The ethical imperative of a fair emissions target

| March 31, 2018

The recent philosophical debate on Q&A was welcome in a country that hasn’t done much thinking for some time. The notable absentees were the politicians, generally wary of getting involved in such things.

When they are forced to do so it’s at international climate change conferences where debates endure over what emission mitigation burden is fair, who causes climate change, who suffers the impacts and who has the capacity to act. When scarcity constrains a carte blanche to pollute the atmosphere, what is an ethical contribution from a rich country like Australia?

The analysis above from Beyond Zero Emissions is as an example of a trajectory under an equal per capita emissions budget .  It shows up Australia’s current policy suite, with the National Energy Guarantee as the centrepiece, as woeful. If every country followed similar policy settings global warming could reach 3-4°C. Clearly this is not fair, but what is?

An egalitarian position means an equal per capita distribution of emissions rights based on the global ‘carbon budget’ – the total greenhouse gas emissions the world can emit to have a good chance of stabilising temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

While less politically practical, this would be fairer to the developing world than the Paris Agreement, considering the world’s poorest inhabitants will be most impacted by climate change—soaring food prices, increased flooding, heatwaves, social conflict—yet contributed very little to it. As shown in the graph, high per capita emitters like Australia and the US would have a bigger gulf between current and targeted levels.

The historical, or ‘polluter pays’, principle implies loftier targets for developed countries. The US’ cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from 1990-2011 were 16% of the global total (1% more than China).

However, broadening our gaze to 1850-2011 raises the US’ contribution to 27% compared with China’s 11% and the EU’s 25% — placing a much higher burden on the West’s responsibility to reduce their emissions. But should states be held accountable for something that was not indisputable until the late 20th century?

Economists like William Nordhaus often apply the utilitarian philosophy that underpins their economic theories to climate change mitigation and adaption responsibilities. Weighing up the present value of the costs and benefits of abatement will lead us to a ‘rational’ decision on when, where and how much to reduce emissions.

The same philosophy underlies some economist’s advocacy for using geoengineering to manipulate the global climate to ensure optimal economic output; what Clive Hamilton called the “height of analytical absurdity unsurpassed even in the history of economics”.

This analysis is blind to the inequity of the unequal climate change impacts, the problems of valuing nature in monetary terms and how to aggregate the welfare impacts of individuals, let alone nations.

If the combustion of our coal exports is included in assessing our contribution to climate change the picture is worse. If planned coal export projects are implemented by 2030, which both major parties have promoted with enthusiasm, the emissions from those in other countries will erase our Paris Agreement reductions seven times over.

Hence why implementing paltry abatement policies while continuing to indulge the fossil fuel industry is akin to bailing out the Titanic with a pan in one hand while opening a port hole with the other.

So what’s the answer? A start would be a climate policy framework that acknowledges limits. As ecological economists like Herman Daly have argued for decades, limiting the absolute scale of material throughput in the economy is the key to sustainability.

The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA) developed the idea of a ‘Cap and Share’ system. Permits representing an equal share of greenhouse gas emissions entitlement would be given to each person (or country) in total representing a safe level of emissions, potentially with more given to Western countries initially because their starting point is high, commensurate with a ‘contraction and convergence’ pathway.

Companies that extract fossil fuels would need to purchase enough permits from people that equal the emissions eventually released from their combustion. An alternative system would see the auctioning of permits representing quantities of greenhouse gas emissions to fossil fuel producers with the revenue redistributed to each state.

Both systems limit emissions at a safe level, while the poor benefit the most as their lower-carbon lifestyles would not consume their income from selling their permits or government rebate. The increase in price of carbon-intensive activities would incentivise the rapid uptake of renewable energy once fossil fuels become comparatively (even more) expensive.

On any ethical stance, countries like Australia should show some leadership support at least the consideration of such a scheme.

Instead, Pacific Island heads of state give desperate pleas to the UN General Assembly for the biggest polluters to drastically cut their emissions, only for the likes of Justin Trudeau to spruik his government’s environment and indigenous policies while simultaneously forcing through the Alberta tar sands oil project.

Is this affirmation of human nature’s base, selfish instincts? More so those of particular groups the Institute of Public Affairs would have you believe epitomise us all. Look to the town of Tathra for leadership, not Parliament Drive. For the evidence suggests humans are uniquely capable of extraordinary compassion and altruism, being unusually social creatures.

But to avoid climate disruption we don’t need a barrage of facts and figures – they don’t change people’s minds. Of course, to borrow from Ernst von Weizsacker, if policy makers and negotiators actually read books like Factor Five and Natural Capitalism they would less readily dismiss ‘contraction and convergence’, ‘cap and share’ and other innovative global frameworks once they realised the tools are there.

Thankfully, leaders like Paul Hawken, David Korten, Hunter Lovins, George Monbiot, and groups like the Club of Rome, are writing new stories of humanity that can harness the best of our nature so we can flourish within healthy ecosystems and rediscover that most endangered concept – community.