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Global Warming: Who should pay?

Climate Scientists have reached the conclusion that to avoid catastrophe, the average global temperature rise of the earth must be limited to a 2 degree Celsius relative to the pre-industrialisation levels. To realise this, CO2 emissions must be cut significantly at all levels. Whether this is true or false will involve rigorous review and analysis. The main ethical questions that must be reviewed include but not limited to the following:

1.      Is it wrong to exploit global resources in a way that imposes significant costs on future generations?

2.       Should pollution be free?

3.       Should we take steps to ensure that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is not doubled?

4.       Should world leaders agree on a cap on emissions?

5.       Must the countries with the biggest CO2 emissions over the last century be required to lead action on climate change?

6.      Is it fair to share the CO2 emissions’ right equally across the world’s population?

7.      What can Nigeria and indeed Africa do to derive the most benefit from all these?

Whichever of these you want me to discuss will depend on which side of the coin faces you. Let me begin with the question of fairness. What does a fair global climate regime mean?

The earth’s atmosphere is a common resource. By emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as a result of heavy industry, adequate power generation from fossil fuel based power stations, good transportation network and the like, a nation receives the full financial benefit of having a growing and stable economy. However, the cost associated with the damage to the atmosphere is shared by all nations on the earth. If every country continues to act in accordance with her rational economic self interest, the result will inevitably lead to a detrimental impact to all. To this end, world leaders have decided to effectively ration access to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and this is precisely what the global climate deal seeks to achieve. This is a herculean task indeed! It appears that to determine what rations constitute fair shares, nations should just be given the level of emissions that they will be allowed in the future. This, some have argued, is unfair. To do things fairly, they argue, consideration must also be given to the historic responsibility for emissions.  Climate Scientists claim that since CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for between 50-200 years, it is likely that significant emissions from the middle period of the industrial revolution onwards are currently in the atmosphere and some of today’s emissions will be there until circa 2200. Therefore, even if we stop “polluting” the atmosphere today with anthropogenic release of GHG, we still have a responsibility for our historical actions. There is no gain saying therefore that if the atmospheric space available as an environmental sink was unlimited, historic responsibility would be less of an issue.

 There is no doubt that anthropogenic production of CO2 has a clear correlation to wealth creation. Put another way, CO2 intensive economies became the largest and most successful economies. However, Climate Scientists claim that it is not possible to use all of the world’s fossil resources without inflicting catastrophic damage on the atmosphere. Developed countries, by acting first, have taken a far greater percentage of available atmospheric space leaving very little for developing nations and maybe none for a country with enormous wealth like Nigeria, crawling in her effort towards development. This leaves a huge issue in terms of equity. If developing nations accept that insufficient atmospheric space remains for them to grow their economies through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, they must ask developed economies to share with them, their historic wealth, equivalent to the ecological space that they took from them. Where they feel that they are being inadequately recompensed, they have a sovereign right (which might be taken away soon) to continue to pollute the atmosphere and remove their existing environmental sinks (forests) which are relied upon by the entire earth.  A further complicating factor of course is that the potential negative consequences of Climate Change including potential famine and increased spread of diseases will disproportionately affect developing nations.  

Global reasoning on this matter is that industrialized countries set out on the path of development much earlier than developing countries, and have been emitting greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere for years without any restrictions. Since GHG emissions accumulate in the atmosphere for decades and centuries, emissions from industrialized countries are still present in the earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, the rich nations are responsible for the problem of global warming given their huge historical emissions. They owe their current prosperity to decades of overuse of the common atmospheric space and its limited capacity to absorb GHGs. Developing countries, on the other hand, have taken the road to growth and development very recently. In countries like China, India, South Africa and Brazil, emissions have started growing but their per capita emissions are still significantly lower than those of industrialized countries. The difference in emissions between industrialized and developing countries become more pronounced when per capital emissions are taken into account. In 1996 for example, the emissions of one US citizen equaled that of nineteen Indians. This difference, known as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, recognizes that

  • The largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries;
  • Per capita emissions in developing countries are still very low;
  • The share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.
  • It is unfair to expect the third world countries to make emissions reductions considering the fact that their emissions come from satisfying basic needs as opposed to the rich nations where emissions result from luxury consumption and expensive life styles.

Developing countries will reduce emissions ultimately, but in a different way. The richer nations will have to provide the means for the developing world to have a transition to cleaner technologies while they develop. The scale of performance of poorer nations in this regard will depend on the effective implementation by richer nations, of their commitments towards financial resources and transfer of technology under a regime that must recognize that economic and social development along with poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of poorer nations. No doubt, this is a very complex project that mankind has chosen to pursue.

Telephone: +44-7985682587



  1. Pingback: GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE – WHO IS FOOLING WHOM? – PART 2 | The Nigerian Power System

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