Distributive dilemma’s: from the kindergarten to the global level

A couple has three young kids, Angela (A), Boris (B), and Carlos (C). They all have a sweet tooth and are fond of candies. Despite the kids’ common genes, their appetite differs considerably. If there would be no limit, Angela could eat 25 candies a day, Boris 20, and Carlos 15. After that number of candies, each of them would be full and would not enjoy extra candies. One day, however, the couple decides to set a limit on buying candies because they need the money for covering the costs of a loan. From now on, instead of an unlimited amount, there are only 30 candies to distribute amongst the kids. The couple wanted to go for an equal distribution, but still faces a dilemma: they could either distribute the remaining candies equally (or the benefits they yield), or they could distribute the burdens of their decision equally, in other words, the negative effects of their decision on the kids. If they go for the first option, each kid would receive 10 candies. However, if they distribute the burdens of the decision equally, Angela would receive 15, Boris 10, and Carlos 5 candies. In this way, every kid would have missed an equal amount of 10 candies. Angela – the sibling with the stronger appetite – would understandably prefer the latter approach.

Not only siblings have to share: the same holds true on the global level. Replace the kids by 3 countries A, B, and C and candies by fossil fuel productions, which bring benefits in the form of energy that can be used domestically or as a source of revenue, and you’ll find one of the most urgent distributive issues ever. After all, there is only a limited amount of fossil fuel reserves left that can be produced if one we want to limit global warming to 2° or 1,5° compared to preindustrial times, the target set at the Paris Agreement in 2015. Just as the kids in the example, countries differ in how much they would have benefitted if there would be no need for mitigation, not because they differ in when they are ‘full’ or satisfied, but because their total amounts of reserves differ. Just as Angela, therefore, fossil fuel rich countries would be strongly advantaged by an approach that distributes burdens, i.e. the reductions in productions that are required by the climate transition.

The distribution of candies/production benefits without mitigation, if we distribute the remaining benefits evenly, and if we distribute burdens evenly

In the literature, some authors discuss the distribution of the remaining benefits (or budget, or rights to these benefits), while others speak of distributing the burdens of mitigating climate change (or responsibilities, or reductions, or stranded assets). These approaches have been called respectively the resource-sharing and burden-sharing approach (Baer, 2002, p. 395). While the resource-sharing approach distributes the benefits that follow from using up the remaining carbon budget (possibly in the form of emission/production rights), the burden-sharing approach distributes the burdens that follow from mitigating climate change, understood as unrealized/foregone benefits:

“‘Mitigation burdens’, as I am defining that term, are the costs to actors of not engaging in activities that contribute to global climate change. Those who engage in a policy of mitigation bear an opportunity cost: they forego benefits that they could have had if they had engaged in activities which involve the emission of high levels of greenhouse gases” (Caney, 2005, p. 751)

Unfortunately, the distinction is given very little attention, probably because authors consider it as a merely linguistic matter. Unrightly so: it may be more important than any other consideration that is relevant for determining what a fair distribution is (like a country’s number of inhabitants, past productions/emissions and developmental needs).

The consequences of distributing burdens instead of benefits

The consequences of distributing the burdens of climate change mitigation are large because this approach makes the benefits countries would have enjoyed without the need for mitigation normatively relevant. These amounts of benefits differ considerably, both on the consumption and production level, as some countries would have consumed or produced more than others. On the production level, distributing the burdens of production reductions instead of the remaining benefits would be to the advantage of countries with a lot of available reserves that would have been extracted. On the consumption level, there are also great differences in how much countries would have benefitted from consuming fossil fuels (the benefits here concern benefits that follow from engaging in emission-generating activities). On the production level, however, the benefits are more visible and concrete as they are ready to be dug up, so to say.

Some countries have been explicitly referring to the availability of reserves as an argument for producing more. At the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in 2014, for instance, the energy minister of Tanzania, Sospeter Muhongo, argued that “We in Africa, we should not be in the discussion of whether we should use coal or not. In my country of Tanzania, we are going to use our natural resources because we have reserves which go beyond 5 billion tons” (Friedman, 2014). Similarly, Canada’s recently re-elected prime minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, contended that “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there” (McKibben, 2020). In particular, many fossil fuels are located in the Middle East (rich in oil and gas), the former Soviet Union countries (rich in oil, gas, and coal), China, India, and the United States (rich in coal) (McGlade & Ekins, 2015). These countries would benefit most from an account that distributes burdens, because they could have realized a relatively large amount of benefits if there was no need for mitigation, compared to other countries. In contrast, if one’s total amount of reserves counts, a country like Costa Rica would receive little as it does not own a lot of reserves (president Carlos Alvarado even considered a ban on fossil fuel explorations and extractions (Garrison, 2021)). If we distribute the benefits of fossil fuel ownership, the total amounts of reserves these countries lose their relevance.

Distributing burdens is a conservative approach because it protects the existing benefit rates and value of fossil fuel reserves. If implemented, it would save many fossil fuel reserves from being stranded, thereby protecting the status quo. In general, conservative arguments (that are not related to distributing benefits or burdens) are rejected quite unanimously. Authors have been focusing on libertarian principles, arguing that high emitters acquired a right to their level of benefits (Bovens, 2011), on distributive justice, arguing that the status quo is relevant because it influences how good or bad the consequences of a change are (Knight 2014), or on practical considerations, arguing that some grandfathering might be required to reach a political agreement, but these arguments have been refuted (Caney, 2009; Gosseries and Hungerbühler, 2006; Schuessler, 2017).

Despite a general resistance against conservative approaches, distributing burdens instead of benefits has gone uncriticized. Especially when it comes to the supply side, authors tend to ask how to distribute the burdens of not being able to exploit their fossil fuel reserves or how to distribute stranded assets: cf. Caney (2016); Muttitt and Kartha (2020); Kartha et al. (2018). In 2017, the Lofoten Declaration for a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production Around the World affirmed that countries that are high-income and that benefitted a lot from past extractions should bear more of the responsibilities or burdens (The Lofoten Declaration, 2017). On the consumption level, the doctrine of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities also offers a framework to equitably share burdens. IPCC’s 2014 Assessment Report on climate change mitigation frames the question in terms of burden-sharing too: “efforts are continuing to reach effective international agreement on mitigation. They raise an ethical question that is widely recognized and much debated, namely, ‘burden-sharing’ or ‘effortsharing’. How should the burden of mitigating climate change be divided among countries?”

Why we should distribute benefits

Even though the burden-sharing approach is widely accepted, it is mistaken. One should consider whether what has to be distributed is beneficial or not. Producing fossil fuels brings mainly benefits: fossil fuels can deliver energy or can be a source of revenue (Caney, 2016). Just like candies might cause dental problems, fossil fuel productions could also cause some burdens in the form of environmental degradation, the dispossessing of local communities, negative impacts of concentration of wealth and power, macroeconomic overreliance and geopolitical instability (Kartha et al., 2016; Lenferna, 2018, p. 220), but still it brings net benefits. The burden-sharing approach wrongly assumes that production benefits had been distributed already, based on how much one would have benefitted if there were no limits. No such distribution had been made, however. Only now that the benefits from fossil fuel ownership appear to be a scarce good, the question of how to distribute them emerges. Just as we should not distribute the candies that cannot be eaten in the example above, we should not distribute the ownership benefits that cannot be realized.

Taking into account the distribution that would have occurred if there would be no mitigation need is not only mistaken but also arbitrary, as one could presuppose many other non-existing distributions that could have occurred in a counterfactual world. For instance, instead of assuming the distribution of the benefits of producing all the world’s fossil fuel reserves (resources that are proved to be recoverable under current economic conditions and that have a specific probability of being produced), one could also assume the distribution of the benefits of producing all the world’s resources (including non-reserve resources): the fossil fuels that are recoverable over all time with both current and future technologies regardless of existing economic conditions. Using up all these resources would lead to 11000 Gt CO2 emissions (11 times the carbon budget) (McGlade and Ekins, 2015, pp. 187-188) instead of 2734.2 Gt CO2 or 2900 Gt CO2. One could thus presuppose multiple counterfactual worlds that each lead to a different distribution and it is arbitrary to assume one of those distributions but not another one.

When siblings use the trick of sharing burdens to get more candies, perhaps parents may reward their inventiveness. When an important good at the global level is at stake, however, we need to be more wary. Both international agreements and climate ethicists have been paying lots of attention to important criteria like historical responsibility and needs, but the most impactful consideration may be whether one distributes benefits or burdens. It’s time to oppose conservatists’ ultimate safeguard, abandon the burden-sharing approach, and realize distributive justice on our way to saving the planet.

I would like to thank Carlotta Garofalo for her suggestions and tips to improve this blogpost.


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