EQUAL PER CAPITA EMISSIONS

The final claim about justice that I will examine is the claim stemming from equality. The claim is that justice requires that each individual receive an equal share in the remaining capacity of the atmosphere to absorb emissions. For example, if the safe cumulative emissions limit is 1 trillion tons of carbon and we have emitted around 600 billion tons, there are 400 billion tons of remaining capacity. There are 7.125 billion people alive today. Each person would be allowed their share, which is 600 billion tons divided by 7.125 billion people or just 60 tons of carbon per person.

Equal per capita emissions rights are often envisioned as embedded in a cap-and-trade regime. Each person would get the right to emit about sixty tons. Instead of using that right, they could sell it and allow the buyer to emit some, or all, of the 60 tons. Industries in countries with large fossil fuel infrastructures, like the United States and Europe, could buy emission rights from those without larger infrastructures, ensuring that emissions would occur where needed based on cost considerations while individuals would share equally in the atmosphere.

In addition, because it might be infeasible to give emissions rights to all seven billion individuals directly, equal per capita rights regimes often contemplate giving the rights to countries on the basis of population. The governments would then determine how to use the emissions rights.

The appeal of an equal per capita rights system is based on a view that the atmosphere is a common resource. It belongs to everyone. When we divide it up, therefore, everyone should get an equal share. As Paul Baer noted, “[t]he central argument for equal per capita rights is that the atmosphere is a global commons, whose use and preservation are essential to human well-being.”29 Baer has also stated, “Ethically, disparate claims to common resources are difficult to justify.”30 Because of its simplicity and intuitive appeal, equal per capita rights has been described as “the most politically prominent contender for any specific global formula for long-term allocations with increasing numbers of adherents in both developed and developing countries.”31

The intuition is similar to the arguments for corrective justice. Equal per capita rights claims and corrective justice claims are both based on a view that the just allocation of the atmosphere is pro rata. The corrective justice claim is that people owe compensation for more than pro rata use in the past. The equal shares claim is that people should be given a pro rata share of what remains for future use.

The equal shares argument is stronger than the corrective justice argument because it does not have to deal with many of the problems that plague the corrective justice: deciding who acted wrongly in the recent and distant past, tracing those wrong acts to people alive today who can be held responsible, applying responsibility collectively rather than individually, and so forth. Nevertheless, many of the core issues remain. In particular, the equal shares argument suffers from the problems of climate change blinders and feasibility.

 
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