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 climate-debt theory argues that to stop climate change humans must accept that there is a 'carbon budget' which represents the total amount of carbon the Earth's natural systems 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 means – the financing and technology – required to live in this space.

The climate-debt theory argues that the negotiations are about the allocation of a carbon budget of 1660 GtCO2-eq in total between 1850 and today.

To do this fairly:

  • Developed countries would be allocated 390 GtCO2 based on their population ratio (around 20% of world population).
  • Developing countries would be allocated 1270 GtCO2 (around 80% of world population).

On this scenario, given the reality of industrial development and historical emissions developed countries will, if they cut emissions by 49% by 2017, use 640GtCO2 more than their allocation.[1]

It is this over-consumption that is characterised as 'emissions debt' and which advocates argue must be paid for.

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]


  1. ^ Calculations based on dataset “National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2005”, August 27, 2008, Gregg Marland, Tom Boden, Robert J. Andres. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory,