Should countries honor their climate debts?

September 8, 2015
Which countries are most responsible for the cost of environmental damages from global warming -- and the billions of dollars they could be owing. Credit: Concordia University

All countries have contributed to recent climate change, but some much more so than others. Those that have contributed more than their fair share have accumulated a climate debt, owed to countries that have contributed less to historical warming.

This is the implication of a new study published in Nature Climate Change, in which Concordia University researcher Damon Matthews shows how national carbon and climate debts could be used to decide who should pay for the global costs of climate mitigation and damages.

The countries that have accumulated the largest carbon debts on account of higher than average per-capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

The U.S. alone carries 40 per cent of the cumulative world debt, while Canada carries about four per cent. On the other side, the carbon creditors—those whose share of CO2 emissions has been smaller than their share of world population—are India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil and China, with India holding 30 per cent of the total world credit.

"Thinking of in terms of debts and credits for individual countries shows how much countries have over- or under-contributed to historical warming, relative to their proportion of the world's population over time," explains Matthews, study author and associate professor in Concordia's Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.

"This paints a striking picture of the historical inequalities among countries with respect to their greenhouse gas emissions and consequent responsibility for climate changes."

Calculating climate responsibility

To estimate differences in national responsibility for historical climate changes, Matthews first calculated carbon debts and credits based on fossil fuel CO2 emission and population records since 1990. It was around this date that scientific knowledge and public understanding of the dangers of human-driven climate changes began to solidify.

Since that time, the total carbon debt across all debtor nations has increased to 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. And it's still going up: the increase in world carbon debt in 2013 alone was 13 billion tonnes, or about 35% of global CO2 emissions in that year.

So what is the monetary value of this debt? "According to a recent U.S. government report, the current best estimate of the social cost of present-day CO2 emissions is about $40 USD per tonne of CO2," says Matthews. "Multiply $40 by the 13 billion tonnes of carbon debt accrued in 2013, and you get $520 billion. This cost estimate gives us an indication of how much we could be paying to help lower-emitting countries cope with the costs of climate changes, or develop their economies along carbon-free pathways."

Looking at the total world carbon debt, the numbers are even more staggering: the 250 billion tonnes of debt accumulated since 1990, at $40 per tonne, represents $10 trillion USD. "No matter how you look at this picture, these numbers are really big—much, much larger than even the most generous financial commitments currently pledged by countries to help with the cost of climate adaptation and damages in vulnerable countries."

CO2 emissions vs. degrees of debt

Matthews also calculated how much each country has over- or under-contributed to temperature increases as a result of a range of different greenhouse gas emissions. By this measure, the total accumulated world climate debt comes to 0.1 °C since 1990, close to a third of observed warming over this period of time. Again the U.S. is the single largest debtor, and India is the largest creditor. Some countries, however, like Brazil and Indonesia, switch from being carbon creditors, to being among the climate debtor countries, as a result of the additional greenhouse gas emissions produced by deforestation and agriculture.

"This idea of climate and debts and credits highlight the large historical inequalities with respect to how much individual countries have contributed to climate warming," says Matthews. "The historical debts and credits calculated here could be a helpful tool to inform policy discussions relating to historical responsibility and burden sharing, by providing a measure of who should pay—and how much they might be expected to pay—for the costs of mitigation and climate damages in countries with lower emissions."

What does this mean for the upcoming Paris meetings?

As countries continue to announce their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (or INDCs) leading up to December's climate talks in Paris, it is becoming increasingly clear that these emissions pledges will not be enough to meet the international goal of limiting global warming to 2°C (see related research by Matthews' research group published last month in Environmental Research Letters). The idea of additionally accounting for debts and credits would of course increase the burden placed on with high historical . "But these historical inequalities are real and substantial, and need to be fully acknowledged," says Matthews. "My hope is that this discussion will help lead to a stronger and more meaningful global agreement."

Explore further: Calculating the cumulative cost of carbon dioxide emissions

More information: Quantifying historical carbon and climate debts among nations, DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2774

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21 comments

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Grallen
4.1 / 5 (12) Sep 08, 2015
How does the choice of having unchecked population growth factor in? Per capita makes little sense if counties are not also responsible for managing their population.
leetennant
4.3 / 5 (13) Sep 08, 2015
For the final time - it is development that drives emissions NOT population. That's why the US has the highest debt NOT the highest per capital emissions (which is Australia, where our population is particularly small).

The over-population furphy is just another goalpost shifting rationalisation for the fact that this problem was caused by highly-developed, less-populated nations. Yes, India and China are growing in terms of their emissions debt but that's because of development. If it was population, they'd have been the highest emitters 50 years ago.
howhot2
5 / 5 (8) Sep 08, 2015
Good point @Leetennant. The UN estimates that the population of humans will stabilize at about 12 billion, and unfortunately it won't be voluntary. It will be due to climate change destroying and limiting food sources, making land unlivable and making water toxic and scarce. It's a very bleak prediction.

However, the source of climate change is development, and with that fossil fuel combustion. Eventually fossil fuel use will need to be outlawed, it is just that much of a problem (side note: The US really really does need a good cheap electric car for the masses. Who is going to be the next Ford and realize that?)

The efforts to effect the USA's production of CO2 taking place with Obama's directive to the EPA to limit CO2 emissions from coal fired electric plants is a step. Solar is growing, wind is growing and eventually I see the USA as a net exporter of renewable energy systems, like solar, wind, and smart-grid technologies. We could perhaps pay off our carbon debt that way.
Robert_D
1 / 5 (9) Sep 09, 2015
I rather doubt the accuracy of the supposed cost of CO2 emissions. I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that climate change isn't even a net negative.
dogbert
1.4 / 5 (10) Sep 09, 2015
Now the socialists have an actual amount of money to transfer from prosperous countries to less prosperous countries: 10 trillion U. S. dollars. The greed just keeps growing.
Joker23
1 / 5 (9) Sep 09, 2015
Mumbo jumbo just another way to vilify the United States by another mal-content living off, no doubt, the largess of the American Taxpayer, and, no doubt, with his hand out for more funding. Imagine, if you will, if this fellow had been around 10,000 years ago when there was a 5000 ft thick ice sheet covering North America ( and a major portion of the rest of the world, worrying about the results of Global Warming. Was the result all that bad? It is an example of the narcissism rampant in our world for man to think he can reverse a process when we cannot even predict the weather tomorrow with certainty and try to burden the same people who have done more for the world than any previous nation.
EyeNStein
1 / 5 (2) Sep 09, 2015
Transferring money between nations is certainly NOT a way forward. That just creates more intermediaries and corruption.

If our debt is to the environment, then that is where to repay. By means of extra forestation and sustainable food+energy. All new build property could and should be carbon neutral.
Minimum standards of service life and upgradability for goods need to be developed as recyclability has been.

Every person should be aiming for a carbon neutral lifestyle, but that isn't possible while our industries are crossing oceans and burning fossils to boost profitability.
runrig
5 / 5 (7) Sep 09, 2015
Imagine, if you will, if this fellow had been around 10,000 years ago when there was a 5000 ft thick ice sheet covering North America ( and a major portion of the rest of the world, worrying about the results of Global Warming. Was the result all that bad?


Do you really need someone to explain why this is beyond stupid?
What was the population 10,000 yrs ago?
What major cities lay on the coast?
Where were the 7bn people who had to invade others in order to escape/find water/food, and the inevitable wars.
Just another selfish ignoramous who's more bothered about his "Tax Dollars", (yes they're almost always US citizens).
Ah f***g diddums.
Develop a (compassionate) mind FFS.
MR166
1.7 / 5 (6) Sep 09, 2015
The biggest shame is the amount of scientific man-hours wasted on drivel like this. If their time and our governments money were actually spent on projects that could raise the standard of living in the world instead of raising governmental powers we would all be better off.
MR166
1 / 5 (3) Sep 09, 2015
Also, to include China in the list of countries that are owed remuneration is beyond belief. Their contribution to real pollutants is enormous. How many people worldwide does the US feed with our Co2 emissions? No, they only count imaginary harms when calculating debts.
MR166
1 / 5 (4) Sep 09, 2015
When the western world bankrupts itself with useless counterproductive spending I wonder who will be blamed? Huge budget deficits are the seeds of economic collapse. It will not be pretty.
antigoracle
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 09, 2015
The biggest shame is the amount of scientific man-hours wasted on drivel like this.

Even bigger than that is the corruption of science. NOAA and NASA have so "cooked" the data, we can no longer distinguish truth from fiction.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (8) Sep 09, 2015
If our debt is to the environment, then that is where to repay. By means of extra forestation and sustainable food+energy. All new build property could and should be carbon neutral.

How is this 'repayment'?

How does the 'environment' care?

What environment do you want to preserve, or conserve, or create?

Most people like to live in moderate temperatures between 20-25 C. Is this the environment that should be preserved, conserved, created around the world?

MR166
1 / 5 (5) Sep 10, 2015
Goodbye freedom via the death of 1000 cuts.
http://www.nature...-1.18311

Now they are proposing spy satellites to check very local Co2 emissions.
howhot2
5 / 5 (7) Sep 10, 2015
Well @MR166, Good News. Coal was dying anyway (at least in the USA). The best carbon sequestration technology is to keep the CO2 in the ground in the first place.

To really face head on the issue of climate change, it means we have to get off of all fossil fuel. So while there is still some time we need to quickly use fossil energy to build solar and renewable systems to replace fossil fuels. And that effort has to be global.

I know you deniers will disagree, but its the mother fckin truth.

MR166
2 / 5 (4) Sep 11, 2015
"Well @MR166, Good News. Coal was dying anyway (at least in the USA)."

Just to set the record straight, coal was not dying it was murdered.
dogbert
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 11, 2015
MR116,
Just to set the record straight, coal was not dying it was murdered.


And it was a conspiracy to commit premeditated murder.
dogbert
2 / 5 (4) Sep 11, 2015
MR116,
Just to set the record straight, coal was not dying it was murdered.


And it was a conspiracy to commit premeditated murder.
gkam
2.7 / 5 (7) Sep 11, 2015
166 and dogbert can buy their own coal plants. Lots of them are for sale here and in Europe, which has outgrown coal and nukes.

They both present environmental problems of immense magnitude, but it is economics which is killing them, at last.
MR166
1 / 5 (4) Sep 11, 2015
"They both present environmental problems of immense magnitude, but it is economics which is killing them, at last."

Never doubt the power of the government to make anything uneconomical!
Osiris1
4 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2015
According to Damon Matthews, China is clean as a whistle. Let this 'fellow' go to China and live in, say Shenzhen province, or in Beijing and go out to breathe its air and then say how clean and pristine China is. Or drink that water from its polluted rivers or eat the food raised and processed in active sewage. Or get treated with those tainted filthy processed 'med's the Chinese export to the west and even consume themselves. Better yet have him live in one of those dresser drawers the Chinese factory workers have to live in.

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