Anthony the question of which country should



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26, 2017


Responsibility on Climate Change

NASA reports that
the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius since
the late 19th century. The consequences of climate change include
longer periods of drought, more frequent wildfires, and more intense tropical
storms, which would lead to the destruction of infrastructure, agriculture,
ecosystems, and human lives. Consequently, climate change has become a global
issue that must be solved through a unified effort by every country. While a
combined effort is indisputable, the question of which country should be more
responsible of reducing emission remains. The answer lies within the fact that
the currently developed nations have been and still are free-riding the Earth’s
carbon sink through its historically high CO2 emissions and
currently high carbon footprint.

Up until the
industrial revolution, the Earth’s “carbon sink” has been a public good, since
the usage of it has never been a problem, as emitted greenhouse gases (GHGs)
could be safely dispersed by the ocean, atmosphere, and stratosphere. However,
after the transition to heavy industry, GHGs such as CO2 have been
produced at alarming rates, to the point where it could affect the Earth’s
climate for up to thousands of years. Because the atmosphere intermixes
globally, GHGs emitted by Great Britain 200 years ago, would still be affecting
everywhere around the world today. As a result, the Earth’s atmospheric sink
has become a common-pool resource that has always been shared globally but is now
subtractable for the past 2 to 3 centuries. Since climate change is a product
of emissions accumulated over time, historical accountability is essential to
judging each nation’s responsibility for climate change. According to the
Center for Global Development, the EU, US, and Japan are responsible for 65% of
the world’s emissions from 1850-2011. Therefore, developed nations must take on
a greater duty to find a solution and put a stop towards further aggravation of
the atmosphere.

There are two
common arguments against using historical emissions as a way to determine the
responsibility for carbon emissions. The first argument is that nations from the
past were ignorant towards climate change, therefore these nations should be
exempt from its historical responsibility. However, “it is an established
principle of the legal system of almost every country that ignorance does not
exempt one from liability for damage” (Neumayer, 2000, p. 188). Mistakes can be
made, but must also be corrected, especially since the developed nations have
made economic advancements due to their mistreatment of the atmosphere. Another
argument states that current individuals should not be responsible for the
damage caused by the individuals of the past (Gosseries, 2004, p. 41). Not only
are there overlaps of damage caused by the current generation and the past
generation in the last century, developed nations continue to pollute the
planet today through their carbon footprint.

Carbon emissions
per capita usually results in a skewed data set with oil exporting nations
dominating the top of the list. This is because international trade has caused
growth in emission transfers from 1990 to 2008 (Peters, Minx, Weber, &
Edenhofer, 2011, p. 8903). With globalization, many developed nations are
outsourcing their production to developing countries, benefiting from the
comparative advantage of cheap labor. However, in this process, pollution is
also being outsourced from developed to developing countries. As a result, the
negative social cost of carbon is reflected in another country through its
manufacturing. Therefore, another way to measure responsibility for climate
change is to use carbon footprints. Carbon footprints “refers to the mass of
cumulated CO2 emissions, for example, through a supply chain or
through the life-cycle of a product” (Hertwich & Peters, 2009, p. 43). This
means that carbon footprints measures the amount of CO2 produced
through the consumption of each product. In the same article by Hertwich &
Peters, they find that in a group of 72 countries with mixed economic strength,
the top 28 nations by carbon footprint per capita are developed countries. This
is due to the fact that a large amount of GHG emission is caused by
manufacturing goods, which people of developed nations consume at a high amount.

Although developing countries should not be exempt from taking responsibility
of its carbon emissions through the supply side, developed nations must also
take responsibility to reduce free-riding the Earth’s carbon sink through the
demand side of the global economy.

There are two ways
to avoid free-riding and solve tragedy of the commons. One way, proposed by
Hardin, is to either privatize or to regulate common pool resources through the
government. Since there is no way to privatize the Earth’s atmospheric sink,
regulation could be done by an international entity. For example, OECD, an
organization comprised of developed nations, proposed the environmental law of
“polluter pays principle”, where the party responsible for producing pollution must
be responsible for paying the damage done to the environment. If this holds, all
countries must contribute a proportional amount to solving this global issue accordingly
to their historical emissions. However, national sovereignty needs to be
respected and it is impossible to force nations to reduce emissions. This is
why the Kyoto protocol failed, because there is no governing body to enforce
emission reductions. If a group of countries followed the goal to reduce carbon
emissions, they would be put at an economic handicap in comparison to other
countries who do not follow the goal to reduce emissions, as those countries
would not be taking advantage of the “free-ride”. Also, since developed
countries are less vulnerable to the effects of climate change than developing
countries, there is even less incentive for developed countries to reduce their
emissions (Althor, Watson, & Fuller, 2016, p. 2).

Another way,
proposed by Ostrom (2009), suggests a bottom-up approach to ensure a
sustainable management of resources. She writes that a “complex, multi-level
system” is required “to cope with a complex, multi-level problem”. A polycentric
approach to reduce emissions at a global, regional, national, and local level
is needed by not only regulation, but also education about the benefits, so
that people would voluntarily contribute to the solution for climate change.

This approach would essentially decrease the carbon footprint of individuals
through regulations such as mandating the installation of solar photovoltaic
panels and solar water heating systems with suggestions such as riding a bike
instead of driving a car. Nevertheless, this is also extremely difficult to
enforce, as the cost of local regulation is high and people’s habits and daily
routines are hard to change. After all, there is no single optimal fix towards
this worldwide problem. Instead, effort to reduce carbon emissions must come in
small increments from every level of authority.

Climate change is
a growing issue and every nation must be responsible for contributing to the
solution. The world has been free-riding the biggest common pool resource, the
atmosphere, for a very long time. If people continue down this trend where CO2
emissions continue to grow, it would not take long until the atmospheric sink
would be depleted. Therefore, the majority of the responsibilities lie within
those nations who have historically gained vast amounts of wealth in the
expense of the atmosphere by paying proportionally to the environmental damage
caused. All nations must also begin to take a polycentric approach to reduce
emissions by minimizing the amount of carbon footprint each individual emits.

This is especially important for developed nations, as they are the ones who continue
to leave the most amount of carbon footprint per person.




















Althor, G., Watson, J. E., & Fuller, R. A. (2016). Global
mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate
change. Scientific Reports,6(1).

Gosseries, A. (2004). Historical Emissions and Free-Riding. Ethical
Perspectives,11(1), 36-60.

Hertwich, E. G., & Peters, G. P. (2009). Carbon Footprint of
Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis. Environmental Science &
Technology,43(16), 6414-6420.

Neumayer, E. (2000). In defence of historical accountability for
greenhouse gas emissions. Ecological Economics,33(2), 185-192.

Ostrom, E. (2009). A Polycentric Approach for Coping with
Climate Change. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Peters, G. P., Minx, J. C., Weber, C. L., & Edenhofer, O.

(2011). Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to
2008. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,108(21),