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Ecological Debt – a starting
point for Climate Justice
What is Ecological Debt
Two general perspectives or definitions –
Global Ecological Debt – defined in terms of
global consumption vs global biocapacity
Ecological Debt from the vantage point of the
South – defined in terms of political economy,
right to development, and peoples’
ecological/environmental rights
Global Ecological Debt
Humanity’s global ecological footprint (its
demand on cropland, pasture, forests and
fisheries) vis-à-vis global biocapacity (the ability
to generate resources and absorb wastes).
Ecological overshoot -- Using more than the
planet can regenerate in a year.
Ecological Debt Day – the day humanity goes into
global overshoot for a given year and begins
incurring global ecological debt.
Global ecological debt - accumulating since
humanity first went into overshoot in the 1980s.
Ecological Debt from the South Perspective
Based on the principle of peoples right to
sustainable development and the sovereign control
over their resources, the concept of the
“commons,” and the notion of fair share of
ecological space
Ecological debt of the “north” to the “south” –
north and south as political economy concepts
rather than geographical
Looks further back in history than 1980’s –
ecological debt started accumulating in the
colonial era and continues up to the present
South Perspectives on Ecological Debt p2
Ecological Debt broadly refers to:
 Historical
and continuing plunder, exploitation
and destruction of the ecological resources of the
peoples & countries of the South by northern
countries, TNCs, elites
 Responsibility
for policies and economic activities
imposed by the North on the South that are
 environmentally and ecologically harmful
 undermine the ability of the South for sustainable
development, environmental and ecological protection
 Northern
countries’ use of more than their fair share
of ecological space & resources, & their abuse of the
South Perspectives on Ecological Debt p3
Extraction of the Souths’ natural resources by the North:
such as petroleum, minerals, marine, forest and genetic
The use and degradation of the best lands, of water and air,
and of human energy in the South for crops to be consumed
in the north through unequal and harmful terms of trade
The appropriation & use of ancestral knowledge related
to seeds, medicinal plants & others
Northern corporations depositing harmful chemical and
nuclear substances and toxic residuals in South countries
The contamination of the atmosphere by the industrialized
the countries through their much larger share of carbon
Climate Debt
Culled from TWN Primer and as advanced by a growing
number of Heads of State, Ministers, government
officials, non-governmental organizations and social
movements representing indigenous peoples,
development, gender, organized labor, environmental
and social justice groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America,
Europe and North America; Definition as used in the
Bolivian submission
The concept of climate debt
For their disproportionate contribution to the
causes of climate change and its adverse effects,
developed countries owe a two-fold climate debt.
1. For over-using and substantially diminishing the
Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases –have
run up an “emissions debt” to developing countries
denying it to the developing countries that most
need it in the course of their development – the
developed countries.
The concept of climate debt
2. For the adverse effects of these excessive
emissions – contributing to the escalating losses,
damages and lost development opportunities
facing developing countries – the developed
countries have run up an “adaptation debt” to
developing countries.
The sum of these debts – emissions debt and
adaptation debt – constitutes the “climate debt” of
developed countries.
Emissions debt
The extent of developed countries’ emission
debt reflects their excessive past, present and
proposed future use of shared environmental
space. With less than 20% of the population,
developed countries have produced more than
70% of historical emissions since 1850 (Figure
1), far more than their fair share basd on equal
per-person emissions (Figure 2).
Emissions debt-2
Figure 1: Actual historical emissions
Figure 2: Equal individual shares
Emissions debt - 3
After diminishing the Earth’s environmental
space – denying it to poor countries and
communities – the same rich countries now
propose consuming a disproportionate share of
the remaining space through until 2050 (Figure
3) when compared to an equal per-capita share
(Figure 4).*
*This analysis focuses on emissions from fossil fuel use and assumes Annex I
countries reduce by around 30% by 2020 (as proposed by the EU) and
85% by 2050, and that global emissions reduce by around 80% by 2050
(which still involves significant risk of exceeding 2C and associated harm
and costs).
Emissions debt - 4
Figure 3: Proposed future emissions (by EU)
Figure 4: Equal individual shares (future)
Emissions debt - 5
Developed countries representing a minority of people
have appropriated the major part of a shared global
resource for their own use – a resource that belongs to
all and should be fairly shared with the majority of
By basing their future “assigned amounts” of emissions
on their past excessive levels, they are effectively
proposing to write-off the full amount of their historical
emissions debt (figures 1 and 2), and to simultaneously
appropriate trillions of dollars of remaining atmospheric
space which should rightfully be allocated to the South
(figures 3 and 4).
Emissions debt- 6
Their proposals, if adopted, would lock developing
countries into low and rapidly decreasing percapita shares, denying them the environmental
space needed to build the houses, schools, roads
and infrastructure that developed world already
has. Their proposals would deepen the debt of
developed countries rather than honoring it,
leveraging past injustices into a future climate
regime, and proposing a system in which the
“polluter profits” and the “poor pays” for the
excessive historical and current consumption of the
rich countries.
Adaptation debt
As well as freeing up environmental space,
developed countries must accept responsibility for
the adverse effects of their historical and continuing
high per-person emissions on poor communities and
countries. Among the hardest hit are:
– Farmers and farming communities. In some countries
rain-fed agriculture is expected to drop by up to 50%
by 2020, leaving millions of people without food.
– Indigenous and local communities. Indigenous peoples
and local communities are harmed by changing
ecosystems and threats to traditional livelihoods.
Adaptation debt-2
– Women. 70% of the world’s poor are women.
Women provide half of the world’s food. They are
hardest hit by climate change and must be at the
center of any solution.
– Poor communities. At particular risk are people
concentrated in high-risk areas, such as coastal and
river flood plains, or areas prone to extreme
weather events.
Adaptation debt-3
– People relying on scarce water resources.
Between 75 and 250 million of people are
likely to face increased water stress by 2020
due to climate change.
– Communities susceptible to health impacts.
The health of millions of people will likely be
affected through increased malnutrition,
increased disease burden and death and
injury due to extreme weather events.
Adaptation debt
These impacts are caused by the historical emissions that have led
to current levels of warming, and that will lead to considerable
future “committed” warming as the Earth’s oceans and other
systems warm. The very existence of some communities is
threatened while others face serious impediments to their efforts to
lift billions of people out of poverty and to promote development.
There is no way to predict the full extent of future adverse impacts
and costs – emission pathways are uncertain and the climate system
is too complex. However, any just approach to climate change must
ensure that those who have benefited in the course of causing
climate change compensate the victims of climate change. They
should cover the full costs of avoiding adverse impacts and provide
compensation for those harms that cannot be avoided. This
constitutes the adaptation debt of the rich industrialized world to
poor countries, communities and people.
Climate debt as a component of
ecological debt
Climate debt is a component of the larger
ecological debt, reflecting the excessive
pollution and over-use by the wealthy of
the goods and services provided by nature
The United States’ ecological footprint per
person (measured as the productive land
and sea required to provide resources and
to absorb wastes) is more than four times
the globally sustainable level, more than
four times China’s and more than nine times
Ecological Debt and climate debt–
relevant to the UNFCCC concept of
“common but differentiated
Ecological debt and climate debt as basis
for “differentiated responsibilities”
Climate Finance – partly reparations for
Ecological Debt and climate debt – a
responsibility and obligation on the part
of northern countries
Reparations for Climate Debt
The wealthy industrialized world must take
responsibility for repaying the full measure of
their climate debt. Doing so is not merely right;
it also provides the basis of an effective climate
solution. At the minimum:
– Northern countries repay the full measure of their
adaptation debt to South countries and communities
who did little to cause climate change and are its first
victims. They must provide financing and technology
to ensure full compensation for losses suffered, and
the means to avoid or minimize future impacts where
possible. They should commit to provide for full
reparations for their adaptation debt to developing
countries, commencing immediately.
Repaying Climate Debt - 3
Developed countries must provide the financing and
technology required by developing countries to live
under the twin constraints of a more hostile climate
and restricted atmospheric space. They must honor
their obligation to provide the full incremental costs of
emission reductions undertaken in developing
countries, so that these countries can play their part in
curbing climate change, while still meeting the needs
and aspirations of their people.
Debt and Climate
 Illegitimate Debt
 Debt Cancellation and Debt
ILLEGITIMATE DEBT -- Now a major focus
of many debt campaigns all over the world,
North and South
Issues, implications and consequences of
the debt burden beyond simply the impacts
of debt service.
Basic Definition
Illegitimate Debts are those which cannot be
rightfully claimed as debts of the peoples of the
Involve the gross violation of of basic
assumptions of debt contracts, as well as
widely accepted ethical, social, political,
economic, environmental values, standards and
Cause harm to the well being of the people and
communities in whose name the debts were
incurred and who are the ones paying for these
Relevance to Climate Change and
Struggle for Climate Justice
Loan – financing of projects which directly
exacerbate climate change are illegitimate
 fossil fuel extraction, production and
 big infrastructure projects that involve
deforestation and cause other environmental
 others
Relevance to Climate Change & Climate Justice
Loans with conditionalities that lead to
worsening of climate change – are
 deregulation and liberalization of industries,
including extractive industries
 promotion of export industries leading to
changes in agriculture: land use policy, crop
increase in food imports,
increase in production of biofuels, etc
 others
Relevance to Climate Change & Climate Justice
Illegitimacy of Debt includes
 Impact of huge debt service on the capacity
of countries, communities and people to deal
with the effects of climate change
 Debt financing supports a paradigm and a
system that is high-growth, high
consumption, highly-wasteful, profit-driven
and predatory, poverty-creating, destructive,
unsustainable and reliant on fossil fuel
Convergence of the Struggles against
Illegitimate Debt and Climate Change
Integrating the climate question in the
definition of what is unacceptable and
Using the campaign against illegitimate
debt to raise understanding about climate
change and promoting calls for climate
Estimates of
emission reductions and
shift to low carbon
Stern Review estimates that stabilization at
500 CO2-equivalent would cost about 2% of
Gross World Product (currently $1.2 trillion)
Costs should be higher as the latest science
says the necessary stabilization level more
demanding (350 ppm in CO2 terms)
FOR ADAPTATION -- dealing with the
impacts (already in place, as well as
Cost projections vary - from US$50
billion to US$180 billion a year
The total costs of both mitigation and
adaptation is in the trillions of dollars
 Mechanisms
under the UNFCCC
Mechanisms under the IFIs – World
Bank and ADB and others
 Private
Proposal for a New Global
Climate Fund
Key Features of the proposed
New Global Climate Fund
 Representative Governance
Democratic, transparent, and accountable to all,
especially to the communities most affected by
global warming
Strong, direct equitable representation of South
countries in decision-making and technical bodies
Strong representation of civil society groups, social
movements and indigenous peoples, from South and
North countries in all governance structures
Key Features of a New Global Climate Fund p2
 Participatory Planning
Assist countries with financial and technical support to
carry out national climate action plans formulated
through a sovereign and democratic process; This
includes the full participation of peoples most
affected by climate chane
Plans include actions and policies that will enable
people and communities to deal with the impacts of
global warming and ensure the shift to low-carbon
economies (addressing the energy, transportation, and
agricultural sectors among others)
Key Features of a New Global Climate Fund p3
 Substantial, obligatory & automatic funding based
on the principle of “common but differentiated
New Global Climate Fund needs to be large enough to
provide for separate financing windows for mitigation,
adaptation, and reducing emissions from deforestation
and degradation.
Core financing of this Global Fund must be obligatory
and automatic rather than voluntary
It should be based on the principle of “common but
differentiated responsibilities” consistent with
countries’ historical & current contributions to global
warming and their capacity to pay
Key Features of a New Global Climate Fund p4
 Resources for Capacity Building of Developing
For development, application, transfer & dispersal of
sustainable and equitable technologies, practices and
processes according to developed country obligations
For building local capacity and expertise, and to
developing appropriate technologies and peoplecentered strategies for coping with a shifting climate.
Financing should exclude sources that degrade the
environment, threaten human health, and cause
massive community dislocation like nuclear energy,
agro-fuels &large hydropower projects
Key Features of a New Global Climate Fund p6
 Access for the Most Vulnerable
Financing for governments, but also for people’s
organizations, NGOs & community-based groups
Financing for activities on indigenous lands (ex.
forest protection & restoration) should go directly
to indigenous peoples’ organizations
Equitable decision making power for women, over
how funds are accessed, used and evaluated
Clear, transparent and simple process for
accessing resources to encourage the most
vulnerable communities to avail of support
Key Features of a New Global Climate Fund p7
 Strengthens Rights
Activities and policies must be consistent with and
underscore the UN Universal Declaration of Human,
the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples and other similar global agreements
Must uphold the right to sustainable development with full cost support for non-fossil fuel based, truly
renewable energy
The fund should strengthen peoples’ right to food
and energy sovereignty, and gender justice.
Ideas for Financing for New Global Climate Fund
Taxes on bunker fuels, aviation, fossil fuel
exports and other sources of greenhouse-gas
Levies on Gross National Product and historical
Carbon debits on investments for their
contribution to greenhouse gas emissions
Auctions of national and international greenhouse
gas emissions permits
Currency transaction taxes (CTT); and bonds.
This call for a new Global Climate Fund builds on the
proposal of G77 and China for a new climate
financing regime. It supports the demand that no
funds outside the UNFCCC process, (ex: those of the
World Bank) be counted toward binding
commitments. This proposal goes further by
elaborating just and fair principles that must be at
the core of any climate funds.