Climate debt

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Climate debt is a theoretical concept which has been submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by over fifty countries including Bolivia, Bhutan, Malaysia, Micronesia, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Venezuela and the Group of Least Developed countries, representing 49 of the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries.


The climate-debt concept incorporates two distinct elements:

Adaptation debt
which represents the compensation owed to the poor for the damages of climate change they have not caused.
Emissions debt
which is compensation owed for their fair share of the atmospheric space they cannot use if climate change is to be stopped.

Adaptation Debt[edit]

The extent of adaptation debt is difficult to calculate; but has three main components:

  • Avoiding harm – i.e. the costs of avoiding climate harms and impacts can be estimated from necessary changes to national planning, projects and programs
  • Direct harm – i.e. the direct costs of actual (unavoidable) harms, which should be compensated at full costs
  • Forgone opportunities – i.e. the costs of lost and diminished opportunities in developing countries, caused by having to forego development pathways followed by the North

The climate-debt theory posits that wealthy countries and companies are accountable for the impacts of their historical and continued over-consumption of the Earth’s limited resources.

Emissions Debt[edit]

The over-emitting or disproportionate emitting of greenhouse gases is characterized as 'emissions debt' (or 'credit for under-emitting); one which should hypothetically be paid for (by monetary or non-monetary means) by those countries that have over-emitted their fair-share of emissions. To determine this debt, an emissions or carbon budget is calculated, and distributed among countries.

The climate-debt theory argues that to stop climate change humans must accept that there is an 'emissions budget' which represents the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions the Earth's atmosphere can absorb without climate change occurring. Given this, the climate negotiations are, in substantial part, about how to share this budget. The negotiations are about how to share the Earth’s atmospheric space between rich and poor countries, and how to share the financing and effort of mitigation of emissions between countries.

The climate-debt theory argues that the negotiations are about the allocation of an emissions budget. There are many budget estimations, and distributing these budgets 'fairly' is an ethical challenge on the international stage. More information can be found on the emissions budget page.

Civil Society Support[edit]

The idea of "Climate-debt" as a paradigm for responding to the climate crisis is supported by many NGOs, civil society movements and people's movements including those who are members of Climate Justice Now!

It is one of the topics at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth to be held in Cochabamba, Bolivia from 20–22 April 2010.

External links[edit]