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Climate debt: making historical responsibility part of the solution

This publication from Friends of the Earth argues that with regard to climate change, historical responsibility for emissions means that compensation based on climate debt should be added to a rights-based approach for determining fair shares of environment space. Climate debt is conceptualised as a form of environmental injustice, where industrialised countries have over-exploited their ‘environmental space’ in the past, having to borrow from developing countries in order to accumulate wealth.

A set of policies and measures aimed at ensuring “sustainable development rights” that could be funded by the repayment of the climate debt have been developed. These involve an assessment of developed-country responsibility and capacity to promote decarbonisation in developing countries. The assessment is based on:

  • per capita emissions to assess responsibility
  • per capita GDP to assess capacity but also as an indicator of the amount of benefits received by the country as a result of polluting the atmosphere.

In order to implement this approach, it is recommended that the international community:

  • recognise the equity principle as essential with respect to the use of the climate system and emission rights
  • recognise both historic and present responsibilities for climate debt, establish the principle of liability and compensation, and set up international Climate Debt Funds (CDFs)
  • shift the lending priorities of international financial institutions. Funding should prioritise renewable energy and energy efficiency, and funding for export oriented fossil fuel projects should be phased out. Climate debt funds will be needed for grants as well as near-zero interest rates for energy efficiency and renewable energy
  • industrialised countries should commit to funding decarbonisation in developing countries, initiating a second target in addition to the mandatory domestic-emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. These targets should contribute to development. Meeting the targets would not replace domestic action in the industrialised country, and meeting the targets is not left to free market forces
  • developing countries should commit to emissions limits that are in line with meeting their development needs. Some countries will need to establish some type of sectoral targets to facilitate this process.

Funds for the repayment of their climate debt could come from:

  • taxing fossil fuels
  • removing subsidies on fossil fuels and and fossil-fuel based activities
  • fines for noncompliance and taxes on emissions trading
  • auctioning emission permits in annex I countries.

The publication also contains several related case studies set in Nepal, Brazil and Australia.