OPINION: Historic Emissions
The following is an opinion piece by Joshua Deru. Please note that the views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author's and not of OxCAN.
Historic emissions are hugely important because they indicate where the main benefits of industrialisation have occurred – those with highest historical emissions have reaped enormous benefits. There has inevitably been some spillover to other countries, however given the extractive and destructive nature (Parvanova, 2017) of the European industrial revolution for the rest of the world, the end result is overwhelmingly that the positive benefits lie with historic emitters, and negative impacts lie with historic non-emitters.
This matters because it directly impacts how we decide to take action. Historic emitters have a responsibility to decarbonise first and fastest (as they to some extent are doing), but they also have a responsibility to support other countries in their transitions rather than pointing fingers. Historic non-emitters rightly have a large focus in financial terms on development and eradication of poverty as they have so far had to do this with far less environmental destruction than historic emitters. They also have to deal with climate adaptation and resilience as they are disproportionately affected by climate breakdown. The responsibility lies with the historic emitters to distribute the benefits of their industrialisation so that other countries can take further action. This can be tied or invested directly in decarbonisation activities, rather than our current approach of finding and extracting cheap fossil fuels in these countries.
The same can be said about deforestation in Brazil and globally – the destruction of the Amazon is devastating but 1) it is largely driven by non-Brazilian TNCs acting on behalf of non-Brazilian interests, and 2) Europe has already deforested almost all of its land and reaps enormous benefits from the agricultural and industrial land it has replaced it with. This matters because it affects the levers we must pull to effect change - if we want Brazil to stop its deforestation and not follow suit, we must support its farmers, engage in remediative action and provide financial compensations.
The effect of using consumption-based emissions rather than territorial is significant. It also would be most accurate to use ‘overshoot’ rather than gross emissions, as this adjusts for expected emissions. See Hickel, 2020 which demonstrates that ~70% of overshoot lies in OECD Annex 1 Countries.
Given the ‘Global North’ (this term is uncomfortable but is the one is used) has exceeded its carbon allowance by 875 GtCO2e (see Hickel, 2020, above), compared to 75 GtCO2e for the RoW, at a conservative cost of carbon of $56/tonne, we (USA, UK, Europe etc) owe at least $44 trillion in climate reparations – and this is a conservative estimate on the true cost of carbon.
I agree that non-European/non-North American countries do need to rapidly decarbonise but expecting them to do it on their own without obvious support and financial reparative action is unjust and a neglect of responsibility.
Western countries should demonstrate ‘leadership’.
Largely answered above, but quick points to add - characterising non-Western countries as having ‘no interest’ in reducing emissions, and as not demonstrating leadership, is a misrepresentation of global climate action and geopolitics. If ‘developed’ nations believe they are the only ones concerned by climate change they are simply not listening:
1) China on its own produces over 60% of the solar panels used globally, and Chinese expansion of scale and industrialisation of solar and steel are arguably the key drivers in realising cost competitive solar and wind energy. While there are clearly huge ongoing issues related to human rights and labour conditions, saying that China has done nothing on climate is inaccurate.
2) Vulnerable countries have been calling for years for emissions reductions, globally aligned climate plans, and targeted action for climate adaptation and resilience. Had the world followed plans outlaid by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, for example, we would be in a much better place than we currently are. Indonesia, Bangladesh, and even Japan have been feeling the impacts of climate change for years, and it is only now that hurricanes have moved to USA and floods to the UK that negotiations are reaching serious stages.
3) Arguably the most significant development of recent years was spearheaded by the Philippines and the Marshall Islands – the “1.5C to stay alive” movement, which is likely to save billions of lives from climate impacts if achieved, was opposed by ‘developed’ nations.
Recent net-zero announcements (e.g. by China).
Agreed that Net-zero 2050+ announcements are ineffective. Having said that, almost no other economy has made a better announcement so this is a collective failure. In Britain we have an inadequate Net Zero 2050 target, for which we have set insufficient Carbon Budgets, that we are not even meeting. The latest 10 point plan set out only £12 billion in support of this, of which £4 billion was new money – compared to £27 billion to spend on building more roads. I would also point you to our government’s own climate analysis that shows the below:
i.e. we have failed to significantly decarbonise any aspect of our economy other than:
- Energy supply, which we owe largely to the development of cheap renewable energy in countries such as China (as well as just shifting from coal to gas, which is unsustainable in the long term).
- Waste management, which is largely due to our shipping of waste abroad (and our shift to plastic, which reduces carbon impacts but causes a host of other issues)
- Industrial processes, which we have achieved by decimating our local industries and outsourcing to other countries.
It’s true that recent Net-Zero announcements across Asia are insufficient but they are not out of place with the rest of the insufficient targets set around the world.