No one is entitled to more greenhouse gas emissions

Ingrid Robeyns on the NRC climate blog

We look at climate change as a technical and management issue. But it is also a matter of ethics, argues Ingrid Robeyns, Professor of Ethics of Institutions at Utrecht University.

Imagine a village with a communal pond where all the villagers are allowed to fish. To maintain the fish stocks, the villagers may collectively catch a specified maximum amount. There is not a lot of fish to go around, but there is no need for anyone to go hungry. What would then be the fairest way to divide the catch?

The first way that springs to mind, is to give everyone a more or less equal share, perhaps with a little extra for pregnant women and children. If some villagers then took ten times more than they are entitled to, we would consider it unfair. After all, there would not be enough left for the others.


However, this is precisely how we deal with another scarce collective good: the amount of greenhouse gases we emit. If we want the earth to remain a habitable planet, we only have a limited emissions budget left - and we are spending that budget very rapidly. But the earth belongs to us all. No one can say that they have a moral right to emit more greenhouse gases than anyone else, except perhaps the countries that are still developing their economies.

Consumption patterns

The differences in the amounts of greenhouse gases that people emit are enormous. In 2015, Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty published their estimates of emissions on the basis of consumption patterns. We emit some 9 tonnes per year in Europe, approximately 20 tonnes in North America, 5.2 tonnes in South America, and 2.4 tonnes in South Asia and Africa. There are, of course, also enormous differences between the countries in these regions, and the rich in India and China also emit over 10 tonnes annually. More to the point, Chancel and Piketty also calculated the tonnes of CO2 each individual could emit if we divided the emissions remaining until the year 2100 fairly and squarely; that would amount to 1.3 tonnes per person per year.

No one can say that they have a moral right to emit more greenhouse gases than anyone else

What can we conclude from this? We are taking far too many fish out of our imaginary village pond. Even if we were to emit a little more now and less than 1.3 tonnes in the second half of this century and gradually bring it down to zero by 2100, we are clearly emitting far too much.

We must limit our emissions dramatically. But that is extremely difficult, given our current lifestyle. Only those who eat primarily vegan, only use green energy and hardly ever travel by air might not reach this limit. We can compensate for our emissions with offsetting projects in Africa and South America, for instance, but this can hardly be considered a long-term solution.

Many people are barely aware of the fact that their current lifestyle is not ecologically sustainable and, therefore, have no idea whatsoever of the problem we are all part of. Others do have the information but do not like the look and sound of a drastic change in lifestyle.

Critics claim that their individual contribution is merely a drop in the proverbial ocean and that only structural and institutional solutions are truly effective. There is a grain of truth in this, as institutional solutions are indeed far more efficient and solid. But, unfortunately, governments and businesses act far too slowly. Although the people in power have known about the harmful consequences of greenhouse gases for decades, too many of them still never look beyond economic or short-term interests. Is it fair for us, as responsible people, to make it our great-grandchildren’s problem?

Climate change is a moral problem

This is why we need individuals to command structural changes. Citizens should not see themselves just as consumers but as political beings who should demand the transition to a world free from greenhouse gases through activism, protests and social engagement. Climate change requires each and every one of us to critically consider our own emissions as well as our contribution as political beings to the necessary overhaul.

Moral problem

This process requires us to recognize that climate change is a moral problem. Anyone who has seen how the estimated emissions are distributed and compares the figures above with what would be our sustainable, fair share will automatically understand that this is an issue of distributive fairness. We can no longer uphold that this is not our problem. Climate change is a considerable moral challenge, privately as well as politically and institutionally.

It is important not to interpret the discussions on emissions as ‘moralising’ or ‘accusing’. We must face the serious facts of the situation, but not with a fatalistic or nihilistic frame of mind. What we need is national solidarity, as if we were at war.

If we regard this as a battle in which we are all engaged, we can start a public debate on how we can minimise the emissions in our own life as quickly as possible, come up with attractive alternatives and increase the pressure on governments, businesses and other powers that be to inform the population and effect an ecologically sustainable restructuring of our economy and society.

This blog was published on 21 August 2018 on the climate blog of the NRC.
Scientists from Utrecht University are reporting in the climate blog of the NRC on their research in the field of sustainability. They are united around the strategic theme of 'Pathways to Sustainability'.