The Turkana People's traditional nomadic lifestyle in Kenya has been threatened by drought. The countries that have contributed least to the climate problem are also the hardest hit by global warming. Photo: Thinkstock, Christopher Furlong

Climate: a challenging type of justice

What makes a fair climate agreement? The fight for justice has been one of the biggest problems in all international climate discussions. The summit in Paris will likely be no exception.

How should the burden of addressing climate change be shared among countries? What does an industrialized country’s historical responsibility mean for today’s greenhouse gas emissions? Who has the responsibility for paying the bill for climate change? Conflicts around these questions have made their mark on international climate discussions since they began in 1990.

This is not surprising. Climate change is, by nature, incredibly unfair. The groups that have contributed least to climate change are the ones that are hit the hardest. Industrialized countries have become incredibly rich though the unlimited use of fossil fuels. Now, they want to pull the ladder up after them, preventing poor nations from following the same path to wealth and social development. At least, this is what has been repeated by developing countries in different climate talks.

Can research help build bridges between these diametrically opposed positions, and help to create a more universal understanding of fairness? We have asked philosophers, social scientists, economists and technologists to address this question. Nobody has a simple answer.

Stumbling blocks

“The conflict between rich and poor nations is the main reason why the 2009 summit in Copenhagen broke down. This is where we see the biggest potential stumbling blocks before the summit in Paris this December,” says Steffen Kallbekken, research leader at the Cicero Centre of Climate Research. He has been paying close attention to the climate talks over the last few years.

Konflikten mellom rike og fattige land var hovedgrunnen til at toppmøtet i København i 2009 havarerte. Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

The conflict between rich and poor nations is the main reason why the 2009 summit in Copenhagen broke down. Illustration: Thinkstock

“The most important conflicts we see relate to questions about financing climate measures in developing countries, and compensation for losses and damage due to climate change in vulnerable countries,” he says.

The Paris agreement is intended to help build on emission cuts that have been proposed by individual countries. Each country can individually decide what it sees as a fair contribution. This way, we avoid the usual battle around handing out emission cuts, although there will still undoubtedly be arguments about how binding these agreements should be.

Kallbekken warns against thinking that the summit will be a walk in the park. The last round of negotiations, which took place in Bonn in October, show that there is still a huge difference in opinion between the industrialized and developing worlds.


Simple fairness principles were established at the UN climate convention in 1992. The most important ones are that we have a common, but differential responsibility for the climate problem, and each nation’s respective capacity to help solve it. These principles are the reason that only industrialized nations had binding emission cuts in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

“However, these principles are inevitably read and interpreted differently between different groups of countries,” says Knut Holtan Sørensen, a professor at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at NTNU.

“In theory, you would think that it should be possible to come up with a compromise that everyone agrees is fair. However, in the real world, nations always end up arguing their point with the principle that best meets their own needs,” he concludes.
Both Sørensen and Kallbekken participated in a research group last year that, on assignment from the Socialist Left party’s parliament group, set Norway’s goals for emission cuts for the Paris agreement. But we’ll get back to this later. First, let’s make things a little more complicated.

Våre handlinger i dag påvirker livssituasjonen for 30-40 generasjoner framover. Blir det endringer i Paris? Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

Our actions today will affect the lives of people 30-40 generations in the future. Will there be progress in Paris? Illustration: Thinkstock

Forty generations

Historical and current emissions, and our ability to do something about them, are not the only things that need to be considered when deciding what is fair in these types of agreements. Future generations also need to be included in the calculation.

“We have to look at fairness over the long term,” says Professor Anders Hammer Strømman. “15-20 per cent of current CO2 emissions will still be in the atmosphere in a thousand years. We can’t spend all of our time just arguing about the last two or three generations’ historical obligations, and ignore the next 40 generations,” he says.


Strømman is the head of the Industrial Ecology Programme at NTNU, which is an international leader in environmental system analysis. Several researchers in the programme were important contributors to the latest report to the UN climate panel.

The research group has developed models and data sets to measure carbon footprints, or the total environmental impact of a product, process or sector across borders.

Bund i Shanghai i Kina er sterkt forurenset. Kineserne tjener store penger på å produsere varer som brukes i andre land. Kina står igjen med ansvaret for forurensningen. Er det rettferdig? Foto: Thinkstock

Bund in Shanghai, China is heavily polluted. The Chinese earn a great deal of money by producing goods that are used in other countries. China is left with the responsibility for the pollution. Is that fair? Foto: Thinkstock

Today, the country of production is assigned the responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. But shouldn’t the consumer take responsibility as well?

Emissions from consumption

“We’ve developed models and data sets that make it possible to set up an environmental balance between countries, where we take into consideration emissions related to consumption,” says Strømman.

“Just a few years ago, nobody knew about these principles. Now, they’ve been included in the UN climate panel’s main report, in the technical summary.

A recent study by researchers in the Industrial Ecology Programme will be presented at a side event during the summit in Paris.

Strømman acknowledges that consumption-related emissions will likely not be taken into consideration in a judicially binding agreement for a long time. The models and data simply aren’t well enough developed yet.

“But maybe bringing consumption emissions into the discussion can help break up arduous, deadlocked discussions on the historical responsibility and delegation of current emissions,” says Strømman.

Quota trading isn’t enough

A high price on carbon is generally presented as the most cost-effective means of reducing emissions. According to Strømman, however, this isn’t enough.
“Experience shows that general efforts, like quota trading, just aren’t enough. We have to take more specific, goal-oriented measures, even though they may be less cost effective,” he says.

Anders Skonhoft, a professor of economics at NTNU, is another active participant in climate change debates, and is also critical of the quota system.

Klimakvoter. Skal rike land få kjøpe seg ut av sine klimaforpliktelser? Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

Climate quotas. Should rich lands be able to purchase their way out of their climate obligations? Illustration: Thinkstock

“The system seems to be fine in theory, but from a practical standpoint, it has been much harder to get working than we thought. The EU has far too many quotas, because strong market operators have used their lobbying power to get free quotas. In addition, you really have to question the fairness of rich countries such as Norway being able to buy their way out of climate obligations,” he says.

The future is unprofitable

Skonhoft acknowledges that economists are generally not very good at talking about talking about equity.

“But for the past few years, this has been included in academic discussions between economists, which is important for the equity of agreements being made now for future generations,” he says.

An important factor is the use of discount rates on investments for climate measures.

Simply explained, discount rates are a way of calculating the current value of an investment that has yield in the future. The concept of discount rates is used in the climate debate in Norway, to show which measures are uneconomic.

Many measures that we could be taking are quite expensive to implement, and won’t show any kind of yield for a few decades. Calculated using normal business management methods, with a high discount rate, almost every method of cutting emissions will be uneconomic, unless it gives immediate results.

The 2006 British Stern report presented a completely different way of calculating the value of climate measures, and came to a completely different conclusion regarding profit and loss. Harvard professor Martin Weitzman also had a central role in this discussion.

Hvordan beregner du verdien av klimatiltak? Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

How should we calculate the value of a climate measure? Illustration: Thinkstock

“Today, most economists agree that discount rates on climate measures need to be very low, and hyperbolic, meaning that they decrease drastically over time,” Skonhoft concludes.

Right to pollute?

Professor of Philosophy May Thorseth is also sceptical about the concept of quota trading, but for different reasons.

“We are talking about a global, limited, common resource. We have a common obligation to manage resources like this in a sustainable manner, both for current and future generations. Taking this into consideration, it’s wrong to talk about the rights of individual nations or people to pollute. These aren’t goods for trade,” she says.

Thorseth leads the Applied Ethics programme at NTNU, and much of her research is on the ethical issues related to sustainable social development.

“It’s wrong to define justice as compensation for old sins. We won’t save our future simply by paying for indulgences from our past,” she says.

Need a strong agreement

Different countries have different capacities to help solve climate issues.

“The nations that have the greatest capacity to help have the most responsibility. Capacity isn’t only about being able to afford it, but is also about having a good system of government. Part of the responsibility is also about the right and obligation to step in for countries that aren’t doing their fair share, especially if they are misruled and corrupt,” says Thorseth.

Norge. Hva er det rettferdig at det rike, lille oljelandet i nord skal bidra med? Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

Norway. What is fair for this rich, little oil country to do when it comes to climate? Illustration: Thinkstock

“What is being destroyed is a common good and what is happening in each country has global consequences. Thus, it is not enough to hand over full responsibility to individual countries. Perhaps we need a new type of agreement, with extensive authority and control, and the right and duty to intervene,” she said.

Fairness in Norway

Back to Norway. What is fair for a rich, small oil country in the north to contribute?

Climate and Environment Minister Tine Sundtoft provided Norway’s answer to this question in March: 40 per cent cuts by 2030, in line with the EU common objective. Sundtoft characterized this contribution as both fair and ambitious.

“Based on the common principles of climate justice, Norway ought to commit to far greater emission cuts,” says Knut Holtan Sørensen.

He was one of a group of researchers who tried to quantify the size of the emission cuts that Norway should make in keeping with the goal of having a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2 degrees C.

Norge vil gjerne framstå som foregangsland. Samtidig vil vi eksportere mest mulig petroleum. Illustrasjon: Thinkstock

Norway would like to be seen as a frontrunner on climate issues. Meanwhile, we continue to export as much oil and gas as possible. Illustration: Thinkstock

Sørensen’s understanding is based on the two fairness principles that have the broadest acceptance: The responsibility for creating the problem, and the capacity to solve it. Calculated based on responsibility, it is reasonable for Norway to cut emissions by at least 59 per cent by 2030. If Norway’s capacity to solve the problem is added, Norway’s climate responsibility grows tremendously. Then we have cut more than 100 per cent of our emissions.


“But it is fair to ask whether Norwegian politicians are really so concerned about fairness when it comes to this question? The key justice principles of the UNFCCC are inconspicuous among Norwegian politicians, at least if one is to judge from what is discussed in the Storting,” says Sørensen.

In Norway, economists set the agenda in climate policy. And then, “cost” becomes the central concept, he adds.

“I think other countries perceive Norway as having an ambiguous climate policy. We would like to be seen as pioneers. Meanwhile, we export as much gas as possible. We risk being perceived as rich and smug, a country that wants to buy its way out of trouble,” says Sørensen.