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COPENHAGEN COMMENTARY: Climate change and social justice

The question of social justice is emerging in many of the Copenhagen events as a most urgent issue. Small and medium-sized farmers, for example, fear that they may be excluded from potential supports for climate-friendly land use. FiBL director Urs Niggli comments.

The scientific community urgently advises that expected global warming by 2050 be limited to two degrees Celsius in order to prevent too high a rise in sea levels. World politics support this aim but opinions still differ on how this is to be achieved. There is much at stake: from the beginning of the industrial revolution, i.e. from 1850, until today the industrialized countries have emitted approximately 14 tonnes of CO2 per head of population per year. At the same time, the inhabitants of the developing countries have only emitted 2 tonnes per person and year, i.e. only a seventh of the above. If mankind wants to achieve the target of a maximum of two degrees global warming, per capita greenhouse gas emissions must not exceed 3.5 tonnes per year. Historically, therefore, the industrialized countries have lived at the expense of the developing countries and have accumulated a massive “climate debt”.

As Director of the Energy and Resources Institutes (TERI) in New Delhi, Nobel Laureate Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), presented a proposal to COP15 outlining how the developed and industrialized nations’ debt could be reduced, as the climate debate is also, and one could say above all, about social justice. The question is: how can developing countries participate in economic development and global prosperity without repeating the mistakes of fossil fuel-driven industrialization and thus further driving climate change?

Under various scenarios produced by TERI, the climate debt accumulated by the industrial nations amounts to annual tranches of between US$ 50 and 540 billion which would need to be repaid to the developing countries over a 40-year period (2010–2050). The figure of US$ 540 billion represents the climate debt accumulated since 1850 (at US$ 30 per tonne CO2) while the smallest figure of US$ 50 billion represents the debt accumulated since 1990, two years before the Rio Earth Summit at which the problem of climate change first gained widespread awareness (calculated at only US$ 10 per tonne CO2).

The developing countries could use these huge funds to develop modern public infrastructures and economies that are energy-saving and independent of fossil fuels, enabling them to make the direct transition from low-energy primary economies, which are still strongly based on agriculture, to modern, low-energy industrial and service economies.

What would be the impact of these sums on the national economies of the industrialized and the developing nations respectively? The United States, for example, would at present have to pay 0.4% of their domestic gross national product as reparation (around US$ 44 billion for the year 2005), for Germany the ratio is 0.36% (US$ 7 billion) and for Norway approximately 0.1% (US$ 200 million). Figures for Switzerland are not available.

Bangladesh, a country whose population will suffer greatly from rising sea levels, would receive in 2005 an amount equal to 10% of its GNP as additional investment assistance for adaptation measures. Other developing countries would receive between 1% and 8% of GNP. Rajendra Pachauri proposes that a World Climate Debt Fund would administer this historic debt. The Fund would be overseen by the donor and recipient countries under the aegis of existing organizations of the United Nations.

The question of social justice is emerging in many of the Copenhagen events as a most urgent issue. Small and medium-sized farmers, for example, fear that they may be excluded from potential supports for climate-friendly land use. Should such measures be agreed, large farmers and industrialized agri-businesses would naturally be a in a better position, as they farm large areas where transaction costs (costs of implementation, monitoring and disbursement of funds) are much lower. Today, small farmers in developing countries are already excluded from research-based innovation and in many countries publicly operated extension systems have been scaled back significantly due to empty state coffers. Large-scale enterprises, on the other hand, can easily buy in the expertise of consultants and technicians and adopt state-of-the-art methods.

Organic farming is in a good position to avail of possible support for climate-friendly agricultural methods. The inspection and certification of such measures can be integrated at small additional cost into the annual inspections of organic farms that are performed in any case.


Urs Niggli, December 15, 2009

Further information


  • Urs Niggli, Director FiBL

Commentary in German