Who should pick up the climate change bill?

Climate change effects are expensive. Sea-level rise, agricultural losses, drought, and extreme weather events are taking a toll around the world. Many of the most affected countries did little to create the problem. Who owes them a bail out?

Developed nations paid $10-20 billion annually from 2010 to 2012 as part of a 2009 UN mediated mechanism to help finance poorer countries struggling to implement mitigation, adaptation, and clean up actions. Debate over how to divvy up the $100 billion per year pledged by 2020 is creating a scramble for data on each nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some developed nations argue that their annual CO2 emissions have dropped in recent years, while levels in other less wealthy nations have increased along with their GDP, indicating shared fiscal responsibility should be more evenly distributed. One obstacle to reaching a consensus is that observed climate change is a result of CO2 accumulated over a century, not a single year.

The sum of historic CO2 emissions were used to rank countries in a paper published in Environmental Research Letters. Other greenhouse gases and land use change were included to quantify contributions in units of climate change, rather than the conventional tally in tons of CO2. Developed countries – the United States, China, Russia, Germany, and the UK – still top the list due to a persistent commitment to industrialization. High deforestation rates and agricultural expansion boosted Brazil to fourth place. Burning more forests than fossil fuels also elevated the ranking of Indonesia and Columbia.

Taking accountability one step further, the authors attributed CO2 released from fossil fuels to the nation where the raw materials were extracted, not consumed. Countries with substantial oil exports, such as Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria, ranked higher than would be expected from only their in-country CO2 emissions. The adoption of a producer-responsible strategy would invoke the US to claim ownership of future emissions from low-grade coal shipped from the west coast, and Canada for tar sands oil shipped from the Gulf coast. The debate over both projects may be impacted by an environmental impact assessment that includes the international community in addition to those at home.

Carbon emissions by ownership

The study may be a useful calculator for nations’ representatives sitting down to discuss how to cover the costs of climate change effects. They will likely still come up short on funds and perhaps a more complete solution would be to bring additional heads to the table. One third of all historic carbon emissions can be traced back to investor owned corporations, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP. Corporations that deal in fossil fuels profit from their exchange, yet they have so far been exempt from a commitment to any international climate agreement, as pointed out by Richard Heede in his article in Climatic Change. When it comes to cashing in on climate change, no one deserves a free lunch. – Miles Becker  | 27 January 2014


Matthews, H.D. et al. 2014. National contributions to observed global warming. Environmental Research Letters doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/1/014010

Heede, R. 2014.  Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Climatic Change doi: 10.1007/s10584-013-0986-y

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