The industrial revolution was a great success for humanity, and rich nations in particular. It has enabled humans to use energy to create incredible wealth. But, the majority of the energy used to power this wealth and prosperity came from fossil fuels. The first was coal, then petroleum.
The atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide has been rising due to the burning of fossil fuels and some land uses. This is leading to a warmer planet and more severe storms. The climate crisis is short.
It is important to consider the idea of national responsibility for this global climate crisis. This is how much carbon dioxide each country has contributed to the atmosphere. If we can put a remediation value on these carbon emissions, it leads us to the notion of “climate debt”. The climate fairness doctrine would allow each nation to spend its fair share to repair the damage done.
NPR recently published an articleThis puts a value on how much carbon dioxide the top five emitters have released into the atmosphere since 1850 (roughly the beginning of the industrial revolution). The United States is at the top with 509 gigatons, followed by the European Union at 292, China at 285, Russia at 172 and Brazil at 110.
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It takes just a little bit more research to calculate each nation’s climate debt from these numbers. What would it cost to remove the carbon emitted by the offending country? It currently costs $70 to emit carbon on a European Exchange. The US would need to spend $36 trillion to emit 509 gigatons today. If you look at the cost to remove previously emitted carbon, it is approximately $800 per ton. This would make the US climate debt $400 trillion.
Carbon removal remains a young industry. But costs will fall quickly. This places the US climate debt at between $36 trillion to $409 trillion. Based on the $70/ton base price, the climate debt numbers of the top four emitters include the EU at $21 trillion, China at $20 trillion, Russia at $11 trillion, Brazil at $9 trillion, and Russia as high as $11 trillion.
These numbers are alarming and should help us to see that the financial commitments we made at the Recently concluded COP26 summit, GlasgowThey are a pittance. Humanity has dug an enormous hole with its industrial-carbon emissions. The debate about reducing current emissions suggests that we should stop digging. However, climate debt quantifies the amount of work it will take to fill the hole.
These numbers point to the huge impasse at various climate summits. Wealthy nations that have benefited in the past from climate emissions want future economies such as China and India to curb their future emissions. Meanwhile, nations with upcoming economies point out the historical record of rich countries.
A fair solution, it seems, would be to calculate each nation’s climate debt and come to agreement on a spending plan for each nation that would keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius in this century.
Gopal Miglani owns a software company in Des Moines.