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Climate Justice


A climate justice discourse has emerged in recent decades moving from an early focus on historical responsibility to equity-based arguments to a more recent rights-based approach. The notion of historical responsibility for climate change, championed by Third World and Western scholars, refers to the acceptance of accountability for the full consequences of industrialization that relied on fossil fuels. The nations that have controlled the process of industrialization, and have benefitted the most from industrialization, should restore the playing field to a level position by bearing most of the costs that are resulting from the accumulated greenhouse gases injected into the atmosphere by industrialization. The per-capita equity approach emphasizes current equality rather than past responsibility, arguing that everyone is entitled to an equal share of the global atmospheric commons as a sink for GHGs. These two arguments are explicitly articulated in the 1992 UNFCCC text as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities: The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in Global North countries. Per capita emissions in Global South countries are still relatively low, and the share of global emissions originating in Global South countries will grow to meet their social and development needs (UNFCCC 1992. preamble). Consequently, developed or Global North countries are required to reduce their GHG emissions and transfer financial and technological resources to help Global South countries reduce theirs. These arguments are compatible with the idea of ecological debt that demands compensation for past and ongoing responsibility for climate change. The greenhouse gas production runs counter to environmental justice, and gives rise to environmental liabilities The North therefore owes the South a carbon debt because of past and ongoing disproportionate use of carbon sinks and reservoirs, without any payment. This idea has been quite controversial not least because it is perceived to be politically untenable, impractical or guilt-inducing.

Climate justice is linked to racial justice, social justice and intergenerational justice, too. This is why we call not only for climate action, but climate justice. Not only climate change is happening, climate crisis is already upon us. To understand climate justice, we need to understand climate injustice: who causes climate change and who's hurt by it. Historical emissions matter today because countries are arguing about how soon they have to cut their net emissions down to zero. Big polluters like China, India and Brazil look a lot less guilty when you consider they've only recently become part of the problem. 

In 2020 researchers calculated how far each country is responsible for pushing CO2 levels beyond a safe threshold that we crossed in 1990. The study takes into account how many people live in a country, how much they emitted throughout history and includes emissions that cross borders through traded goods. The research shows that rich countries have outspent their carbon budgets – by a lot. The Global North has emitted 92% of the CO2 that pushed the planet beyond the safe levels. Global south countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have emitted just 8%. Unequal emissions are one big reason why climate activists are shouting about justice. Everyone already is affected by the climate crisis, just on a very different scale. But if we look at the people ruling Germany and sitting at the decision tables for the past decades, they have not faced their responsibility. They are destroying our environment. They need to act now, not later. CO2 heats the planet by the same amount, whether it comes from Germany or Kenya: The climate doesn't care about geography. Well, geography cares about the climate.

The world is very unequal and it's playing out in terms of climate change as well. So how can we make it fairer? Well, polluting countries can first turn off the CO2 tap and start removing their pollution from the atmosphere. Then they could pay reparations for using up more than their fair share of emissions. Some countries and companies are already doing something similar by paying poor countries to not chop down forests and instead plant trees. But instead of using that saved carbon to atone for their climate debts, they're using it as an excuse to keep on emitting by the name of Carbon Markets.

Climate reparations have to be part of that discussion and climate debt in particular is where we divide up who is responsible for the kind of ecological changes and climate changes we're seeing in societies but also the climate-induced disasters that countries are facing. Global North Countries have promised to contribute $100 billion each year in climate finance by 2020. But it’s 2021 and they haven’t coughed up. Yearly we have not been meeting the kind of targets that even Global North countries have set themselves. That finance mechanism is not meant to actually solve the problem. Another approach takes climate justice more literally: holding polluters to account in court. After deadly wildfires tore through Portugal in 2017, six young activists took 33 industrial countries to the European Court of Human Rights for failing to cut their emissions quickly. They argued that the countries are discriminating against young people who will have to live with the consequences of climate change. In  Germany and the Netherlands,  high court judges have ordered their governments to up their ambitions on cutting emissions. Activists also won a case against Royal Dutch Shell, forcing the company to pay for oil pollution and are now demanding climate-friendly investments too. The basic legal argument for assigning responsibility is your contribution to the problem – so how much do you emit, how much do you contribute to climate change, greenhouse gas emissions – and what is the possibility for contributing to the solution. The defendants argue that national courts don't have the right to rule on the climate because emissions and their impacts are global. But new generations of activists are fighting for them to take exactly that responsibility – and give them climate justice.

Climate Justice by Velanati Jyothirmai @ Lex Cliq


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