Why China and the US should stop talking about each other’s emissions cuts

All nations have clear duties to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to their fair global share, regardless of other countries' actions

In the United States and other developed countries, including Australia and Canada, opponents of national commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions use a couple of key arguments to resist proposed climate-change policies.

As well those who say we have insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of adverse climate impacts to warrant action, there are people who argue that proposed climate change policies are too costly.

The cost arguments have included claims that proposed emissions-reduction policies will: unacceptably reduce national GDP; destroy jobs; destroy specific industries; are not justified by cost-benefit analyses or other welfare maximisation measurements; or are just too expensive.

Another very common claim is that it is unfair for the United States, or some other country, to be required to bear the costs of reducing its emissions as long as another country, such as China or India, is unwilling to cut its emissions in similar ways.

Viewed through an ethical lens, these arguments just don’t stack up.

The problem with cost justifications

As a matter of ethics all nations have clear duties to reduce their greenhouse-gas output to their fair share of global emissions because nations have ethical duties not to harm other people and nations.

These duties can be seen both in various ethical theories and international law. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to offer an example from climate law, nations agreed that they have the: “Responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”  

A recent conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is also relevant: “Common sense ethics (and legal practice) hold persons responsible for harms or risks they knowingly impose or could have reasonably foreseen, and in certain cases, regardless of whether they could have been foreseen.” 

Cost arguments are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore duties and responsibilities to others. But whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply economic efficiency and national welfare maximisation. This is so because certain governments and individuals are more responsible for climate change than others – they have much higher greenhouse-gas emissions in total tonnes, per capita levels and historical contributions.

Some of the poorest people in the world, who have done almost nothing to cause climate change, are the most vulnerable to its effects. These people will suffer the most if governments and individuals refuse to reduce their emissions. They have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high.

Where to set any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions is, of course, a matter of distributive justice about which reasonable people may disagree. Some very low emitting nations and people may be able to argue that they don’t yet need to cut their emissions, though the fact that total global emissions need to fall by as much as 95% by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change suggests almost all nations are emitting at levels above their fair safe share. However, any national articulation of what is fair must still pass ethical scrutiny.

The recent IPPC report identified the considerations discussed in the ethics literature as relevant for determining fairness in allocating national responsibility for emissions reductions. They include: responsibility for causing the climate problem; capacity or ability to pay for emissions reductions; equality or giving each human being an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse-gas emissions; and the right to development – a concept normally understood to give poorer nations an exception from emissions-reduction obligations so that they can meet basic needs.

In other words, only a limited number of considerations are recognised by ethicists to be morally relevant to the question.  None of these is the cost of reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions of high-emitting nations or people.  

The problem with waiting for others

All nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to reduce their emissions immediately without regard to what other nations do. This is because climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not national interest alone.

The duty to cease activities that harm others is not diminished if others contributing to the harm fail to stop. It would be absurd for one of two factories poisoning people downstream to argue it had no obligation to reduce toxic discharges until the other factory agreed to do the same. One of two persons beating up an innocent victim cannot defend his actions on the basis that he had no duty to stop while the other continued his assault.

Climate change is an analogous problem. Some very high-emitting countries are causing great harm to very low-emitting countries that alone can do little to protect themselves. Those poor nations are appropriately dismissive of arguments from high-emitting countries that justify their unwillingness to change the status quo on the basis that other high-emitting countries have not reduced their emissions.

Is it OK for the United States, or other nation, to refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions as long as another nation, for instance China, will not act accordingly? No.

Is it OK for China, or other developing nations, to refuse to reduce emissions on the basis that another developed nation has refused to act according to levels required of them? No.

The obligation of any nation, including the US and China, to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions is terminated only when emission levels are below those required by fair global allocations that will prevent dangerous climate change. (Although an argument can be made that, if it can, a country should continue to cut emissions beyond this point in order to avoid catastrophic harm to others – human rights theory requires governments with the ability to prevent human rights violations to do so even if they aren’t at fault.)

The United States and other high-emitting nations cannot make a credible case that their emissions are already below this level. They have a duty to reduce their emissions immediately. This obligation is an international responsibility that is unaffected by the actions of other nations.

A variation of the argument that a country like the United States need not reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions unless other nations do so is the claim that, if the US takes action and others fail to, it will not make a difference to the harms experienced by those vulnerable to climate change. This is not true. Any nation emitting above its fair share is contributing to those harms. Although the most damage may be caused by nations who refuse to reduce their emissions to their fair share, all nations emitting above their fair share make the harms worse.