Research Seminar

Göran Duus-Otterström: Historical Emissions and Climate Justice

Date: 22 April 2015
Time: 10:00–12:00

Senior lecturer Göran Duus-Otterström at the University of Gothenburg.


A common view in the discussion of climate change is that the polluter should pay. The costs associated with combatting climate change, it is often argued, should be allocated so that they are predominantly borne by the actors that have emitted the most greenhouse gases. But since some greenhouse gases have long atmospheric lifespans, this view inevitably invites questions. Is it reasonable, for example, to hold an actor responsible for emissions that it did under blissful ignorance of climate change? If not, where do we draw the line between exoneration and liability?  And what happens if the actor has ceased to exist? How should the costs associated with emissions that took place long ago be allocated between contemporary actors?

This talk is about the role of historical emissions in discussions of climate justice and international climate policy. Focusing especially on past emissions – that is, emissions where the emitter has ceased to exist – it introduces and discusses a set of principles that have been thought appropriate to allocate the  contemporary costs of those emissions. These include principles based on the ability to pay, the amount of benefits received, and equal sacrifice. Noting that there are problems with each of these principles, the talk then explores the potential of a purely debts-based approach according to which the costs of past emissions should be allocated in a way that is sensitive to the distribution of atmospherically tainted wealth, for example by holding the countries with the most produced capital cost responsible.

Source: Göran Duus-Otterström (2014) The problem of past emissions and intergenerational debts, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 17:4, 448-469

Read more about Göran Duus-Otterström

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