As governments gather in Dubai for this year’s climate conference, which starts today, two things are painfully clear. First, we are already in a climate emergency. Second, richer countries, and especially the US, continue to turn their back on poorer countries.
This year’s debate will therefore focus on climate justice and financing: how to share the costs of climate disasters, and the urgently needed transformation of the world’s energy and land use systems.
The Dubai conference is the 28th annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP28. The first COP was in Berlin in 1995. Our governments do not have much to show for their work. In 1995, they promised to stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
Carbon dioxide emissions that year were 29 billion tons, but this year are expected to total about 41 billion tons. Atmospheric carbon dioxide in 1995 was 361 parts per million, but now it is 419 parts per million. Then, the Earth had warmed by about 0.7°C compared with 1880-1920, but by now has warmed by 1.2°C.
The rate of warming is also increasing. From 1970 to 2010, warming was at a rate of about 0.18°C per decade. Now, Earth is warming by at least 0.27°C per decade. Within 10 years, we will hit the 1.5°C upper limit agreed at COP21 in Paris in 2016.
In fact, we will most likely break through that limit far sooner.
As a result, climate disasters are intensifying: floods, droughts, heat waves, super storms, mega fires and more causing deaths, displacements and hundreds of billion dollars of damage each year, with losses of US$275 billion estimated for last year.
What we need to do is clear. We need to shift from fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — to zero-carbon energy: wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, bioenergy and nuclear, depending on location.
Countries need to interconnect their power grids with neighbors to diversify energy sources, thereby building resilience and lowering costs. We need to shift to electric vehicles and the production of hydrogen for industrial use. We need to end deforestation by raising agricultural productivity of farms and managed forests.
These solutions are within reach, but there is no agreement yet on how to share the costs.
There are three costs to consider:
First, loss and damage from climate-related disasters. Second, the cost of adapting to climate change, that is, the cost of “weatherproofing” society. Third, the cost of overhauling the energy system.
When it comes to losses and damage, and adaptation, those who caused the climate crisis should help to pay for those who are suffering, but had little role in causing the crisis. That is, richer countries should cover much of the costs paid by poorer countries.
That is simple justice. When it comes to overhauling the energy system, no country has the “right” to emit carbon dioxide, so all should share the costs. Yet poorer countries need access to low-cost, long-term financing.
Now, here is the rub. Rich countries, especially the US, so far refuse to accept their fair share of responsibility for losses, damage and adaptation costs incurred by poorer countries. Nor have rich countries taken practical actions to ensure that poorer countries have access to low-cost financing for the energy transition.
The US is responsible for roughly 25 percent of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide emissions since the start of industrialization around 1750, even though the US constitutes just 4 percent of the world population.
The US has emitted roughly 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or about 1,200 tons for each of today’s 330 million people, while in poor African countries, cumulative emissions are roughly one-1,000th of the US rate, roughly 1 to 2 tons per person.
Nonetheless, US politicians brazenly recommend “voluntary” schemes to finance poorer countries, a transparent and rather pathetic ploy to shift responsibility away from the US.
If rich countries were taxed just US$0.10 per year for each ton of cumulative emissions, their payment would be about US$100 billion per year, with the US paying about US$40 billion per year. In addition, rich countries should be taxed about US$4 for each ton of new emissions, raising another US$100 billion or so per year.
The combined levies on past and current emissions would bring the total carbon dioxide levies to about US$200 billion per year, with the US share coming to about US$60 billion.
The US will no doubt continue to kick and scream to deny such accountability. It will claim that paying US$60 billion a year for past and current emissions would be far too costly — yet the US spends US$1 trillion per year on the military, a vastly excessive amount.
With an annual US GDP of about US$26 trillion, a levy of US$60 billion per year would amount to just 0.2 percent of it GDP, a sum that is easily within reach.
I firmly believe that justice will come. World power is rebalancing between the rich and poor, so that the ability of the rich world to evade its responsibility is coming to an end. I believe that this rebalancing will lead to new forms of global taxation under the UN Charter and supervised by the UN General Assembly, including global levies on carbon emissions.
Yes, this change will be a rude shock to rich countries that have long imposed their will on the rest of the world. Yet the climate crisis is teaching that we are in an interconnected world, where all countries must accept their responsibilities for past, present and future actions.
This increasing awareness of interconnectedness and responsibility is the path to justice and to sustainable development for all.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, is president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The views expressed in this column are his own.
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