Bolivia: Rich countries must pay their `ecological debt'

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Retreat of the Chacaltaya Glacier, Bolivia 1940-2005.

Submission by Republic of Bolivia to the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] (AWG-LCA)

April 25, 2009 -- We call on developed countries to commit to deep emission reductions in order to advance the objective of avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and its consequences, to reflect their historical responsibility for the causes of climate change, and to respect the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities in accordance with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The causes and consequence of climate change

Since 1750 the emission of greenhouse gases has increased significantly as the result of human activities. These emissions have accumulated in the atmosphere leading to current atmospheric concentrations, which now far exceed levels dating back hundreds of thousands of years. These concentrations, in turn, are warming the Earth with significant and catastrophic effects. Current levels of warming are already damaging forest, mountain and other ecosystems, melting snow and glaciers, thinning ice sheets, causing the oceans to rise and acidify, threatening coral reefs and intensifying droughts and floods, fires and extreme weather events. These adverse effects threaten to worsen the damages already produced by the current global warming on the Earth’s systems.

The countries most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change are developing countries. Climate-induced disasters, water stress, adverse impacts on agriculture, threats to coastlines, ecosystems and infrastructure, and altered disease vectors are already imposing substantial and rising costs, damages and setbacks in development -– undermining developing countries’ rights and aspirations to development.

The historical cumulative emissions debt of developed countries

Responsibility for the majority of the historical emissions contributing to current atmospheric concentrations and to current and committed future warming lies with developed countries. Developed countries with less than 20% of the world’s population are responsible for around three quarters of historical emissions. Their current per person emissions continue to exceed those of developing countries by a factor of four. Their accumulated historic emissions on a per person basis exceed those of developing countries by a factor of eleven.

Developed countries -– which have contributed disproportionately to the causes of climate change –- now seek to appropriate a disproportionate share of the Earth’s remaining environmental space. By basing their future emission allowances on their past excessive level of emissions, they seek an entitlement to continue emitting at 70% or more of their 1990 levels through until 2020 (i.e. consistent with reductions of 30% or less). At the same time, they propose limiting developing countries –- which most need environmental space in the course of their development –- to much lower levels of per person emissions.

The excessive past, current and proposed future emissions of developed countries are depriving and will further deprive developing countries of an equitable share of the much diminished environmental space they require for their development and to which they have a right. By overconsuming the Earth’s limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, developed countries have run up an “emissions debt” which must be repaid to developing countries by compensating them for lost environmental space, stabilising temperature and by freeing up space for the growth required by developing countries in the future.

Quantifying developed countries’ mitigation commitments

Developed countries’ commitments to reduce emissions should be sufficient to address their historical emission debt, minimise their contribution to further adverse impacts on the climate and developing countries, provide sufficient environmental space for developing countries to develop, and conform with the ultimate objective of the Convention.

The scale and timing of these commitments should reflect the latest scientific information and be rooted in the objective, principles and provisions of the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol. They should be quantified on the basis of a clear and objective methodology that reflects, among other factors:

  • The historic responsibility of developed countries for current atmospheric concentrations;
  • The historic and current per-capita emissions of developed countries; and
  • The share of global emissions required by developing countries in order to meet their first overriding priorities which are the economic and social development and poverty eradication.

The establishment of assigned amounts of emissions for developed countries is a question of policy as well as science and must address issues of equity as well as effectiveness. The level of their assigned amounts also bears a close relationship to the extent of their obligations to provide compensation for the effects of climate change. Bearing in mind these considerations, the Annex to this document offers some possible elements of a methodology for evaluating developed countries’ emission debt and associated further mitigation commitments.

Emissions and adaptation debts are components of climate and ecological debt

Despite not being responsible for the problem of global warming, developing countries are among the worst affected its adverse impacts. The historical emissions of developed countries, as well as denying developing countries the atmospheric space they need for development, are harming poor countries and people who live daily with rising costs, damages and lost opportunities for development.

These impacts are the direct result of current atmospheric concentrations, which have been caused predominantly by emissions from developed countries. Developed countries are thus responsible for compensating developing countries for their contribution to the adverse effects of climate change as part of an “adaptation debt” owed by developed countries to developing countries. Developed countries “climate debt” -– the sum of their emissions debt and adaptation debt –- are part of a broader ecological debt reflecting their heavy environmental footprint, excessive consumption of resources, materials and energy and contribution to declining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Repaying their climate debt

The climate debt of developed countries must be repaid, and this payment must begin with the outcomes to be agreed in Copenhagen.

Developing countries are not seeking economic handouts to solve a problem we did not cause. What we call for is full payment of the debt owed to us by developed countries for threatening the integrity of the Earth’s climate system, for over-consuming a shared resource that belongs fairly and equally to all people, and for maintaining lifestyles that continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of the poor majority of the planet’s population. This debt must be repaid by freeing up environmental space for developing countries and particular the poorest communities.

There is no viable solution to climate change that is effective without being equitable. Deep emission reductions by developed countries are a necessary condition for stabilising the Earth’s climate. So too are profoundly larger transfers of technologies and financial resources than so far considered, if emissions are to be curbed in developing countries and they are also to realise their right to development and achieve their overriding priorities of poverty eradication and economic and social development. Any solution that does not ensure an equitable distribution of the Earth’s limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, as well as the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, is destined to fail.

Developed countries must therefore fulfill their responsibilities through deeper domestic emission reduction commitments than so far considered in the current negotiations, and through all available means to generate the opportunities required for developing countries to achieve their development. Developing countries are willing to play their part in addressing this common challenge. But any such participation can and must be based on the provisions of the Convention, on a clear understanding of the causes of climate change and its consequences, and on an equitable approach to stabilising the Earth’s climate system and to ensuring a sustainable future.

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