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Turning the page on the past

The Conference I attended this week in China had an opening address from Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen. He is a remarkably edudite and interesting guy. He talked broadly about trade, the environment and urbanisation but I focused most of my attention on his remarks about the vexed issue of who is responsible for climate change.  Standard rhetoric from many developing countries – e.g. Brazil – is that the West is mainly responsible for climate change so the West should mainly be responsible for cleaning up the mess of accumulated greenhouse gas emissions. Developed countries should be ‘fined’.

Sen disagreed.  Historical justice ideas could not be applied here because, until 20 years ago, there was no recognition that harm was being done.  Moreover, those living now were not the polluters.

That seems to me sound reasoning although I still believe that the bulk of the effective effort does need to be funded by developed countries. The reason is not ‘historical justice’  but willingness-to-pay for the environment.  Poor people – despite their exposure to the costs of something like climate change – don’t see much benefit in environmental protection given the struggles they face to survive and raise families. Maximising world-wide benefits suggest they should pay the same environmental costs (different prices on a pollution would imply residual possible gains from trade) but should be compensated by those who are wealthy and gain higher valuation from a quality environment.

This means those in developing countries who moan about ‘historical responsibility’ should stop moaning and get on with the task of mitigating their emissions but insisting on adequate compensations from developed countries for doing so. We need global policy actions with the right compensations.

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