Who is responsible for climate change? Is it the countries with the highest pollution right now? Or is it the wealthy countries who had the highest emissions in the past? How about the fossil fuel companies? Or is it normal people? Let’s talk about it today!
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Mitigation (n) – the act of reducing how harmful, unpleasant, or bad something is
We need effective mitigation of climate change
Adaptation (n) – the process of changing to suit different conditions
The team’s adaptation to the speed of the premier league is surprising
Developing (adj) – A developing country or area of the world is poorer and has less advanced industries, especially in Africa, Latin America, or Asia
This scholarship is for people from developing countries
Reparation (n) – payment for harm or damage:
The company had to make reparation to those who suffered ill health as a result of chemical pollution.
Emission (n) – an amount of a substance that is produced and sent out into the air that is harmful to the environment, especially carbon dioxide
These health risks are caused by vehicle emissions.
per capita (adv/adj) – If you express an amount per capita, you mean that amount for each person
The per capita income is very low
carbon footprint (n) – Someone’s carbon footprint is a measurement of the amount of carbon dioxide that their activities produce
Flying to Japan increased by carbon footprint
To offset (v) – to pay for things that will reduce carbon dioxide in order to reduce the damage caused by carbon dioxide that you produce
We offset all our long-haul flights.
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What is COP27?
The world’s leaders have gathered in Egypt for COP27 – a global meeting aimed at dealing with the problems of climate change. World leaders, politicians, and negotiators from most of the world’s countries are making agreements and deciding on future policies.
It has been 30 years since the United National Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed and 7 years since COP21 and the Paris Agreement. Since the first COP meetings, the impact of climate change has become even more obvious – increased natural disasters, extreme weather, and heat waves just some of the signs.
COP27 will discuss a variety of different issues from climate mitigation and adaptation techniques to the financial side of international efforts. Mitigation refers to lessening or avoiding climate change; and adaptation refers to adapting our societies and economies to survive climate change better.
One of the more difficult issues to agree on is what is called loss and damage. Climate change is destructive… and some of its consequences cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation. There will be damage because of climate change – in fact there already is damage. Increasing extreme weather events, heatwaves which have damaged crops and caused wildfires, rising sea levels, and much more.
Who should pay for this loss and damage? Basically, who should pay for the costs of climate change? Who is responsible for climate change? The sad reality is that the countries that contribute the least to climate change are often left to deal with the consequences. Tiny islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans have to deal with rising sea levels. Countries in Africa and South Asia have to deal with searing temperatures.
Developing countries have repeatedly asked developed countries for financial help to deal with climate change. Developed countries have contributed the most to climate change – either historically or currently… and the poorer countries want and need help from the rich and powerful.
But here lies a problem… signing up to the idea of loss and damage would be admitting you are responsible for climate change. And most countries don’t want to do this.
So far Scotland and Wallonia (a region of Belgium) became the first regions from “rich countries” to pledge money to address loss and damage – with £2million and $1million pledges. Denmark followed with a 100m DKK pledge – roughly around $13 million. However, it is going to take a lot more money to deal with the impact of climate change.
Who is responsible for climate changes? And who should pay for its consequences?
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Financial Commitment to Fighting Climate Change!
Wealthy countries such as the US, Australia, the UK, and Japan signed commitments to give $100 billion to climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020. They missed these targets, and will need to sign another agreement to give more money before 2025. However, most scientists agree that trillions of dollars, not hundreds of millions, will be required to help poorer countries to adapt to and mitigate the consequences of climate change!
However, while the money is not enough, wealthy countries have given money for mitigation projects. For example, Pakistan was able to build a new public transport system helping to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in the country. They have also given money to adaptation projects. Guinea-Bissau, for instance, received help in restoring mangroves which form a natural protection against rising sea levels.
However, while countries have been willing to give some money to pay for mitigation and adaptation… they have been very reluctant to pay for loss and damage costs. Supporters of the idea of loss and damage claim that it is a kind of climate reparations – to pay for the damage caused by climate change. Loss of lives, loss of buildings and infrastructure, loss of animals and plants, and loss of income – climate change can cause all of these things.
Wealthy countries have been against such payments for years. Why? Well, wealthy countries don’t want to admit they are responsible, at least in part, for climate change. There is a fear that by paying compensation for the damage caused by climate change… developed nations will be held legally responsible (something they definitely don’t want).
So… who is responsible for climate change? Does every country hold an equal responsibility? Should it be based on the amount of pollution a country makes in total? Or per person? How about companies or individual people? Are they responsible too?
Who is Responsible for Climate Change?
The Highest Polluting Countries?
I guess the most obvious place to start with is the countries with the highest amount of pollution – or in other words the highest greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past decades, it has been shown that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for accelerating, increasing, and worsening the effects of our changing climate.
So… it makes sense that the countries emitting the most gases are the ones who should be most responsible for climate change… right?
If we look at the top polluting countries today, there is a clear winner – China. China has by far the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions over the past few years. In fact, China emits twice as much as the USA (the country in second place). The other countries in the top 5 worst polluters include India, Russia, and Japan.
If we just count the big three polluting countries – China, the USA, and India – they produce almost half of the total global pollution today. Looking at the statistics, it would be easy to say “China, the US, and India are the biggest polluters in the world… so they must be responsible for climate change, and they should pay the most.”
But it is not that simple. There are other ways to look at emissions – for example, a country’s emissions per person (or per capita). Of course, India and China are big polluters… they have incredibly large populations. But if we take into account population, which country is the biggest polluter?
Well, the largest polluters per capita are generally oil rich states in the middle east. Qatar is at the top of the list – with annual CO2 emissions of around 35 tonnes per person. Bahrain, Kuwait, Brunei, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman all have very high emissions if we adjust to measure per person.
How about the big three emitters – China, India, and the US? Well, the US is still a high emission country with an average of nearly 15 tonnes of CO2 per person in 2021. China, however, currently emits around 8 tonnes per person a year – almost half the amount of the US. High income countries on average contribute around 10 tonnes of CO2 per capita a year – China is below average in this level.
And India is significantly lower – just 1.93 tonnes per person of average. That is 7 times less than the US and 5 times less the average for wealthy countries. While India and China do produce a lot of pollution, per person their emissions are lower than many of the countries that criticise them.
And there is another way to look at these statistics – historically. The highest polluting countries in 2022 are not necessarily the countries that have caused the most damage historically or overall. If we look at CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the picture is a little different.
The USA has produced around 25% of all global CO2 emissions in history. EU countries around 22% and Europe in general around 33%. China has, historically, produced half the amount of the USA and just over 12% of global emissions, and India is down at 4%.
Europe and the US have polluted the environment for hundreds of years. Developing countries like China, India, and others in Asia and Latin America only started the process of industrialisation and increasing the use of fossil fuels much later.
And this has been an incredibly difficult question to solve internationally. Countries like China and India are still developing their economies and growing – and they have lower emissions per capita than many high-income nations. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are still major polluters today.
In 1992, the first major international climate treaty was signed and included a controversial principle – countries have different historic responsibilities for emissions. Basically, countries were not all equally responsible for emissions.
Wealthy countries have produced the majority of emissions throughout history and still produce high levels today. They have had a much more influential role in destroying the environment and climate.
And they used their pollution to their advantage. One of the reasons Europe and North America was able to develop so quickly was the use of coal – coal powered industry for over a hundred years. Coal is particularly harmful to the environment – but for countries like China and India it is a vital resource to power their economies.
Is it fair on India and China to limit their chances at growing economies and creating wealthier societies? Especially when rich countries spent years doing the same thing!
While the principle that wealthier countries are more responsible for climate change was agreed 30 years ago, it has not been easy to make any real agreements or policies. Wealthy countries probably should be helping developing countries at the same time as cutting their own emissions.
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Fossil Fuel Companies?
However, simply blaming countries for pollution and climate change is not enough. Fossil fuel companies also share a significant amount of blame for our current and future problems.
Let me demonstrate the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change using a few famous studies. A report in 2017 found that 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions in the previous 20 years came from just 100 fossil fuel producing companies. 100 companies… 70% of global emissions. That is a lot. And last year another report showed how just 20 companies contributed 33% of all global emissions.
Companies like BP, Shell, and Chevron are producing more pollution than most countries in the world. And, perhaps even worse, these companies have been influential in denying climate change and increasing support for fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels companies have funded research and politicians that protect their interests, downplay the impact of their business on the environment, and try to change the public attitude. For example, one of the big claims made by companies is that cutting down on fossil fuels will unfairly impact the poor – although this is not necessarily true.
Now… I’m going to tell you something that you might not realise. Have you heard of the concept of a personal carbon footprint? I’m sure you have – it is basically how much pollution you make yourself. By driving your car, flying on a plane, buying plastic bottles, and leaving lights on. This idea of a personal carbon footprint has been incredibly influential… there are campaigns around the world to get people to produce less pollution.
I’m sure you’ve seen campaigns like this – turn your office lights off when you leave the room, take shorter showers, buy an electric car, offset your CO2 when flying. But do you know who started this campaign? Who popularised the ideas of a personal carbon footprint? BP.
BP… the oil company. Their media campaign in 2005 basically started this idea of personal responsibility for climate change. When really… BP reducing their emissions by 1% would probably be much better for the environment.
I don’t believe we should be focusing on personal responsibility for climate change… but it is undeniable that some people do personally cause more pollution than others. In fact, research from the University of Leeds suggests that the richest 10% of people in the world use 20 times more energy than the poorest 10%.
I remember talking to a friend once who was criticising me for buying a plastic water bottle – she said I should always have a reusable water bottle, so I don’t produce plastic waste and contribute to climate change. That is fair enough – I know do use a reusable water bottle. However, I know this same person took 6 flights in one year – four of these flights long haul from Europe to Asia. I think I would have needed to buy billions of bottles of water to create as much pollution as she did by flying.
But I don’t like this idea of personal responsibility for climate change – this is my own opinion, of course. I think companies have done an incredible job in convincing us that we should be the one’s reducing our energy usage and reducing the amount of plastic we buy. But, they don’t follow their own advice.
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So, who is responsible for climate change? Is it the highest polluting countries? Is it wealthy countries? Is it fossil fuel companies? Or all of us together?
Perhaps, it is better to not think about responsibility. As I’ve tried to show… no one wants to be responsible for climate change. Wealthy countries blame the increasing emissions from the developing world, developing countries blame the historic emission of rich countries, and fossil fuel companies blame normal people for using their products.
Instead of thinking about blame and responsibility, I think we need to think about the long-term future of our societies. We need to work together to protect everyone’s environment!
Who do you think is responsible for climate change?
5 thoughts on “185. Who is Responsible for Climate Change? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
Thanks for the great Podcast.
I agree with you Tom. Instead of finding who the most responsible is, we should think about how we can improve the current state of our world together to mitigate CO2 emissions.
ı don’t agree with you tom that personal responsibility of climate change .I think we are lead to production of companies . if we buy products which are environmental friendly then companies have to be careful about pollution
I think we are all responsible, especially in wealthy countries. Our lifestyle demands a lot from the Earth resources and although we are more and more concious of that fact and try to improve in some aspects of our routines and production processes. Who is willing to lose our confort lives, freedom to move and leisure time?Also, I see that being ecofriendly is very expensive for an average family. I.e. prices for ecological products are more expensive .However, I have been taught by my parents to spend only on the neccesary and I try to follow the rule and teach my kids, but belive me it is not as easy as It should be.
Let’s Cross fingers and think we won’t get soon to the point of no return. And Hope Gaia will be healing by herself from all human beings atrocities.
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