What’s Canada’s Carbon Debt?

Martin Khor, of the South Centre, has done an interesting analysis for the (doomed) Cancun negotiations on climate change. The talks have broken down on north-south lines, with southern countries wanting to keep the Kyoto framework that puts the onus on northern (advanced, industrialized) countries to reduce emissions and give carbon space to southern countries carbon to develop their economies. I used to read a lot of Khor’s analysis for a southern perspective on international trade talks at the WTO; sure enough, very similar north-south divisions and political dynamics are at play in global climate negotiations.

Before getting to the Canadian content, it is worth summing up some of Khor’s analysis (shorter summary here; longer paper here), which is based on the ideas of (1) a carbon budget, i.e. the remaining emissions we can emit before dangerous climate change is locked in, and (2) the carbon debt from north (in Kyoto terms, Annex 1 countries) to south based on historical emissions that are well above a fair population share:

Cumulative global emissions have totalled about 1214 Gtons in 1850-2008. Of this total, Annex I countries accounted for 878 Gton or 72% of the total. Their share of population was about 25%, so their fair share was 310 Gton. and their … carbon debt … was thus 568 Gton for the period 1850-2008.

… To achieve a 67% probability of limiting temperature rise to within 2 degrees, CO2 emissions in 2010-2050 must be kept to below 750 Gt; a 75% probability requires a 600 Gt budget. … If a total budget of 750 Gton is taken, and Annex I population ratio to world population is 16%, then the Annex I fair share is 120 Gton. However to fully discharge its carbon debt (568 Gton) as at 2009, its allocation for 2010-2050 is a negative budget of 448 Gton.

… The main proposal (from some Annex I parties) is for a 50% global emissions cut by 2050 (compared to 1990) and a 80% cut for Annex I parties … is environmentally not ambitious enough. It would correspond to a carbon budget far above the minimum 600 Gton or 750 Gton in 2010-2050. Secondly, the implied distribution of the carbon budget is unfair. It gives Annex I countries a budget share of 30-35 per cent, compared to their 16% share of world population in this period. Thirdly, acceptance of this proposal means accepting not only the unfair distribution of the 2010-50 carbon budget, but also writing off the 1850-2009 cumulative debt of developed countries.

… [A]ccepting these figures (50%, 80%) implicitly accepts a specific emissions cut target for developing countries, and locking in this whole distribution of carbon budget and set of emissions cuts. An 80% cut by Annex I would [imply] [n]on Annex I emissions would go down by 5% [and] per capita emission … 50% below 1990 levels.

The math makes it pretty obvious that a fair solution based on per capita emission rights is simply not going to happen. So richer countries need to transfer money to southern countries to compensate for (a) past climate debt, and (b) ongoing over-emitting during the transition period from now to whenever we arrive at near-zero GHG emissions. Khor puts a value on existing climate debt of 568 billion tonnes, valued at $40 a tonne (based on Nicholas Stern’s research), as worth $23,000 billion, or a flow of $600 billion per year over 40 years. This would finance mitigation activities in the South that would decouple growth from fossil fuels and infrastructure investments aimed at adaptation.

What’s all this mean for Canada? Of the 568 Gt of climate debt, Canada’s share is 19.1 Gt, representing our cumulative emissions over what our fair share by population should have been. At $40 per tonne, that is $764 billion debt, and doing the same calculation as Khor, we owe almost $20 billion per year. That is about 1.3% of our GDP, and if it makes a planet habitable for human civilization over the long-term, a bargain.

Of course, we would still need to dedicate 1-2% of our GDP to our own emission reduction measures consistent with an aggressive global mitigation plan (not 80% reduction by 2050, but 100%). And that is not counting over-emitting beyond our fair share in the interim, which also necessitates payment.

So forget about “offsets” from the north financing projects in the south. Those projects need to happen, but the math says it cannot lead to a certificate that proclaims one to be “carbon neutral”. The real bottom line: we need to pour huge resources, domestically and overseas, into making the planet habitable for humans (and vast numbers of other animal and plant life) over the long-term, roughly 3% of GDP per year would be appropriate, or as the old Money Mart commercial used to say “just three bucks on a hund.”


  • I find it amusing that some people think equal per-capita emissions is somehow “fair”. Over-population is the problem. You may as well call for emissions targets proportional to land area.

  • Equal per capita emission rights is a valid concept of fairness, though there are others. Given that the atmosphere can handle only so much carbon dioxide before making life uninhabitable for humans, it is a public good — one that has been over-claimed by the richest nations.

    But I’m sensing more of the political problem in your comment, that “you and what army is going to collect on that debt”.

    As for population, the problem is excess at the top not sheer numbers. Cut out the bottom 60% of humanity and we’d still have an ecological crisis on our hands.

  • Agreed that per-capita equality is as valid a concept of fairness as any other, although it’s not one that leads to solving the problem: If the US manages to cut emissions by 50%, and China keeps on growing until it matches them per capita, the result is emissions from those two going up by rather a lot. It’s beside the point though.

    That “developed countries have far better developed infrastructure built using cheap fossil fuels” only puts them (us, I mean) at a disadvantage in terms of building an economy that does not produce massive amounts of CO2. Replacing all those machines, structures, and patterns of development is not so easy. Countries that are already engaged in rapidly building up new infrastructure, i.e. “developing” have the opportunity to build it right from the beginning. If they continue for another 20 years to build it based on fossil fuels, no matter how fair it may or may not be that they be allowed to do so, there’s pretty much no hope for avoiding climate change.

    Arguing about esoteric concepts like “carbon debt” accomplishes nothing. If there’s some way to run a successful economy without polluting the atmosphere, everyone needs to get busy doing it right now. If two kids are caught pissing in the well, you don’t work out which one has been doing it more often and tell the other he can keep at it until he’s caught up.

    To avoid this intractable problem of how to allocate emissions targets around the world, I would think it’s best to implement a “carbon tax” standard that everyone has to follow. The price ought to be the same everywhere. But I suppose that would be far too simple.

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