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Pick Up My Slack: Is Outsourcing Emissions Cuts Objectionable?

By Nicholas Kreuder
16 Nov 2022
photograph of coin tip with "thank you" note

The 27th annual Convention of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) began November 6th in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and will continue until November 18th. The meeting has, and will involve, the numerous parties to the UNFCCC discussing climate change, steps taken to meet previously agreed upon commitments to mitigate climate change’s worst consequences, as well as potential future action. The matter of who ought to foot the bill for addressing climate change, as well as compensating developing nations for damages, received considerable attention at COP26. This issue will again take center stage at this year’s meeting – representatives from Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Germany have recently pledged funds to address climate effects in developing nations. Further, the U.S. has announced a plan to incentivize corporations to purchase carbon offsets that aid the developing world, although details of the plan are scarce.

The moral justification for a climate reparations policy is straightforward. Wealthy nations are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are the product of economically beneficial activities. However, climate change stands to cause both economic harms and humanitarian crises which will disproportionately affect the developing world. Essentially, industrialized nations have benefited from causing climate change, while countries in the Global South will face its most severe consequences.

The moral principle of fairness deals with the distribution of benefits and burdens. Specifically, fair distributions are those where whoever is burdened the most by a policy or decision should receive the greatest benefits, while those who face lesser burdens should benefit less.

For instance, it would be unfair to assign equal grades on a test – the students who took on the burden of studying and working hard would not be rewarded, while those who coasted would benefit most. This same rationale reveals the distribution of benefits and burdens related to climate change is grossly unfair; those who contributed least to climate change will suffer the most, while those who caused it will both face lesser consequences and have historically benefited.

However, recently some polluting nations have aimed to meet their own climate goals by benefiting developing nations. Switzerland has apparently adopted a policy of funding emissions-cutting programs in developing nations and then counting those reductions towards their national commitments. For instance, the Swiss government is funding a program that will install energy efficient lightbulbs and clean burning stoves in Ghanian homes. The resulting emissions reductions will then count towards Switzerland’s climate goals. The Swiss government has reached similar agreements with Senegal, Georgia, Vanuatu, Dominica, Thailand, and Ukraine. Call the general practice of funding emission reducing programs in poorer nations, for the sake of meeting a wealthy nation’s emissions targets, “International Offsetting.”

One might think that International Offsetting is morally cut-and-dried. On the surface, it is simply a mutually beneficial agreement.

Governments like the Swiss government are better able to reach their emission reduction goals, while comparatively poorer nations can now fund efforts that would otherwise go unfunded. Or in the case of programs that were already funded, they now have additional capital to spend elsewhere. Viewed through this lens, it seems like everyone wins.

Yet there is ample room to question this seemingly simple justification. For instance, wealthier nations would certainly aim to fund programs that provide the most bang for their buck – those that reduce emissions the greatest amount, for the cheapest cost. This would leave developing nations on the hook for more expensive projects, such as changing electrical infrastructure away from fossil fuels to renewables.

By funding programs that reduce emissions, developed nations would leave the other parties to the agreements with no option but to eliminate emissions in order to meet their own reduction goals.

This might be seen as exploitative. Typically, exploitation involves taking advantage of the situation that another party finds themselves in, for the sake of benefiting oneself. Exploitation is similar to coercion, in the sense that both involve someone using another to get what they want. However, coercion typically involves threatening another with something negative. In contrast, exploitative acts may still nonetheless benefit the party that is exploited. The moral problem with exploitation is it fails to appreciate the exploited party’s status as an entity deserving of respect.

For an analogous example to International Offsets, consider the following case. Imagine you live with a very messy and very wealthy roommate. You do your fair share of “damage” to the apartment, sure, but your roommate is far messier and far less likely to clean up. The problem comes to a head after the apartment develops a vermin problem. So, you approach your roommate and ask him to stop making a mess of the apartment, or at least to clean up after himself. He rolls his eyes at your suggestion, and merely offers to pay you a modest sum weekly to clean up after him.

The messy roommate’s offer might seem beneficial at first. He clearly does not want to clean up after himself, you stand to profit from helping him, and at the end of the day you will both have a clean apartment.

Nonetheless, making this offer, rather than agreeing to help, seems to suggest something about the underlying attitudes of your roommate. Although he is causing the problem, he views it as unimportant for him to address.

Rather than taking measures and making sacrifices himself to contribute to solving this problem, he instead thinks he can simply pay others to make the problem go away. As a result, we might describe his attitudes in two ways. First, he does not seem bothered by the burdens his behavior has placed upon you, as he is making no effort to change his behavior. Second, he does not seem to view the both of you as equal members of the apartment, whose interests count equally.

Economically advanced nations seem to be exhibiting the same attitudes as the messy roommates, when they engage in international offsets. Both refuse to change their behavior and instead decide to pay others to perform the work that they ought to do themselves. However, the economically advanced nations may be even more blameworthy than the messy roommate. Afterall, the largest polluters have significantly profited from their pollution. Further, the money which they are offering through International Offsetting (as well as reparations programs) is a small fraction of the wealth generated through this pollution. If the behavior of the wealthy roommate is objectionable as exploitative, then the behavior of International Offsetting seems troubling to an even greater degree.

Nicholas Kreuder is a PhD candidate at Binghamton University. His primary research interests are in well-being and animal ethics, although he writes frequently on other applied ethical issues.
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