Climate policy is complicated. The latest authoritative IPCC assessment is 3000+ pages long and much of it is impossible for non-experts to understand. Nonetheless, last month, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry spoke plainly about emissions – and unintentionally hit on a basic simple truth about climate justice. Speaking to African ministers at a climate conference in Senegal, he implored them to avoid fossil fuels even as the rich countries are ramping up gas and coal use, explaining, “All of us are threatened by emissions. And Mother Nature does not care where those emissions come from.”
The comment sparked outrage and some wry humor on the continent, but it also got me thinking about the concept of a global carbon budget and the work of Ken Caldeira and colleagues on the marginal value of additional CO2. Kerry is correct in one sense that the specific origin of emissions do not matter to the atmosphere: one ton of carbon emitted in Germany is the same as one ton of carbon emitted in Senegal.
But the specific location of emissions matter a lot to humans because the beneficial impact of carbon emissions are very different in different locations.
That’s because the marginal development impact of additional fuel use is far greater in poor countries than richer ones. An average Senegalese increasing their emissions from 1 ton of carbon to 2 is life-changing; they might gain power for their first refrigerator, a motorcycle, an irrigation pump for the family farm, and power for the local health clinic. An average German increasing from 8 tons of carbon to 9 might have more power for cloud computing or for air conditioning or cheaper electricity bills. The additional emissions might make their life better, but not that much better. Put another way, climate justice is this simple:
The value to humanity of the next additional ton of carbon is far higher in Senegal than in Germany.
This basic truth also provides clear guidance of what should happen next. If we are allocating the remaining global carbon budget efficiently, any new emissions clearly must go to poor countries, not rich ones.
Sadly, the precise opposite is true. The current dynamics of global policymaking and control over finance rules allow the rich countries to ramp up carbon-intensive investments while blocking poor countries from doing the same. Germany is turning its coal plants back on and Norway is expanding gas exports, while both are telling countries like Senegal or Mozambique not to build gas plants. The status quo is both unfair and inefficient.
Climate policy may be hard. The math of climate justice is simple.