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Whose Emissions, Whose Responsibility? Eco-social Policies for Climate Justice

29 Sep 2016


Whose Emissions, Whose Responsibility? Eco-social Policies for Climate Justice
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

Just 90 companies are responsible for 63% of global industrial CO2 and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010, according to a pioneering 2014 study on so-called climate majors, conducted by climate accountability researcher Richard Heede. Follow-up work argues how concrete actions by these companies aggravate their responsibility for anthropogenic climate change. The ensuing debates around these studies have revealed much about the perceived emissions responsibilities of actors beyond the nation state, but also a crucial blind spot that needs to become visible if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be achieved in a transformative way.

Heede’s study was met with a debate on the relative responsibilities not just of the companies, but also of the consumers buying from them. Some argue that people have benefitted from the developmental gains fuelled by fossil energy and contributed to emissions through their consumer choices. Others point out that blaming producers is the wrong approach as it relieves individuals of their responsibility, which might be counterproductive in the fight against climate change.

It is true, of course, that individual behaviour contributes to climate change and people need to assess and minimize their carbon and environmental footprints. However, by pitching consumers against producers the debate ignores the role of a third key actor: public investments and institutions. Fossil fuel subsidies and public infrastructures that are all too often conducive to fossil fuel use hinder the already difficult task of making the right, informed and low-carbon choice as a consumer in a complex, globalized economy.

Redistributing benefits and risks


Fossil fuel subsidies raise an equality issue which coherent public policy can address in a way that markets cannot. Studies show that fossil fuel subsidies disproportionately benefit the richest households, so from a development perspective the expenditure could be used more effectively, for example to increase social spending. Subsidy removal, then, needs to be pursued with an eco-social lens: reducing the use of fossil fuels while including a social policy component to mitigate the impacts on poor households to contribute to environmental and social goals.

Public policies are also needed to reduce climate inequalities in a broader sense. The benefits and adverse impacts of fossil fuel production and consumption are very unevenly distributed, and are not determined by free choice. Ian Gough has emphasized the double injustice of climate change that leaves the people who have least contributed to it most at risk. Patterns of inequality leave marginalized and poorer people disproportionately exposed and vulnerable to climate change impacts. At the same time, some of the biggest polluters have accumulated considerable wealth and influence (many of the carbon majors feature on the Forbes fortune 500 list) without facing consequences for their highly polluting business practices. Regulatory public policies are a crucial ingredient in the mix for holding these companies to account, together with civil society engagement exerting grassroots pressure to ratchet up regulation. In combination, this helps ensure that social and environmental costs that are otherwise borne by the public are internalized by the corporations. If gains are private, why should costs be public?

Progressive public policies that redistribute benefits and risks are therefore important to ensure a just transition to low-carbon development as well as for the regulation and restriction of harmful business practices. Such eco-social policies, which combine environmental sustainability, social justice and economic viability, match the integrated approach of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Progress in climate change mitigation (to meet SDG 13) must not undermine progress in reducing poverty (for SDG1) and inequality (SDG10), for example. But are eco-social policies always transformative, which is also a key part Agenda 2030? The UNRISD take on transformation means tackling the root causes of inequitable and unsustainable outcomes, through fundamental changes not only to production and consumption, but also in social relations and institutions to make them more inclusive and equitable, and the redistribution and rebalancing of power and economic resources. Find out more in the chapter on climate change in the UNRISD Flagship Report, now available!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dunja Krause is Associate Expert at UNRISD.

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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.