Why it matters

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in the newsletter, one of the main debates at COP27 was whether richer countries should help poorer and more vulnerable countries pay for the consequences of climate change. Climate-related disasters have been at the fore this year, particularly after devastating floods in Pakistan that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced millions more. Total spending exceeded $40 billion.

After two weeks of negotiations, COP27 delegates reached an agreement on financing loss and damage… sort of. There will be a fund, but how much there is and how it will work is unclear. Details are planned to be clarified, as you may have guessed, at the next UN climate conference – COP28, scheduled for next year in Dubai.

Countries that pay into the loss and damage fund do not admit fault or take responsibility for climate damage. But the creation of the fund and all the discussions around climate damage raised the question: who got us into this mess? And who should pay for it?

Not very ancient history

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, history matters. Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Some greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, have long lifetimes: they are not very reactive, so they linger for a long time after they are emitted.
  • Warming is a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • So when we talk about climate responsibility, we have to consider total emissions throughout history.

When I first learned about climate science, I was struck by this logic. It’s so intuitive, but in my mind it reframes the debate around national responsibility for the climate. I’ve always heard that China is the country we should all be talking about when it comes to emissions. After all, today they are the biggest polluter of the climate.

But when you add up the total emissions, it becomes very clear: the US is the largest total emitter, responsible for about a quarter of all emissions ever. Next comes the EU — about 17% of the total. Finally, we have China in third place.

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