Part 2: Dirty Dishes in the Atmosphere: Carbon Accounting & Climate Justice

2022-09-08

 |  Technology/Innovation

Part Two: Climate Justice – “Who should do the dishes then?”

While the term “carbon accounting” may seem dry and boring (though it is anything but that – as I argued in Part One of this series), the term “climate justice” in turn seems daunting and severe. Justice is a heavy word – it feels legal, archaic, and burdensome. It demands something of us.

In Part One of this article series about carbon accounting, I explained what carbon accounting really is and explored some of the different ways that emissions responsibility can be attributed to different countries. Drawing on the “dirty dishes” analogy from Part One, where dirty dishes represent carbon emissions and an overflowing sink stands in for our atmosphere, carbon accounting is the art of determining who does the dishes – meaning, who is responsible for what emissions. 

However, climate justice doesn’t just ask who does the dishes, it asks, who should do the dishes? In this article, I will highlight some of the issues with how we currently account for carbon, using production-based accounting (PBA), defined in Part One. Climate justice asks a few very important questions that the PBA method overlooks, and that are essential to keep in mind as we address climate change, especially if we want to address inequalities, oppression, and global injustices as well.

What is Climate Justice?

First, we should get some definitions clear. What is climate justice? Climate justice has become a household term. You’ll see it scrawled on cardboard posters at climate marches, referenced by politicians and protesters alike. But what does climate justice mean?

Photo: A large banner stating, “Refugees Welcome” and “Climate Justice Now” taken at a protest outside COP26 in Glasgow, November 2021. Climate change disproportionately affects already vulnerable areas and populations. Photo by Eden Luymes.

Climate justice is a child or subset of environmental justice. Victims of environmental racism in the United States first used the term “environmental justice” in the 1980’s to describe the disproportionate pollution and environmental harms in areas primarily inhabited by Black communities and people of colour. It has since been used to describe the broader global fight against discriminatory pollution based on race, ethnicity, and other socio-economic factors. Climate change can be considered the biggest pollution problem we’ve faced to date, preying on and exacerbating pre-existing inequalities around the world. Climate justice therefore asks: Who is causing climate change? Who is most impacted? And who is profiting off of this pollution? Let’s go through these questions one by one to unpack the climate justice (or rather, climate injustice) black box.

Who is Causing Climate Change?

If we look at the largest emitters right now, China, the United States, and India have the largest carbon emissions footprint – and if we used basic carbon accounting, looking at PBA, that would be correct.

But climate change was not caused this year or even in the last 10 years. It has been brewing for centuries as we’ve pumped emissions into the atmosphere to fuel our industrial societies. In fact, many scientists argue that anthropogenic, meaning human-caused, climate change started with the Industrial Revolution back in the 1750s. So from a climate justice perspective, we need to look at historic emissions – who has emitted the most over time – and this changes the playing field dramatically (see the graphic from Our World in Data on cumulative historic emissions below). By and large, the largest emitters when we take historic emissions into consideration are “developed” nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, and countries in the European Union (EU). 

Photo: A visual representation of the cumulative emissions (emissions over time from 1751 – 2017) of different countries. Note the larger size of the USA, EU, and Canada boxes, especially relative to their populations. Source: Hannah Ritchie, Our World in Data, 2019.

The terms “developed countries” and “less-developed countries” are loaded terms that have problems of their own as they measure development based on wealth, technology, and industrialization. However these terms can be useful when discussing carbon emissions because the use of fossil fuels, from coal to oil, historically has been deeply tied to these Western notions of development since the Industrial Revolution.

“Developed” states, by nature of having industrialised earlier than “less developed” states, are thus responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions to date. The United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia alone are responsible for 61% of total atmospheric emissions historically (Foster et al 2019, 75). The United States alone is responsible for a quarter of all the carbon emissions in our atmosphere at a staggering 25% (Our World in Data, 2021)! Ultimately, for developing states, “the atmospheric space for the use of fossil fuels for their own development has already been taken up by the imperialist countries” (Foster et al 2019, 75). 

However, the current production-based accounting (PBA) of carbon doesn’t take historic emissions into account at all. It just looks at emissions in a given year. So from a climate justice perspective, this method of carbon accounting ignores centuries of unfair pollution on behalf of “developed” nations like the US, the UK, and most of Europe.

Who is Most Impacted?

While no country in the world will go unaffected by climate change, there are some places that will experience – and are already experiencing – the effects sooner and in greater strength. It is a deep tragedy and dark irony that climate change disproportionately harms already vulnerable regions and populations, such as low-lying developing states, subsistence farmers, poor and marginalised communities, informal workers, Indigenous peoples, women, and regions already prone to drought and extreme weather conditions. Climate change will only worsen inequality, hitting already vulnerable regions the hardest.

Photo: “Satellite imagery showing a side-by-side comparison of southern Pakistan on 27 August 2021 (one year before the floods) and 27 August 2022.” Source: Wikipedia, “2022 Pakistan floods”.
Photo: “Children carrying household items through a flooded area near Quetta in Pakistan during the monsoon rains,” 2022. This summer Pakistan has experienced fatal months of rain, monsoon, and flooding, worsened due to climate change. “Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable country to extreme weather caused by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index compiled by environmental NGO Germanwatch.” Source: https://phys.org/news/2022-07-monsoon-pakistan.html.

This fact is also not taken into consideration when we account for carbon by just using the PBA lens. Moreover, some “less developed” nations have a moral right to actually increase carbon emissions, to improve the quality of life of their citizens. The PBA method doesn’t account for differences in development or vulnerability to climate change. 

Who is Profiting Off of These Emissions?
You may be familiar with the now-famous finding that “just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions” (The Guardian, 2017) since 1988. Fossil fuel companies, whether private or state-funded, and their investors have profited and continue to actively profit off of the activities worsening the climate crisis.

Photo: A list of the top 20 companies responsible for global emissions from the 2017 The Guardian article. Source: “Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says,” by Tess Riley, The Guardian, 2017.
Photo: “Oil-drilling platform in the Brent Field, North Sea.” ExxonMobil is one of the highest emitting fossil fuel companies in the world. Source: UN Photo/Exxon Photo.

This is another huge justice issue that current carbon accounting methods often overlook – and in Canada it is creating a large loophole for fossil fuel companies right now. Canada is a large exporter of fossil fuel products, and when our oil and gas are exported internationally and burned outside of Canada they are no longer on our carbon “bill” – meaning that Canada is no longer responsible for these emissions, even though the fossil fuel companies here profit off of the emissions. Canada even has plans to expand and increase their oil and gas exports until 2050 (Carter and Dordi, 2021)! Plans to increase fossil fuel production and export in the midst of the climate crisis we face may seem ludicrous, but it is perfectly manageable because the emissions from these fossil fuel products do not occur within our borders, as these fossil fuels are exported and burned in other countries’ territorial jurisdictions.

How we account for carbon can therefore create loopholes for countries and companies that export fossil fuels to continue profiting in spite of the crisis at hand.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

I’m not trying to say carbon accounting is pointless, or even that the PBA approach is inherently problematic. We just need to take more than the numbers into consideration when we attribute carbon responsibility. We need to be aware and cognisant of other ways of carbon accounting – other ways of looking at emissions responsibility – in order to be fair in a very unfair world. And we need to ask these essential climate justice questions to decide how much is a country’s fair share. Wealthy, “developed”, fossil fuel producer states like Canada, the United States, and the UK for example need to drastically reduce their emissions – to an even greater degree than “less-developed” nations. These wealthy Western nations have been stacking up dirty dishes and profiting off of them for centuries, and it’s time to get to cleaning  before it’s too late.

Hope for a Cleaner Future  

Photo: A portion of a street mural in San Francisco, painted for the Climate Action March in 2018. Photo by Fabrice Florin.

As ominous as that may sound, and as complicated a task as it is to decide who should do all these dishes, including climate justice in our efforts to stop climate change is actually an injection of hope into the conversation. Climate justice allows us to see addressing climate change as an opportunity to also fix other inequalities created by colonialism, imperialism, global capitalism, and the uneven distribution of power inherent in the fossil fuel economy. And our generation gets to be the one to do it – to finally do the dishes, and demand that they be done in the fairest way possible. It won’t be easy, but it’s an opportunity to be hopeful; to dream of and then create a better, cleaner sink than we were given.

References

Our World in Data, 2021 – https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2 

Foster et al, 2019 – Foster, John Bellamy, Hannah Holleman, and Brett Clark. 2019. “Imperialism in the Anthropocene.” Monthly Review 71 (3): 70-88.

Carter and Dorti, 2021 – ​​https://cascadeinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Carter-Dordi-Canadas-one-eye-shut-climate-policy-1.1-April-16.pdf 

Photos

Cumulative emissions graphic – https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2 

Pakistan flood satellite images – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2022_Pakistan_floods 

Flooding near Quetta – https://phys.org/news/2022-07-monsoon-pakistan.html

List of top 20 companies responsible for global emissions – https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

Exxon off-shore oil facility – https://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/34848228942 
Climate march street mural – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Art_and_Activism_for_Climate_Action_%2844662814801%29.jpg