate.com address the issue of ‘climate justice.’ This is, in essence, the question of how much mitigation different states are obliged to undertake, as well as what sort of other international transfers should take place in response to climate change. The issue is a tricky one for many reasons – most importantly because anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions constitute a unique experiment that can only be conducted once. If we choose the wrong collection of policies, all future generations may face a profoundly different world from the one we inherited.
If we accept Stern’s estimate of a five gigatonne level for sustainable global emissions, that works out to about 760kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per person on Earth. Releasing just 36kg of methane would use up an entire year’s allotment, as would just 2.5kg of nitrous oxide. One cow produces about 150kg of methane per year. Right now, Canada’s per-capita emissions are about 24,300kg, when you take into account land use change. American emissions are about 22,900kg while those of India and China are about 1,800kg and 3,900 respectively. Because of deforestation, Belize emits a startling 93,900kg of CO2e per person.
The questions of fairness raised by the situation are profound:
- Should states with shrinking populations be rewarded with higher per capita emissions allowances?
- Should states with rising populations likewise be punished?
- Should developing states be allowed to temporarily overshoot their fair present allotment, as developed states did in the past?
- To what extent should rich states pay for emissions reductions in poor ones?
- To what extent should rich states pay for climate change adaptation in the developing world?
It may well be that such questions are presently unanswerable, by virtue of the fact that answers that conform with basic notions of ethics clash fundamentally with the realities of economic and political power. We can only hope that those realities will shift before irreversible harmful change occurs. Remember, cutting from 24,600kg to 760kg per person just halts the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. The level of change that will arise from any particular concentration remains uncertain.
Another vital consideration is how any system of international cooperation requires a relatively stable international system. While it is sometimes difficult to imagine countries like China and the United States voluntarily reducing emissions to the levels climatic stability requires on the basis of a negotiated international agreement, it is virtually impossible to imagine it in a world dominated by conflict or mass disruption. It is tragically plausible that the effects of climate change could destroy any chance of addressing it cooperatively, over the span of the next thirty to seventy years.