Why is it important?
As I wrote about a few weeks ago in the news, one of the main discussions at COP27 was about whether rich countries should help poorer, more vulnerable countries pay for the effects of climate change. Climate disaster is a priority this year, especially after devastation floods in pakistan killed more than 1,000 people, displaced millions more. The total cost is estimated to be up to 40 billion USD.
After two weeks of negotiations, delegates at COP27 an agreement has been reached about funding for loss and damage….sort of. There will be a fund, but how much it will have and how it will work is unclear. You guessed it, the details will be worked out at another United Nations climate conference—COP28 scheduled for next year in Dubai.
The countries that pay for the loss and damage fund do not admit to blame or accept liability for climate damage. But the founding of the fund and all the discussion around the harmful effects of climate begs the question: who got us into this mess? And who should pay for it?
History is not so ancient
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, history matters. Here’s what I mean:
- Some greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are long-lived: they are not very reactive, so they persist for a long time after they are released.
- Warming is a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
- So, when talking about climate responsibility, we should look at total historical emissions.
When I first learned about climate science, this logic took my breath away. It’s very intuitive, but it replays the debate around national climate responsibility in my head. I always hear that China is the country we should all talk about when it comes to emissions. After all, they are the biggest climate polluters today.
But when you add up the total emissions, it is extremely clear: The United States is by far the largest emitter of total emissions, responsible for about a quarter of all emissions ever. Next is the EU, with about 17% of the total. Finally we have China, in third place.