Wealth, Poverty, and Global Carbon Justice

“One of the most contentious issue that complicated global efforts to address the problem of too much carbon has to do with the fact that it was precisely through carbon-intensive fossil-fueled growth that the global North was able to achieve its advanced levels of wealth and development. And, in so many instances, this wealth and development depended on colonizing nations and peoples around the world, devastating their populations and limiting their ability to replicate the carbon-intensive path pursued by the North. This history, within which the few have consumed and polluted far beyond their fair share, simultaneously leaves the world’s poor and marginalized, those least responsible for climate change, bearing the devastating brunt of its impacts.” – Kate Ervine, Carbon (Polity Press 2018), p6.

Kate Ervine is Associate Professor of International Development Studies and Faculty Associate of the School of the Environment at Saint Mary’s University

Some Questions: Who has a right to the carbon that remains in the global carbon budget? At this late stage of climate disruption, is there anything left in the global carbon budget? Are we already in the red? And, of equal importance, will our proposed solutions to climate change repeat previous injustices vis a vis wealth and poverty? If we treat carbon as a market, as a commodity to be traded, will this not ipso facto build in the same historic injustices? Are nation-states the best agencies to address climate change?

For an informative podcast in which Ervine discusses her book Carbon (50 min.), see the link below. Note that in this podcast she often says “We should do this or we should do that.” In each instance, ask yourself: Who is this ‘we’? If you do this, you will begin to see the real difficulty.

Podcast: Interview with Kate Ervine

Some carbon terms defined: carbon sequestration, carbon sink, carbon offset, carbon neutrality

If you are just learning about climate change, you will want to be familiar with the following terms related to carbon:

Carbon Sequestration: Carbon sequestration is the process involved in carbon capture and the long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to mitigate or defer global warming. This may happen naturally or deliberately. As a natural ongoing process, it is the biogeochemical cycling between the atmosphere and various reservoirs, such as by chemical weathering of rocks. When carried out deliberately, the process may be referred to as carbon dioxide removal, which is a form of geo-engineering (Wikipedia).

Carbon Sink: A carbon sink is a natural or artificial reservoir that accumulates and stores some carbon-containing chemical compound for an indefinite period. The process by which carbon sinks remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is known as carbon sequestration. Trees serve as carbon sinks during growing seasons. The oceans are also natural sinks as they absorb of carbon dioxide  via physicochemical and biological processes. Terrestrial plants are natural carbon sinks through the process of photosynthesis. Whilst the creation of artificial sinks has been discussed, no major artificial systems remove carbon from the atmosphere on a material scale (Wikipedia).

Carbon Neutrality: Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released into the atmosphere with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference. It is used in the context of carbon dioxide releasing processes associated with transportation, energy production, and industrial processes such as production of carbon neutral fuel (Wikipedia).

Carbon Offset: A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere. There are two markets for carbon offsets. In the larger, compliance market, companies, governments, or other entities buy carbon offsets in order to comply with caps on the total amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. In the much smaller, voluntary market, individuals, companies, or governments purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity use, and other sources (Wikipedia).