climate change race social justice

How responsible for climate change is the global north?

One of the arguments in my book, Climate Change is Racist, is that the climate crisis has been disproportionately caused by the global north*. Since the citizens of the global north are majority white, there is a racial dynamic to climate change that we don’t talk about very often.

But are we sure that the north is actually more responsible? To what extent? What about India and China’s enormous emissions?

Here’s the graph from the book, showing total cumulative emissions by continent:

From this we can see straight away that Europe and North America have an outsized contribution. The word ‘disproportionate’ is important here. I don’t argue that the North entirely caused climate change or that they are solely to blame, only that they bear greater responsibility because they have greater cumulative emissions. (Somewhat bizarrely, I’ve been referred to this graph in attempts to disprove my point. It is the source for the graph in the book and the information is exactly the same.)

That would give us roughly this, though I wouldn’t want to put precise figures on it and didn’t in the book:

  • North: 63%
  • South: 37%

There are some things missing from these figures though, because it only shows domestic emissions. If the UK imports toys from China, for example, the emissions for manufacturing them remain on China’s ledger even though they are enjoyed in the UK. Through imports, 7.3% of the UK’s emissions occur in China.

If you include consumption emissions, the contributions change:

  • North: 68%
  • South: 32%

Even without these, it’s pretty clear that the global north has greater responsibility for climate change. It’s a matter of fact. But there’s more.

These figures don’t account for population. Asia and North America are tied here at 29% each of total global emissions, but it would be a big mistake to assume any kind of equivalence. Asia has 60% of the world’s population, and North America has 7.6%. Americans have vastly larger carbon footprints, and proportional to its size, and has taken more than its fair share of the global atmosphere.

Looking at the idea of shares, the starkest calculation of this inequality is by Jason Hickel in a paper for The Lancet Planetary Health. He attempts to establish “each country’s share of responsibility for global emissions in excess of the planetary boundary”. That involves working out what an equal share of a sustainable carbon budget would be, and how much each country has overshot that share. Population size is accounted for, and since China and India have such huge populations, their fair share is large enough to give us the following numbers:

  • North: 92%
  • South: 8%

You can look up the methodology for yourself and decide if that’s fair. I read Hickel’s figures in his book and chose not to use them in Climate Change is Racist. Neither did I use the middle figures. I didn’t want to be accused of overstating my case, and so I used the most conservative of the three figures.

But how confident am I that, in general terms, the global north is disportionately responsible for climate change? Very confident.

*What is the ‘global north’? A slightly rubbish catch-all for the wealthy industrialised nations of Europe and America. Also called ‘the west’ sometimes. It’s a bit rubbish because it includes Australia and New Zealand, Israel and Japan, which are neither north nor west.

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