Climate justice demands more than a price on carbon

December 28, 2015 By 1 Comment

Bangladeshi coastal villagers already feel the effects of climate change, with frequent natural disasters
like flooding, tidal surges, river erosion and cyclones. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCAN)


In effect, the ‘developed world’ is going to have to decarbonize almost completely by 2050

Nicholas Low

October 30, 2015

On 30 November representatives of the world’s nations will gather in Paris to work towards a Universal
Climate Agreement to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

This will be the 21st conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change. The task before them is formidable.

Different nations vary greatly in how much greenhouse gas they currently emit annually. China is now
at the top of the list with about 23 per cent of the global total followed by the USA with about 16 per cent.
Australia contributes 1.3 per cent. However, these figures are misleading and unfair.

Environmental justice will be part of the discussion in Paris, and increasingly in future conferences.
The principle of justice on which the United Nations itself is founded says that each person is of equal
value no matter which nation, ethnic group, religion or gender they belong to.

It is a melancholy truth that poverty is what keeps global greenhouse gas emissions from rising much
faster than they are at present.

For instance, according to the World Bank, each Australian contributes about 16 tons of carbon dioxide
per year, while each Bangladeshi contributes a little more than one third of a tone. Other calculations
put the Australian per capita figure at 26 tons annually.

Greenhouse gas emissions are waste products of households and industry. If we think of the Earth’s
atmosphere as a global garbage tip of limited size for these waste products, the figures above mean that
each Australian is using 48 times more of that tip than each Bangladeshi.

Yet if we remember that Bangladesh, a low lying country on the Ganges delta, is at great risk of sea level
rise and extreme weather events, it is obvious that Bangladeshis are going to suffer more than perhaps
anywhere else from the climate change they did not cause.

This is not a matter for individual blame or praise. But the principle of justice, which most Australians
would support, requires that from now on greenhouse emissions per person should converge over time
towards a global average.

The task of doing that cannot be left to individuals acting voluntarily, any more than payment of taxes can
be voluntary. If taxes were voluntary there would be little cash available for national governments to provide
for the common good of all citizens. Similarly national governments must be mostly responsible for the
achievement of global environmental justice through taxation and regulation.

As global citizens, we all have a responsibility for ensuring, through the ballot box, that our governments
fulfil their responsibility for fair and effective climate policies.

The scale of the national task is not well understood. Data from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel
companies, BP, has shown that to achieve the two degree limit, a global average of 0.337 tons of
greenhouse emissions per person needs to be achieved by 2050. If the principle of equal justice is applied,
will have to move from the current 16 tons per person to about one third of a tone, roughly equivalent to
what a Bangladeshi citizen emits each year at present.

The same principle applies to all developing nations. China will also have to converge to the current
Bangladesh per capita level, though China emits only about one third of Australia’s per capita emissions.

In effect, the economically developed world is going to have to decarbonize its part of the global economy
almost completely within 40 or 50 years. Coal and oil will have to be left in the ground. Action to reduce
carbon emissions will have to extend deep into nations, involving city and regional governments as well as
national governments

Imposing a price on carbon will be necessary but by itself nowhere near enough. Cities worldwide are
thought to contribute around 70 per cent of all greenhouse emissions. State and municipal governments
in Australia are therefore going to have to provide both the infrastructure and the land use regulation
to protect the future quality of life of citizens, and their mobility within and between cities.

By 2050 Melbourne and Sydney may be nearing the size London is today (6 to 8 million population).
Our cities, now deeply dependent on the private car, will need to transform their transport systems radically.

There may be a niche sector of driverless cars fueled by electricity generated from renewable sources,
but the major commuter flows, and even much local travel, will have to be by public transport (also
ultimately powered by renewable fuel), bicycle and walking. Such modes of transport have to be safe,
reliable and pleasant to use.

Locked in to ‘car dependence’ like a drug, I see very little sign that our federal and state governments
and the private sector urban development and infrastructure industries are even aware of the extent
of the urban transformation that will be necessary. But without that transformation Australian cities
will face a bleak future, economically, socially and environmentally.

Nicholas Low is professor of urban and environmental planning in the faculty of architecture,
building and planning at the University of Melbourne. He ran the first major international
conference in Australia on environmental justice in 1997.

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