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What have the carbon emissions ever done for us?

On Monday, September 26, 2022, NASA’s DART mission provided the world’s first successful demonstration of planetary defense technology by shifting the orbit of the asteroid Dimorphos. The dinosaurs famously lacked the ability to shift asteroid orbits, and so 66 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid smashed into the earth and wiped them out (along with pretty much every other animal species with a body weight of more than 25 kilos). Humanity is not quite yet at the point of being able to deflect massive asteroids on the scale of Chicxulub, but we are well on our way. Soon, we will be able to protect humanity, the earth, and everything on it — as well as the untold trillions of humans and animals yet to be born — from this extinction risk.

And what made planetary defense technology possible? Carbon emissions in the Global North.

The Global North has been pushing out the global frontier of knowledge and technology for the last few centuries, and carbon emissions are a necessary byproduct of this process. These advances in knowledge and technology are public goods that benefit the world, not just the Global North.

Consequently, the Global North does not owe the Global South a Climate Debt. And the Global North is certainly not liable in either a moral or a legal sense for the loss and damage in the Global South due to climate change calculated on the basis of historic carbon emissions.

Think for a moment of the brilliant India Stack. The India Stack builds upon cheap distributed computing power and decades of software engineering. Indian firms didn’t have to invent this technology (again), and this meant that India didn’t produce the direct and indirect carbon emissions that creating this technology would require. But, all of the work that went into creating this knowledge and tech did require carbon emissions, these emissions just show up (in carbon accounting) as historic emissions for the UK and the US.

But this is as stupid as saying that a country that happens to import all products that require carbon emissions does not produce any carbon emissions of its own. It does produce those broadcasts, they are just in a different geographic location. Along the same lines, much of the knowledge and technology used in the Global South took carbon emissions in another time and another place to create. To the extent that you use computers directly or indirectly today, part of what is now classified as the historic US contribution to the world’s carbon budget is actually yours.

Fine, you might say, there are no doubt the odd example or two of tech/knowledge produced in the Global North that also benefitted the Global South. But on net, it must surely be the case that the Global North is screwing the Global South. But that’s wrong too.

Consider the most fundamental and valuable gift that knowledge and technology make possible: life itself. In particular, consider person/years (population x life expectancy) at different times in the US/Europe, Africa, and Asia:

At the dawn of the increase in world carbon emissions in 1850, Africa had only 27% of the person/years of US/Europe while Asia (due to a higher total population) had 201%.

But by 2019, Africa had eliminated the person/year gap with Europe and Asia’s person/year figure doubled relative to that of the US/Europe. The technology and knowledge that produced this explosion of life expectancy and population in the Global South would not have been possible without the carbon emissions of the Global North that were necessary to push out the global technology/knowledge frontier. At the most basic and fundamental level, then, the Global South has benefited enormously on net from the carbon emissions produced by the Global North.

So, there is no moral case for the proposition that the Global North owes the Global South a Climate Debt.

But, of course, a lot of people see Climate Debt as a way to get their hands on a lot of money. Consequently, the question of how much the Global North owes the Global South for the loss and damage caused by global warming is going to be center-stage at the November COP27 global warming meetings in Egypt.

However, as tempting as it will be to use the COP27 meetings to try and guilt-trip the Global North into paying massive sums for loss and damage, it’s not going to work and it will cause the talks to breakdown.

The Climate Debt guilt-trip isn’t going to work due to the combination of the powerful argument I am making here and the fact that the Republicans in the US are going to win control of at least one chamber of Congress in the upcoming mid- term elections. This means that the Republicans will need to approve US government expenditures, and there is absolutely zero chance that the Republicans would support paying massive sums into some loss and damage boondoggle. It is just not going to happen.

Consequently, if key players in the Global South use COP27 to insist as a matter of right that the Global North owes them $600 billion/year (this is the sort of number that is bandied about), the talks will completely breakdown. This will prevent progress on areas where progress could be made.

Thus, drawing upon the wisdom of the Spice Girls, COP27 would be rather more productive if takes as its motto “if you want my future, forget my past”. However, as philosopher Olúf?mi O. Táíwò argues, global warming discussions should not focus on a backward looking discussion about Climate Debt but should instead focus on how to construct and get to the world we want given the threats we face. This approach will provide a more useful foundation for productive cooperation between the Global North and the Global South to advance human flourishing.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.