"Climate Justice"- these two words have taken such prominence that they could define the century. But what exactly does climate change have to do with justice? Aren't we all in this together? To understand climate justice, we need to understand what climate injustice is: who causes climate change and who's hurt by it?
Let's first look at who is responsible for putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and heating the planet? Let's imagine-- a grain of rice as one ton of carbon dioxide. Each year the average person in Nigeria adds less than one grain to the atmosphere, the average person in India two grains, in China seven grains and in Germany ten grains, in the US seventeen grains. It means that in one year, the average American pollutes 20 times more than the average Nigerian. But the problem of carbon is that it stays trapped in the atmosphere for centuries. So it's not just about how much we are adding pollution each year rather it's about how much has piled up over time.
Today, historical emissions matter as countries are arguing about how soon they have to cut their net emissions down to zero. Big polluting countries, like-- China, India and Brazil look a lot less guilty when we consider that they have recently become part of the problem. In 2020, researchers calculated how far each country is responsible for pushing CO2 levels beyond a safe threshold that we crossed in 1990. The study takes into account how many people live in a country, how much they emitted throughout history and includes emissions that cross the border through traded goods. The research showed that rich countries have outspent their carbon budgets by a lot.
The global North has emitted 92 per cent of the CO2 that push the planet beyond sea levels. On the other hand, the emission rate is just 8 per cent in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Even a massive emitter like China is only just using up its carbon budget now.
Just because we live in a country that runs on fossil fuels doesn't mean climate change is our fault. But some of our choices of living can still make a difference. Because, it's not just about where we live but also how much we spend. The world's 1 per cent of the richest emits CO2 as much as the 50 per cent of the poorest and those elites live all over the world.
Unequal emission is now thought of as one of the big reasons why climate activists are shouting about climate justice. This thought has been expressed by a 19-year-old Mexican-born teenager, XiyeBastida (new generation climate activist) at a time when world leaders took to the (virtual) platform at President Biden's climate summit.
But the matter is-- climate doesn't care about geography or location, but we can say geography cares about climate. The second part of climate injustice is that even though poorer countries have done the least to change the climate, they are the ones most hurt. For example, let's talk about heatwaves and drought. Heatwaves are becoming unbearable in Africa, where droughts are more punishing for crops.
The inequalities of climate change come together hardest in countries like India or Bangladesh. Even though we have barely contributed to global warming, we are among the most vulnerable. Our coastal cities are facing unprecedented floods when the rivers of the country dry up leaving our farmers struggling to grow staples like rice and wheat. But this inequality has been found in rich countries too. For example, black and brown people in the US or UK are considered poorer than white people which is commonly known for discriminatory behaviour in those countries. And these poor people have less money to spend on air conditioning to mitigate heatwaves. So how can we make it fairer?
Polluting countries can first turn off CO2 tap and start removing their pollution from the atmosphere. Then they could pay reimbursement for using more than their fair share of emissions. Some countries and companies are already doing something similar by paying poor countries for not cutting down forests. But instead of using that saved carbon to redress their climate debts, they are using it as an excuse to keep on emitting. The idea of reimbursement might sound radical, but rich countries already agreed to pay poorer countries to adapt to climate change. So a lot of issues like these are inter-connected. People have no clear idea what injustice the climate crisis is, so they should know about the facts to understand what climate justice is, how people are connected with it and why it's really important to think about.
Sabiha Ahmed Diba is working as a Research Associate at the Centre for Sustainable Development (CSD), University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. [email protected]