Fairness, a moral imperative

A quarter in Kathmandu, Nepal, that was flooded in the heavy monsoon this summer.
Political article
Climate justice – a term blazing a trail. But what exactly does it mean? The underlying principle was already formulated in 1992, but was never implemented by the rich countries. Switzerland, too, is under pressure to fulfil its commitments.

The concept "climate justice" pervaded the "Fridays for future" climate strikes as well as the national demonstration "Climate of change" on 28 September in Berne (Switzerland). In the context of the strike movement being driven by young people, "climate justice" also takes aim at the older generation: you are leaving us a world on the brink of the abyss, you have created a problem, which we must solve. That is unfair.

But climate justice means much more than this – it is about an ethical and policy approach to man-made climate change, in a historical and geographical context; some benefit, while others pay. This is why it is not acceptable to regard the dramatic consequences of the warming of the earth's atmosphere as a purely technical environmental problem. That too would be unjust.

Hence, the concept of climate justice also encompasses issues of global distribution and equality. And the concept is anything but new: for years Alliance Sud has been addressing issues of development and justice in the field of worldwide climate change and has been tabling practicable solutions for tackling the burgeoning climate crisis.

The origins of the concept of climate justice lie in the elaboration of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), when the first negotiations on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions took place. It was inspired by human rights and equality considerations and the call for all of earth’s inhabitants in principle to be entitled to the same limited emissions budget. Because the wealthy countries of the West built their prosperity in the 20th century on the burning of fossil fuels, it is a priori unfair for up-and-coming developing countries to be now denied the same thing. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol therefore called on already developed countries to reduce their emissions and for developing countries to be allowed to continue using fossil fuels for the time being.

In the light of the faster-than-expected progression of climate change since then, the call for global equality of treatment must now be reinterpreted as a duty rather than a right: everyone must make an equal effort to reduce their carbon footprint. This means that high emission earthlings such as Swiss citizens must contribute much more to worldwide reduction of man-made greenhouse gases than the people in the global South, who account for much less emissions on a per capita basis. It is worth noting that as a principle, this perspective was already enshrined in the 1992 Framework Convention through the approach based on "common but differentiated responsibilities". What this means in plain language is that if the world community wishes to eliminate greenhouse gases quickly, the rich industrial nations –and to an ever greater extent emerging countries – will not only have to reduce their own, much too large CO2 footprint but must also support developing countries such that they are able to develop as far as possible without greenhouse gas emissions.

Today however, climate justice as a normative concept must be thought of in broader terms than the mere reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: at bottom, it is about the unequal distribution of cause and effect in global climate change. The accelerating climate change manifests itself in very different ways in different parts of the world. And the resources for combating climate change or protecting against its negative impacts are very unequally distributed.

Put simply, climate justice culminates in the imperative for every person, every country, and every enterprise to assume climate responsibility and, in accordance with their means and possibilities, to contribute to jointly solving the global climate problem in a conscientious and responsible manner.

Climate responsibility and polluter pays principle

Anyone in this country who takes climate responsibility seriously knows that the climate footprint also encompasses emissions generated by consuming imported goods and by international flights outside the national borders. In Switzerland's case, these are almost twice the domestic footprint on a per capita basis. In this context, climate justice means taking responsibility for all emissions generated by one's own lifestyle. And that calculation does not yet include emissions caused by the assets and investments of the Swiss financial centre. They account for several times that amount of emissions. The question is an explosive one: who bears the (climate) responsibility for them?

The polluter pays principle is about taking responsibility for the repercussions of one's own emissions on third parties. When those being hardest hit by its impacts are precisely the world's poorest, who have themselves contributed the least to climate change, those chiefly responsible must participate financially. As such, climate justice also means bearing a commensurate share of the costs resulting from climate change caused by our consumption patterns.

The crux of the matter: international climate funding

Global climate justice therefore means genuinely and seriously assuming one's own climate responsibility. In the Paris Agreement on Climate Change this is clearly reflected in the undertaking by industrialized countries jointly to provide US$100 billion annually for climate protection and adaptation measures in developing countries. This cannot be done at the expense of development cooperation, however, this being the approach taken by most rich countries – including Switzerland.

Supporting the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the global South in combating climate change cannot be equated with poverty alleviation. Climate change mitigation and adaptation measures can indeed supplement but never replace development cooperation. It is therefore cynical for Switzerland and other countries try to offer the same franc twice to developing countries – once as official development assistance and a second time as climate funding.

The Alliance Sud demand

The Alliance Sud position paper entitled “Klimagerechtigkeit und internationale Klimafinanzierung aus entwicklungspolitischer Sicht” (Climate justice and international climate funding from a development perspective) delves into the link between climate and development activities and suggests concrete solutions for raising an additional one billion francs annually on a polluter pays basis, in addition to development aid, to support climate measures in developing countries. To that end, the new CO2 Act must introduce a (partially) earmarked airline ticket tax, increase the existing CO2 tax on combustibles and be expanded to cover propellants as well.