Emissions trading – the case for an ethical framework


Greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic climate change are directly linked to the combustion of fossil fuels for energy, deforestation, and certain agricultural practices. Reducing emissions will thus require major economic changes in production and consumption systems, and in the governance systems which guide individual and corporate behaviour. Yet the economic profiles of nation states vary widely, and current emissions are strongly correlated with wealth, historical circumstances, climate, access to energy resources and population size. These national circumstances, on top of the profound wealth disparity between developed and developing countries, will continue to present obstacles to the negotiation of a fair allocation of a global emissions cap stringent enough to combat climate change. Added to this is the feature of climate problem having all the attributes of a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ where it is rational for each nation to pollute the global commons to the maximum and free-ride on the mitigation efforts of others (Gardiner 2002; Wagner and Weitzman 2016).

This background partly explains why political disagreement represents a key feasibility constraint that cannot be overlooked in designing climate policies. The climate policy debate (in contrast to the discourse in law and international relations about climate politics) is concerned with designing policy instruments which as a priority, put a price on pollution commensurate with the damage that it causes, or will cause later.  Since the failure to agree on a global carbon tax through the UNFCCC regime and the withdrawal of the US from the Kyoto Protocol[1] (Convery 2009), the policy debate has increasingly shifted towards carbon trading systems which allow for ‘decentralised action’ (Grubb 1990, 81) partly because it was the one pricing instrument that negotiating parties were prepared to agree on.

Emissions trading works by setting a cap on the emissions allowable by certain sectors, and requiring installations to purchase permits to cover emissions over a given time period. The key innovation is the establishment of property rights (or leasing rights) for tradable carbon permits, and then leaving it to market forces to determine the price.  Ideally, by establishing a market to bring an optimum utilisation of such rights, ‘least-cost’ abatement will take place through technological innovation (Calel 2013b). According to advocates of emissions trading, the creation of property rights is a more economically efficient way of pricing carbon than taxation, though both instruments can actually work well together. In theory, by requiring polluters to purchase permits, the market can deliver mitigation more efficiently than taxation by targeting ‘low hanging fruit’ or incentivising technological innovation away from carbon-intensive economic activities (Calel 2013b; Convery 2009; Ellerman et al. 2010).

In principle, any product that has a carbon footprint could be required to purchase emissions credits, and in principle, anyone could get involved in buying and selling emissions credits, and even generating them through mitigation projects.  In fact, the quickest way to decarbonise the EU energy sector would be for every citizen in Europe to purchase, and then put the permits under the mattress for a decade.[2]

In most countries with carbon trading schemes however, markets are designed to cover major emitters first. The key benefit of requiring the market (as is the case in the EU) to major industrial producers of greenhouse gases and the power generation sector is that an effective carbon price should ripple throughout the economy as higher energy costs are reflected in consumer prices. And again, according to the theory, a strong price incentive will have the effect of discouraging emissions and incentivising the transition to low or zero carbon forms of economic activity and energy production.

Given the task that confronts us – that of reducing greenhouse gases by 40% across the EU by 2030 – it might be a good starting point not to rule out any instrument that might be effective at reducing emissions without massive economic disruption. Indeed, effectiveness might arguably be the only relevant criterion here, given the urgency of mitigation. However, is worth considering how we might evaluate the broader ethical implications carbon trading. Markets also have the effect of establishing moral norms: they act as moral templates because they establish and reproduce patterns and regularities that guide interactions and transactions in the marketplace and daily life. The absence of a ‘solidaristic community’ or world government at the global level does not preclude global or transnational institutions from exercising power over any community or country, which in turn begs the question of their political legitimacy if they do not make justice a primary goal (Pogge 2008, 120). The legal power of international financial institutions to confer ownership rights over resources, or to provide or withhold credit, empowers them to engage in resource distribution, however indirectly.  Therefore, such institutions – and indeed markets that are regulated by them – have duties of justice that may be even more pronounced than those of national level institutions, partly because their activities may lack legitimacy and transparency to those people who are affected by their operations.

From an equity point of view, it is the nature of these new property rights that matters: the initial allocation determines who gets the permits, and who will then benefit from trading. If permits are they grandfathered, they are effectively given away to polluters for free. In practice, grandfathering may soften up opposition to the imposition of a cap but at an opportunity cost to society as a whole in rewarding incumbent polluters. Nor does grandfathering resolve the question of historical emissions. Recall the case of Tata Steel in the UK, which though facing bankruptcy in 2016 had claimed more than £700m in windfall profits, offsets and free allowances from the ETS over a 6 year period.[3]  In this case, a greener method of steel production may be incentivised by the cost of purchasing credits, but at the cost of some job losses. Critics of Tata pointed out that when the carbon trading model of mitigation was being extended to steel production, employers were effectively shielded from its logic via the free allocations when workers were not. This does not constitute a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon energy future. Yet the income from carbon credits could conceivably be ringfenced to ensure that communities such as those in Port Talbot benefit from a transition to cleaner production. From the perspective of fairness as well as competitiveness, only auctioning is justifiable, especially when there is no convincing empirical case for shielding industries from carbon leakage (Timiliotis and Koźluk 2016). Revenues can and should be used for subsidising innovation in a socially just manner.

A second questions concerns whether permits are leased or permanently owned. If the property rights gained by polluters (on behalf of the whole of society in effect) interfere over time with the public interest, it should be possible for regulators to withdraw, cancel or reserve permits from the market.  The EU’s latest reforms to the EU-ETS do make provision for a Market Stability Reserve, but this will not come into effect until 2021, and it is offered as a bulwark against price shocks rather than ensuring a high enough carbon price. Ethically speaking, market-based instruments can only be justified if the flexibility assured by trading sets a price that reflects the full social cost of carbon. A recent – albeit conservative – estimate by the economist Bill Nordhaus puts this at $31 per tonne of carbon at 2015 US prices (Nordhaus 2017), compared with the current average EUA price in the EU ETS of €5.  A hybrid approach combining taxation (to ensure a high enough minimum price floor) and trading (to ensure flexibility) might ensure both price stability and the correct incentives.

Prices, moreover, whether set by a government, a company, or an individual, involve an exercise of power; power that one party can use (and abuse) to influence the behaviour of another (Calel 2013a, 281). Furthermore the effects of commodification – of turning carbon into a tradable commodity – may be irreversible, and by reducing a social relationship to an exchange of commodities, may be ‘infectious’ (Calel 2013a, 279-280). Therefore initial allocations have enormous ethical implications because they distribute and redistribute public goods by solving for externalities (Stiglitz 2000, 215-241), because of their distributional implications (Calel 2013b, 113) and their potential to establish incentives that ‘crowd out’ other social norms (Sandel 2012).

A related question is the status of emissions permits themselves.  To the extent that permits can be exchanged for traditional financial products and currency, they acquire all of the status and power that money has. But this outcome is not inevitable: since this market is a human invention we can design it in theory to have the features we desire. Permits could be designed to expire after a certain period, or exchangeable under much more limited conditions. A crucial issue is the coverage of the market. If carbon trading is limited to large installations and power generation which operate under reasonably competitive conditions and have comparable regulatory structures across the EU, the commodification argument loses much of its force since both the emissions and the mitigation will be roughly equivalent.

To the extent that carbon markets cover sectors in which individual consumers and firms make transactions, it will be possible to absolve a moral obligation to reduce emissions with the swipe of a credit card. Offsetting allows pollution to continue as long as polluters are willing to pay for the effort of mitigation somewhere else. Even if trading is effective overall at reducing emissions, we might still reasonably contend that polluters have not discharged their moral obligations, and that such a scheme does not satisfy principles of justice across space and over time. There is a strong normative case for limiting the scale and scope of carbon markets so that the effects of transactions are transparent, tangible and accountable to an identifiable political community. This implies imposing strict limits on the use of international offset credits via the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol or any other similar instrument (Lohmann 2009).

What happens when carbon markets are linked, and when they are expanded to include offsetting credits such as those of the CDM and other flexibility instruments is that transparency and thus accountability is sometimes lost. Treating all emissions and emissions reductions as equivalent is also both scientifically and ethically problematic (Spash 2010).  It makes no sense for example to make emissions from aviation, which is the domain of the global rich, equivalent to the mitigation efforts of subsistence farmers battling drought, disease and poverty (Aldred 2016; Shue 1993).

The realist might argue that these problems simply cannot be solved with any brand of idealism, or by appealing to abstract conceptions of rights or justice. However, the alternative is to exclude ethical considerations entirely. As Shue notes, failure to even ask the question ‘who’s in? who’s out?’ over time and space sets up a default method of setting up the policy questions that is full of arbitrary exclusions but which neglects to consider the fact that harms to future people cannot be compensated for (Shue 2006, 711).

The atmospheric ‘sink’ is a finite resource that we share with future people, whose interests and basic needs, we can assume, will be the same as ours. While it is tempting from a political perspective to set a target for reducing emissions based on what is feasible or affordable now in individual countries, to do so would likely be ineffective, since it is cumulative global emissions that increase the risk of dangerous climate change (Anderson and Bows 2008, 2011). Targets based on an permissible temperature increase also fail to communicate the inconvenient truth that since emissions are still rising[4], the global carbon budget is likely to be exhausted even sooner.

If the international community is serious about backing up any limit to global warming with credible but fair policies, then scenarios will have to be developed that explicitly construct pathways for developing countries to grow, peak and then reduce their emissions alongside radical cuts in emissions by Annex I countries (Rockström et al. 2017). If global emissions are assumed to peak and then reduce from about 35 GtCO2/yr in 2020, this implies that anthropogenic carbon emissions need to be roughly halving every decade from then onwards (Rockström et al. 2017). These are staggering emissions reductions, that do not even take into account the fact that the remaining budget needs to be shared equitably with developing countries and future generations.

Of course, a global tax on emissions could achieve the goal of setting a price on carbon that reflects the true social costs of climate harms now and into the future, but there is no institution in place to collect and redistribute tax revenues at a global level. Large wealth transfers from the global North to South are also likely to be resisted by many wealthier nations. It will be left therefore to states that are committed to mitigation policies to negotiate economic instruments and policies which devalue commercial propositions based on fossil energy. One remaining option is to work gradually towards a global price on carbon (Helm 2013; Stern 2007; Stern 2011) by forming ‘carbon clubs’ and setting border taxes on imports to account for the consumption of carbon-intensive products at home that are manufactured abroad (Nordhaus 2015).

It is possible of course that this analysis is overly pessimistic, and that there is still potential for international climate agreements to shape a radical mitigation policy in time to achieve the Paris Agreement goals and without the world’s second largest emitter, the US. Yet even if this takes place, for any future agreement to be scientifically relevant to the task of meeting a 2 degree target, it must devise a mechanism to abide and enforce a global cap, and distribute the remaining budget fairly. This implies an effort to shape the likely policy instruments, especially carbon trading, so that they achieve the goals of fairness and efficiency together.

[1] Strictly speaking the US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol: Canada did but then withdrew later.

[2] This would have the effect of dramatically reducing the allowances available to installations that are required to have them to cover their emissions, and it would raise the cost of purchasing remaining allowances (Kollmuss and Lazarus 2010). It would socialise some of the transition costs (because citizens would not get a return on their investment) but leave consumers and citizens somewhat in control of the timing of structural change. Fanciful though this might appear, there is a tendency among climate activists to underestimate the potential of carbon markets for delivering environmental justice. The complexities of setting up such a regime are also somewhat offset by the power, speed and reach of digital technologies.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/08/tata-steel-benefited-from-eu-climate-policies-studies-show.

[4] the only year since the base year of 1990 to report a global emissions reduction is 2008, when economies around the world ground to a halt in the grip of a global recession.  That decrease only amounted to 1% and only for one year. Overall, since 1990 global emissions have risen by 57% and show no signs of abating yet.



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Anderson, Kevin and Alice Bows. 2011. “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: Emission scenarios for a new world.” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369(1934):20-44.

Calel, R. 2013a. “What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets.” NEW YORK: CAMBRIDGE UNIV PRESS.

Calel, Raphael. 2013b. “Carbon markets: A historical overview.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 4(2):107-119.

Convery, Frank J. 2009. “Origins and development of the eu ets.” Environmental and Resource Economics 43(3):391-412.

Ellerman, A. Denny, Frank J. Convery, Christian de Perthuis, Emilie Alberola, Barbara K. Buchner, Anaïs Delbosc, Cate Hight, Jan Keppler and Felix Chr Matthes. 2010. Pricing carbon : The european union emissions trading scheme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Music is the breath of life

Music is the breath of life

Today I attended the funeral of Regina O Leary (nee Shine) in my hometown of Kilkenny who passed away on the 17th of March at home. Regina was a remarkable woman: a mother of three talented musicians and a teacher herself at my children’s national school St. Canice’s CoEd NS. As a young teacher Regina had been inspired by one of the then teaching nuns who had introduced music lessons into the school curriculum by asking for donations of instruments. Together, and subsequently with a large team of volunteer parents, teachers and helpers, Regina went on to develop the most extraordinary music school programme at the school. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think there’s anything like this in the country, or maybe anywhere.

The St Canice’s Instrumental Music Programme involves hundreds of children from junior infants upwards, dozens of instrument types and sizes, two orchestras, two jazz bands and a host of other small ensembles, quartets and trios. From junior infants upwards, the children are offered the opportunity to learn an instrument and then by 2nd class join in the junior orchestra. The children learn their instruments at school, but after school, so just when school’s out, the buzz of music ripples through the classrooms.  From 3pm until 8 or 9pm, the lights are always on at St Canice’s, transforming the drab buildings into a hub of sound, a different kind of learning.

The two orchestras between them every year manage to reach astonishing standards, bearing in mind the inevitably high turnover of players as they get older, winning a Feis Ceoil trophy in their category every year straight for 26 years. By 6th class, the children – some of whom have by now reached standards of even Grade 6 or higher – are playing the most extraordinary music. Their recent repertoire includes Carl Jenkins’ Palladio, Ravel’s Bolero, the Dambusters March, and their old favourite, Can you feel the love tonight (from the Lion King). Apart from the oboe and bassoon, which are particularly difficult instruments for children to learn, never mind find someone to teach, I don’t think there are any instruments missing. The orchestras have full brass and percussion sections. If you’ve ever been in an amateur orchestra, you’ll appreciate the depth and breadth of sound that the St Canice’s orchestras are capable of achieving as a result. In my own house, we’ve had violin, piano, viola, cello and clarinet. In some houses children might take up as many as three instruments apiece.

But that’s not all. The programme also includes guitar and recorder ensembles, as well as two jazz bands under the inspired direction of Eamon Cahill. Tireless fund-raising by committed parents has funded the purchase of particularly expensive instruments such as french horns and double basses. The pupils hire out their instruments so the costs to parents are very low, regardless of which instrument they take up.

To say that the programme has changed the lives of children and adults at the school, is a gross understatement. Keeping the cost to parents low was always a major priority for Regina, and despite her own passion for high standards, the children were never under pressure to take private lessons (though many did). She had a charismatic and glamorous charm about her that demanded the best from everyone, but she always gave back more herself.  She even set up violin and cello classes for the parents, again keeping the standard manageable for even the most wobbly of beginners so that everyone could join in.

It takes time to build up to the standards that St Canice’s have attained. Time, energy, organisation and lots of commitment. Regina’s tireless energy and ambition for the children and the programme are probably irreplaceable.  She herself always took the time to acknowledge the key roles played by other key helpers and supporters. But as I take stock of her sad passing today, and reflect on the difference she made in my life, and my family’s lives, I need to express my heartfelt gratitude for the changes that music brought back into my house. Thanks to Regina I learned as an adult to play the violin and viola, joining the local adult chamber orchestra here in Kilkenny and becoming its chairperson in 2014. I was also inspired by her to return to my old beloved piano, finish out all my grades and even teach it for a while. I also took up my classical guitar again, and still play. Regina’s inspiration led me (rather bizarrely) to even complete grade 8 in musical theory in a frenzy of musical obsession. But most profoundly, the whole experience of self-directed music learning gave me the confidence to return to college, do an MA and now a PhD.

If there is a lesson from Regina’s legacy, it is that sharing a passion for music breathes life into us all. Learning to play an instrument at any age is both energising and calming. It focuses and clears the mind. Many kids learn to play an instrument, have fun, make new friends, but that is nothing like the thrill and discipline of playing in an orchestra.  You can imagine the educational and learning benefits to children, but Regina would never have crowed about these. She just loved music, and loved to share music with everyone. She will be missed terribly – for her dynamism and vision, her strength and commitment.

Thank you for the music Regina.


Why ethics? Part II

In a previous post, I offered a justification for the inclusion of ethics in any discussion of climate policy and politics. In this post, I attempt to tease out in greater detail why we as individuals, as well as collectives, have climate-related duties. The first thing to recognise is that I doubt any philosopher would claim that ethics always trumps politics or economics or any other framing of an issue. Climate change is an exceptionally complex problem which will require the efforts and engagement of many disciplines, perspectives and voices in an ongoing discursive exchange for all of the foreseeable future.

The important contribution philosophy makes is to clarify our conceptual frameworks, challenge assumptions  and perhaps expose epistemological biases. In addition philosophy can offer a variety of theoretical perspectives on the problem from which we can select the most relevant, useful ideas or, if you prefer, those that offer the greatest emancipatory potential. Ours is rich tradition (albeit dominated by men but see this), fiercely and radically democratic in that it accepts reasonable (and often unreasonable) disagreement as one of the greatest sources of collective creativity and endeavour.

In the case of ethics, moral philosophy draws our attention to the underlying principles that we use to defend our actions and choices. It’s this last contribution that I’m particularly interested in, and in the context of climate policy, ethics speaks particularly to aspects of public policy that are generally addressed by public good or welfare economics. For all the dismissal of ethics, it’s moral concepts that we look to when we want to explain why one solution is better than another. And even if efficiency and effectiveness are the metrics of choice, these are arguably ethical principles too, in that they express a value or an ordered ranking of choice. Decisions are made every day on the grounds that they are ‘good’ whether in terms of serving the national interest, promoting welfare or alleviating injustice. Don’t tell me such decisions aren’t morally relevant!

Here’s a famous argument for a public, global ethic from Peter Singer’s classic article, Famine Affluence and Morality (Philosophy & Public Affairs Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243). In it he argues persuasively that if it is within our power to bring about a good without sacrificing too much of our own welfare, then we have a duty to do so, as he puts it:

[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it…. [This principle] requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good.

Singer argues that donating money towards famine relief is a clear moral duty in the case of the Bengal famine, which at the time threatened the lives of 9 million people. He contends that this principle takes no account of proximity or distance, and that it makes no moral difference whether the person is close by or far away, or whether I am the only person who can act to save someone, or one of millions. The argument he makes is straightforward enough, if hugely demanding, until one starts to put specific commitments into the story. Accepting that I have this duty to prevent harm, how much am I morally obliged to contribute to avoid the suffering of another (possibly distant) person? How much of a sacrifice should this be for me to meet my obligation? Assuming I have knowledge about the marginal cost of relief, but no knowledge of what others are prepared to do, immediately I am cast into a Prisoner’s Dilemma, where my duty clashes with my self-interest. Acting on these duties others can free-ride on my efforts and in effect, I am, in Bill Nordhaus’ words, ‘a chump’.

For Singer, one implication of this demanding moral obligation (above) is that the traditional distinction between duty and charity in the case of affluent individuals at least, is ‘upset’. That is certainly true. But the real issue at stake is the question of definition and measurement of ‘comparable moral importance’ and the problem of setting a minimum moral standard: how much (money, sacrifice, mitigation) is required for me to actually meet my obligation? And does it matter how, in practice, I go about fulfilling it? These are all hugely complex issues which have exercised moral philosophers for decades. My point in mentioning them here is that the description of the problem by Singer is as relevant to climate change as it is to global poverty. If we accept that we have duties to prevent harm, we have to figure out how much of a contribution is required to avoid harm; what kind of actions we ought to take to reduce our consumption. And if this kind of moralising puts you off, there is another aspect to individual action highlighted by Michael Sandel that we need to take these actions (without offsetting or leaving it to markets) in the context of pulling together in the context of civic responsibility.

I do not think the moral demand to avoid harm can be effectively exhausted by individual action. It doesn’t even make sense because the impact of our efforts would likely be negligible and the whole point of acting is to create the conditions in which harm can be avoided and restitution made. In further posts I will look at political or public morality that kicks in where collective action is required to overcome a tragedy of the commons. But the point remains, where we can act to avoid harm, we ought to act. It is feasible for most adults in the country I live in to reduce their personal emissions. We can of course wait until some central authority makes us, or for prices to rise high enough. And all of that is of course necessary. But morally speaking, we do have duties to act regardless. Uncomfortable, inconvenient truth maybe, but if we acted on it, it might actually make a difference.

Why ‘unfriending’ Facebook friends is liberating

Last night, I unfriended two people on Facebook with whom I have shared many interesting, but mostly frustrating exchanges. I’m not really sure what happens when you ‘unfriend’ someone or whether they find out about it at all. If I’ve caused offence I apologise.  But to have trolls, activists-on-a-mission and people with whom you disagree profoundly about almost everything that you post, immediately removed from that virtual bubble in which we subsist on Facebook, is really liberating.

The first reason why is that they’re not ‘friends’ in any meaningful way to begin with. They’re more like digital radio  –  far too many to choose from when you can only meaningfully listen to one at a time. I remind myself now and then that most of the 400 or so ‘friends’ I have on Facebook wouldn’t recognise me in the street. And in truth, I’d be delighted to have a coffee with almost anyone I’ve ever unfriended. I suspect that we’d either like or dislike each other in a much more authentic way. A real friendship takes time to mature. We learn whether the foibles of our new friends are really irrelevant to what makes them worthy of our respect and affection, or whether they are make-or-break differences of character or opinion.  Facebook may be a lubricant for friendship but it’s not the real thing.

So what happens when we disagree? Well I take disagreement, debate and objections really seriously. I’m willing to take on board the views of others and I love the way (notwithstanding my digital radio metaphor) really interesting conversations can happen on social media with many participants so spontaneously about either general or specific topics of interest. It’s immediate and entertaining, in a way that no other medium is. The possibilities for social activism and political organisation are endless, and almost effortless in comparison to the pre-social media slog of organising and promoting anything. Facebook along with other social media undoubtedly deserves status as a new type of civic space. But it’s not truly public, or necessarily democratic, no matter how many hundreds of friends you have. It’s only going to be a partial, fragmented and isolated conversation dominated by the loudest or the funniest, the most popular or the most outrageous voices. Facebook is where we get an illusory taste of celebrity existence: people can ‘follow’ us, ‘like’ us and even ‘love’ us with a pinging palate of emojis, notifications and shares. We basically get to star in our own show (as we do when we blog too).

Much of the stuff I post is because it’s of interest to me. I treat Facebook as a kind of archive of interesting titbits, much like the way people in the olden days used to keep scrapbooks. Usually I’m not that pushed about this piece or that, but my own views are left-liberal, green and feminist. That should come as no surprise to my friends, but my ‘friends’ have viewed some of my posts as missiles fired directly into the innocent lap of Vladimir Putin or the heroic vanguard of the 99% fighting the global elites. People are of course entitled to their views, but that doesn’t mean some statements aren’t off the point, rubbish or wrong – in part, or in whole.

On Facebook though, I often find the reasoning behind some of these objections has the same structural texture as mashed bananas. And that’s because implicit in this kind of argumentation is a rejection of the very idea of deliberative reasoning. Sometimes  there is no argument, just ad hominems hurled into virtual space. Sometimes, history, politics and social theory get simplified into pithy retorts that are catchy and emotionally convenient, so the ascent of populism should be no surprise. It’s what populist politics masks that really troubles me.  On a political level, the fragmentation and the destruction of of the Left, and the swing to a resurgent Left-wing nationalism is unlikely to bring about parties capable of governing this country competently. And yes, that matters to me (and I think it should to you too).

I predict Facebook will be the channel of choice for voices and interests whose political modus operandi includes fostering disagreement, as well as sowing confusion, falsehoods and propaganda among the masses that we might tear down the EU or the capitalist West/ North, including ‘establishment parties’ of the left, centre and right (oh wait…. that includes just about everybody doesn’t it?). As a civic space, Facebook is entirely chaotic. There is no arbiter of the truth, no editor-in-chief, no research or investigation offered to separate fake from real, or real from robot. There is no-one to moderate our conversation, which is the hallmark of any good political debate. I’m sure I’m guilty myself of contributing to this babble, but I’m willing to admit that I’ve learned something about myself and the medium in the process.

Maybe we should think about finding ways to talk about politics that are respectful, and that do not collapse into marketing or propaganda. In the old days, that meant face-to-face communication and something called ‘standing orders’ in meetings. These practices evolved for good reason within political debating groups and parties: we need to tame our instincts to decimate our opponents and learn to stick to basic rules of debate. Disagreement and debate are essential to the experience and practice of political life. It is what shapes our ideas into something defensible and ultimately communicable to a wider audience. Without it, we will imagine that we are more or less powerful than we really are.

So if you disagree with me, please be specific about whether you object to: my political ideals, or the most workable strategy or the degree of realism that is appropriate in this context. But if you feel like retching, go retch on your own Facebook page please.

Why ethics? Part I

‘There exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent them, I too am guilty.’

Karl Jaspers 

I got into a discussion recently with a friend and colleague about the appropriate place (if any) of ethics in discussing climate change. From an ecological and probably neo-Marxist perspective, he argued that humans are driven to exhaust all available resources to their ‘peak’. Only  when this point has been reached will mitigation take place, but any effective response will be determined by natural limits to growth, peak production of fossil fuels (beyond which extraction no longer remains viable), and at bottom, raw self-interest. I’m sure this point of view has many followers who despair at the current state of the global environment and the relentless violence we are inflicting on non-human nature – check out the extinction symbol handle on Twitter for example.  It is almost comforting to think that there is no point making normative demands for political change since the system is basically out of control: the best we can do is plan for an uncomfortable transition after collapse.

It has taken me a while to get to grips with this, because the argument eludes so many issues. In this piece I’m not going to address the empirical point about human civilisation being out of control. I’m interested in the way the argument assumes away many equally inconvenient truths about human nature, including the discovery that altruistic or moral behaviour is consistent with theories of human evolution (see the work of Daniel C. Batson for example), and that moral reasoning is just as much a feature of our psychological make-up as our capacity to make rational (or irrational) choices.   As Aristotle famously noted, ‘man [sic] is a political animal’: since we exist as social creatures, morality is embedded much like a deep grammar into our behaviour, institutions and communication structures. So I do not accept the premise that morality is irrelevant, especially when we take a closer look at what’s actually going on with climate change or any other environmental problem.

So if we accept the idea that ethical reasoning is valid – whether psychologically or philosophically, what does it for? What purpose does it serve in debates about climate change? Well to begin with, anthropogenic climate change causes harm. In the tradition of ethics, harm has three main features: agency, foreknowledge and damage. If you think about it, that is a very demanding set of criteria. If I have the knowledge and capacity to act to avoid harm, then I ought to do so. Similarly it might be said that I have moral obligations those who might be harmed by my actions, including a duty of restitution or compensation if I cannot undo my actions.

If this sounds all too abstract, let’s just consider a concrete example, like walking around with a loaded shotgun in a way that puts others at risk. Risk is a statistical way of talking about harm. I’m harming others by putting them at risk. Often we don’t think about these issues in as if they constitute moral problems precisely because governments regulate such externalities on our behalf.  Bill Nordhaus, in a 2014 review of John Broome’s classic 2012 book on climate ethics (Journal of Economic Literature52.4 Dec 2014: 1135-1141.), asks the pertinent question of whether, once the state has intervened to regulate an externality (or risk), it ceases to be a moral problem. Instead of having a (bilateral) duty to avoid harming others, I now have a duty to obey the law.

But what if the state itself is negligent, and putting the interests of the privileged few above those of  the poor, or distant, or future people?  How is ethics even relevant, when regulatory capture and globalisation make it impossible for the weak and less powerful to bring about policies which would tackle the urgent problem of greenhouse gas emissions? Well one answer is to say that the duties we have to other humans (and arguably non-humans too) are irrespective of place and time, and that at least one of the functions of a state is to discharge those duties on our behalf. A cosmopolitan perspective is that the mere existence of national borders does not eradicate our basic duty to avoid harming other humans given that we share the same fundamental rights and interests. Another answer again comes from the field of political science and sociology:  if the state won’t do it, change the rules and the rulers;  build institutions and social movements; organise advocacy coalitions for policy change.

However, as Broome points out, even when the state is doing its bit for climate justice, individuals can still be reasonably tasked with avoiding climate harms, even if the messier problem of determining and providing public goods is left to the state. Either way, whether we approach the problem of climate change from the perspective of avoiding harm or doing good, these are fundamentally normative concepts which are not reducible to self-interest or the strategic exercise of political power. Furthermore, even if one believes that individual action is futile in the larger scheme of things, the state still needs a way of choosing between policies. And this calls values back into question. How much harm are we willing to pay for now to avoid damages in the future? What is a reasonable and fair way to distribute the remaining global carbon budget? If you’re having these kinds of conversations, you’re doing ethics.


Trends in climate legislation

Trends in climate legislation

According to a recent study by the LSE Grantham Institute on Climate Policy, 58 signatories to the Paris Agreement have now passed framework legislation on climate change, including of course Ireland, which adopted the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act in 2015.

While legislative activity is not even across all sectors of national economies, key elements of the Paris Agreement will require action to ensure that national policy reflects the highest possible ambition, that targets are ratcheted upwards and Nationally Determined Contribution targets are revised every 5 years. So a comparative survey of legislative activity seems like a good idea, even if, as Lord Nicholas Stern pointed out at the seminar, the exercise is in the spirit of collaboration and learning, rather than finger-pointing.

The survey highlighted good efforts on the part of the EU, and highlighted the poor performance of major emitters such as the US, Canada, Australia and Mexico. Lord Stern noted that these countries have federal systems, and it is the case the city-level and sub-national initiatives are strikingly progressive in comparison to the state-level performance. As the 7th largest economy in the world, there is speculation that the state of California may even seek legal status under the Paris Agreement, though the jury is out on whether the climate convention can legally permit non-state actors to sign up.

Country experiences passing climate legislation

An MP from the Kenyan parliament spoke about his country’s experience passing a climate law. He pointed out that over 80% of Kenya’s landmass consists of arid and semi-arid soil, so climate change poses serious threats to Kenya’s food security. The Parliament has taken the issue very seriously, and the MPs formed a parliamentary cross-party climate caucus which links with a similar network of over 200 civil society groups. The caucus held public hearings throughout the country, listening to local stories of climate impacts. They found that because climate change presents cross-cutting challenges, their efforts clash with government structures, so they found it difficult initially to get legislation drafted as government departments were competing with each other. After some considerable obstacles and delays eventually they succeeded in getting legislation passed.

Similarly, the story from Sierra Leone was that in order to develop the capacity to respond to climate change, the focus of the NDC needed to be on building national institutions. As a result of the climate law, the EPA was moved into the office of the President to give it a higher profile and status. MPs, however, are not normally part of the government delegations to international climate conferences, partly due to austerity measures and lack of government finance. This inhibits the ability of the government to represent farmers, who in Africa are mostly women.  There is a clear gender dimension to effective climate policy and politics in Africa, which we in Ireland should learn from.

An even more challenging scenario awaits Bangladesh, which faces a whole spectrum of climate impacts, from melting glaciers in the North, to flooding, salinification, desertification and sea-level rises in the south. A 1m sea-level rise would displace 30m Bangladeshis, and on top of that, the capital city Dhaka is projected to have a population of 22-3m people by 2025. The country’s parliament has been very pro-active on climate policy both in mitigation and adaptation, but the country has been criticised for opening up new coal-fired power stations to generate electricity, highlighting the particular challenges facing growing developing country economies with expanding populations.

Finally, we heard from Jo Leinem MEP who apparently headed up a German environmental NGO in the 1970s. He explained that not all 28 (or should we now say 27) member states are on the same page. Some are clearly climate leaders and some ‘struggle’ to keep up. However, as a federal bloc, front-runners essentially set the pace and force others to follow. Because the EU climate policy is rule-based rather than budgetary, member states are required to adopt compatible rues. While the 2020 pledge ‘looks good’ he says, the targets for 2030 do not seem to align correctly with the Paris Agreement. He explained the different contributions of the ETS and the non-ETS sectors and pointed out that the European Parliament wants a complete review of the climate policy in 5 years to ensure that it is more ambitious.


Lessons for Ireland

I must say I found this session particularly relevant to Ireland. The politicians described how a cross-party approach was necessary to make progress, and how they found ways to engage effectively with local communities and civil society.

We can learn from this.

The current Dáil membership, and the fragile government make-up, lends itself potentially well to a cross-party approach since, in the absence of an overall government majority, the Oireachtas will now play a major role in driving legislation. Secondly, there will be some kind of ‘climate dialogue’ launched by the Department of CCAE in 2017 which could provide the political space needed for cross-party dialogue and genuine citizen engagement. This is something we in the IEN should be thinking about, and preparing for:

  • What kinds of process would engage the public in climate dialogue?
  • What role do we in the IEN have, how can we contribute?
  • Who (which institutions, organisations) should lead/ facilitate this dialogue? What rules should be in place?
  • What is the appropriate role for Oireachtas members? How can we encourage them to work together on a cross-party basis? How do we prevent them taking over?
  • How do we – as tiny, underfunded NGOs – mobilise the public on a local level, especially youth?

Quantitative Evidence for Loss and Damage

This event had an interesting array of speakers with legal, modelling and country-level experience of loss and damage from climate change. Firstly the legal expert spoke about how loss and damage has been considered throughout the UNFCCC process, leading up to a specific set of paragraphs in the Paris Agreement 1/CP.21 paras 48-52. However there is no dedicated finance for loss and damage, and no basis for liability inserted as a general clause (art. 8) at the insistence of the US. However she did explain that general international law could still provide an opportunity for litigation on the basis of the no-harm rule, if obligation and causation can be proven. Impediments include the difficulty of finding a forum in which to take such a claim and finding a way to attribute specific losses to human induced climate change and the emissions of a particular state. This has not prevented some claims being taken however, including claims by parties against their own governments (e.g. Philippines, Urgenda in the Netherlands). Finally, she mentioned that the International Bar Association has designed a model statute for loss and damage, and has recommended a relaxation of the strict causality rule, to allow for sufficient/ adequate or partial causality in climate litigation. She pointed out that just because establishing legal responsibility is difficult, doesn’t mean that states do not have moral responsibilities.

The scientific expert addressed the question of how to scientifically ascertain historical responsibility. What is the measure to be used – by gas, or by country? There are many choices in the calculations (start/ end dates, indicators, components, CO2 or Kyoto GH gases, production or consumption emissions). He insisted that there is not one set of definitive answers: depending on how responsibility is calculated there is a spectrum of results possible, and it is not possible to definitively make a direct link between contributions and responsibility.

Dr Fredi Otto also pointed out that an increase in global mean temperature doesn’t by itself kill anyone. In addition, while climate change makes weather patterns change, it’s the contribution of extreme weather events that do the most damage. Much scientific research has been done on trying to model the likelihood of extreme events (e.g. Argentinian heatwave 2014) being directly caused by climate change. However even where attribution can be scientifically established, it’s still a probabilistic assessment and there is a difficulty even defining what an ‘extreme event’ is. She did say that such assessments would be useful for recognising harm and making a case of climate justice. The methodology can also be used in a forward-looking manner to ascertain the risk of extreme events and where those risks might be.

Finally the representative from Bangladesh spoke of the measures taken by the Bangladeshi government to set up a fund for loss and damage. While the government claims it can successfully evacuate 2 million people in the event of a cyclone it cannot do anything to protect livestock and property. It has established a trust fund and set aside $100m p.a., 2/3 of which is spent on adaptation projects, and the final 1/3 is in a trust for ‘emergencies’. Interestingly he said that it was not clear yet what would trigger the use of the emergency fund, and while disasters could be planned for in terms of immediate responses, loss and damage over the longer term were more complicated.  He pointed out that the Bangladeshi government is not planning to sue any other country to raise finance but sees solidarity as more important than compensation.