Friday, September 29, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Friday, September 29, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Carbon budget’ proposal says US would owe $80 trillion to developing countries

What if you forced the countries that have burned the most fossil fuels since 1960 to compensate countries that have burned the least? The U.S. would be hit with quite a bill.

(CN) — How do you stop climate change? Easy: decarbonize the planet. Stop burning fossil fuels. Convert all coal and gas powered plants to renewable energy, ban gas-powered cars, ban about 50 other things, stop chopping down forests, cut back on a wide range of products including meat and fertilizer... and voila!

Figuring out who pays to completely overhaul nearly every aspect of the global economy? Well that's the tricky part.

A team of researchers, led by Andrew Fanning, a visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds and head of research and data analysis at the Doughnut Economics Action Lab in Oxford, has a bold proposal: make the rich countries pay for it.

According to the proposal, laid out in a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability, the United States of America would owe a whopping $80 trillion, money which would compensate countries like India, China and nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. The United Kingdom and the European Union would owe a combined $46 trillion. In total, the "global North" would owe the "global South" roughly $170 trillion.

"The United States and other wealthy high income countries would compensate those nations for essentially sacrificing their fair share of carbon in order for the world as a whole to stave off the worst effects of climate change," Fanning said. "It's almost more like a form of reparations."

In the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, a deal signed by nearly every country (one notable exception being Iran), the world set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Scientists have estimated that human-induced warming reached 1 degree Celsius by 2017, and that if the current trend continues, the world will hit 1.5 degrees by 2040. To keep the world from getting any hotter than that, we'd have to decarbonize — that is, get to a world where we're taking out at least as much carbon from the atmosphere as we're burning — by 2050. That would be a tall order indeed.

Fanning and his team have estimated that in order to decarbonize by 2050, the world will have to have held itself to the burning of roughly 1.8 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, from 1960 to 2050. They then calculated what each country's "fair share" of carbon would be, based on population size, to get their "carbon budget." Next, to determine which countries have gone over their carbon budget, and which have not, they calculated how much carbon each country has burned since 1960.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the U.S. is way over budget. They estimate that if current trends continue, the U.S. will have been responsible for more than 40% of the world's total carbon budget between 1960 and 2050. Russia will have been responsible for about 10% of the carbon budget. Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom are each responsible for between 5% and 10%.

Lastly, the researchers used carbon pricing to come up with the total value of all the extra carbon burned by wealthy countries, and assigned a total dollar value to it. Wealthy countries that are set to come in over their carbon budget would owe money; less wealthy countries that are set to come in under budget would receive money.

The U.S. would be liable for $80 trillion, or $7,200 per person per year until 2050.

“Climate change reflects clear patterns of atmospheric colonization," said the paper's co-author, Jason Hickel, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, in a written statement. “Social movements and negotiators from the global South have long argued that countries that have produced excessive emissions owe compensation or reparations for climate-related damages, which fall disproportionately on poorer countries that have contributed little or nothing to the crisis."

Curiously, the paper argues that China is due $15 trillion in "compensation due for atmospheric appropriation," despite the fact that it currently emits far more carbon than any other country — more than double what the U.S. emits.

Fanning explained that China is a relative newcomer to the club of heavily industrialized countries.

"Going back to 1960, China is still within its fair share of the 1.5 degree carbon budget, but on current trajectories, it looks set to really shoot past that around 2030," Fanning said. "So it makes a big difference what China does in the next couple of decades."

He added: "I think that what these results show, more than anything, is that if the world is to convince China to essentially give up, or sacrifice its fair share, then I think there's a solid claim to be made to compensate them, for that amount that they're sacrificing."

Needless to say, the paper is not exactly intended as a serious policy proposal. For one thing, the world has no governmental infrastructure to levy taxes and disburse funds to various countries. For another, injecting that kind of money into some of those countries — trillions of dollars to countries like Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria — even if spread out over decades, would cause massive inflation.

The paper, then, is more of an argument the idea that every country be responsible for its own decarbonization, or that other countries be expected to hold off on industrializing. It's also an argument for more global cooperation, and perhaps a stronger global governance structure.

"If you look at the math and the numbers, the 1.5 degree carbon budgets, even 2 degrees, it's very ambitious," Fanning said. "We're not seeing the level of mitigation needed. We're not even close. So of course, a much stronger and much more robust global governance regime would be helpful."

Follow @hillelaron
Categories / Environment, International, Science

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.