Climate debt

IssueDecember 2009 - January 2010
Comment by Jonathan Stevenson

Rich countries and corporations have grown wealthy through a model of development that has pushed the planet to the brink of climate catastrophe. They have over-used the planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Drastic measures now have to be taken to prevent runaway climate change, making it impossible for poor countries to grow their economies in the same way. Put another way, the rich world has “colonised” the earth’s atmosphere. This process has mirrored and perpetuated the vast economic inequality that exists in the world today.

Meanwhile it is poor communities, those least responsible for climate change, who are already facing its worst impacts. Three hundred thousand deaths are already caused by climate change each year. In a world with a limited capacity to absorb carbon emissions, rich countries have already used more than their fair share. They now owe a massive climate debt to the world’s poorest people.

Adaptation and mitigation

The major injustice of climate change is that while the rich world has caused it, it is the world’s poorest people who are already paying the price with their lives. Adaptation debt is what the rich world must pay to compensate poorer nations for the financial costs of dealing with the devastating effects of climate change, some of which are already unavoidable. In a recent report, The Climate Debt Crisis, the Jubilee Debt Campaign and the World Development Movement calculate that, based on its historical responsibility, the UK owes at least £5.5 billion a year over the next 40 years (£220bn in total) for its adaptation debt providing it stops increasing its debt immediately.

In one year, the UK emits more carbon dioxide than Bangladesh has emitted in its entire history. On a planet with limited capacity to absorb carbon, the rich world has left the rest of the world with little room to take the same development path.

It is therefore up to the rich world to fund alternative ways for poorer nations to realise their right to develop within a carbon constrained world. This is referred to as mitigation debt. Adding together the mitigation and adaptation debts, the UK owes the global South more than £600bn in total, assuming the UK stops increasing its debt immediately. Altogether, the global North owes many times this figure.