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Ecological debt and historical responsibility revisited - The case of climate change

  • Olivier Godard

In spite of its strong appeal to NGOs, to certain governments and to some scholars, the concept of an ecological debt accumulated by developed countries due to their historical responsibility deserve a serious critical assessment. The paper provides this assessment in the context of climate change. It first shows how the rhetoric of ecological debt exploits confusion between a pre-modern concept of social debt and the modern one based on the contract figure. Two components of the climate debt are examined: a presumed duty of compensation of the damage imposed by climate change and rules of sharing out of atmospheric services when developed countries are presumed to have emitted GHGs in the past in excess of their fair share. The discussion considers successively the legal and the moral viewpoint. A review of arguments shows that both concepts of ecological debt and historical responsibility disintegrate under scrutiny in the case of climate change, as ill-founded backward-looking reparative concepts as well as additional obstacles to a forward-looking agreement in which responsibilities could legitimately be differentiated according to various variables referring to current states (emissions levels, needs, capacities, etc.). The GHGs emissions that cause problems are those that have taken place since 1990.

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Paper provided by European University Institute in its series RSCAS Working Papers with number 2012/46.

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Date of creation: 05 Sep 2012
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Handle: RePEc:rsc:rsceui:2012/46
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  1. Olivier Godard, 1998. "Sustainable Development And The Process Of Justifying Choices In A Controversial Universe," Post-Print hal-00622855, HAL.
  2. Marco Grasso, 2012. "Sharing the Emission Budget," Political Studies, Political Studies Association, vol. 60(3), pages 668-686, October.
  3. Simeon Djankov & Edward L. Glaeser & Rafael La Porta & Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes & Andrei Shleifer, 2003. "The New Comparative Economics," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 2002, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  4. Robert Howse, 2007. "The Concept Of Odious Debt In Public International Law," UNCTAD Discussion Papers 185, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
  5. Torras, Mariano, 2003. "An Ecological Footprint Approach to External Debt Relief," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 31(12), pages 2161-2171, December.
  6. Tol, Richard S. J. & Verheyen, Roda, 2004. "State responsibility and compensation for climate change damages--a legal and economic assessment," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 32(9), pages 1109-1130, June.
  7. Olivier Godard, 2011. "Climate justice, between global and international justice -Insights from justification theory," RSCAS Working Papers 2011/56, European University Institute.
  8. Sobel, Russell S., 2008. "Testing Baumol: Institutional quality and the productivity of entrepreneurship," Journal of Business Venturing, Elsevier, vol. 23(6), pages 641-655, November.
  9. Neumayer, Eric, 2000. "In defence of historical accountability for greenhouse gas emissions," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 33(2), pages 185-192, May.
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