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There is a fixed limit on the greenhouse gas emissions that the atmosphere can absorb before triggering dangerous climate changes. One of the debates in climate ethics concerns how the available emissions should be divided between people. One popular answer, sometimes called “Emissions Egalitarianism” (EE), proposes a distribution of emissions permits that gives everyone an equal per capita share of the atmospheric absorptive capacity. However, several debaters have objected to EE. First, it has been argued that there is no principled reason to accept EE, since it cannot be justified on the basis of any moral theory. Second, it has been argued that there is neither any pragmatic reason to accept EE, since it is impracticable, politically unfeasible, and fails to reach its goal. This paper defends EE against these objections. First, it shows that EE can be justified on libertarian, utilitarian, and fairness grounds, respectively. Second, it shows that EE is neither more impracticable, nor more politically unfeasible, than its rivals. It also argues that EE does not fail to reach its goal. Consequently, there is a case to be made for EE.
The Case for Emissions Egalitarianism
Olle Torpman
Accepted: 9 July 2019 /Published online: 23 July 2019
#The Author(s) 2019
There is a fixed limit on the greenhouse gas emissions that the atmosphere can absorb
before triggering dangerous climate changes. One of the debates in climate ethics
concerns how the available emissions should be divided between people. One popular
answer, sometimes called Emissions Egalitarianism(EE), proposes a distribution of
emissions permits that gives everyone an equal per capita share of the atmospheric
absorptive capacity. However, several debaters have objected to EE. First, it has been
argued that there is no principled reason to accept EE, since it cannot be justified on
the basis of any moral theory. Second, it has been argued that there is neither any
pragmatic reason to accept EE, since it is impracticable, politically unfeasible, and
fails to reach its goal. This paper defends EE against these objections. First, it shows
that EE can be justified on libertarian, utilitarian, and fairness grounds, respectively.
Second, it shows that EE is neither more impracticable, nor more politically unfeasi-
ble, than its rivals. It also argues that EE does not fail to reach its goal. Consequently,
there is a case to be made for EE.
Keywords Climate ethics.Emissions rights.Climate justice .Egalitarianism.Emissions permits
1 Introduction
There is a fixed limit on the volume of greenhouse gases that the atmosphere can
naturally absorb, before triggering climate changes that cause human (and nonhuman)
harm. This absorptive capacity of the atmosphere provides an ecosystem service that
can be treated as a common global good. One of the debates in climate ethics
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (2019) 22:749762
*Olle Torpman
Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University, Universitetsvägen 10D, SE-106 91 Stockholm,
Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm, Sweden
Department of Animal Environment and Health, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences,
Stockholm, Sweden
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concerns the question of how the atmospheres absorptive capacity, in terms of
emissions permits, should be divided between people.
Several principles have been proposed for answering this question. One popular principle,
sometimes called Emissions Egalitarianism (EE), says that every person should have the same
right as everyone else to emit greenhouse gases.
It proposes a distribution of emissions
permits that gives everyone an equal per capita share of the atmospheric absorptive capacity.
EE has been advocated by, for instance, Meyer (1999), Attfield (2003), Jamieson (2005),
Singer (2010), Ott (2010), and Broome (2012).
The intuition behind EE is, to borrow
Broomeswords,that[i]t seems obvious that no one in the world has a stronger claim to
this resource [i.e. permits to emit greenhouse gas] than anyone else, so it should be divided
equally between people(2012:70).
Other authors, however, have raised objections to EE. For instance, it has been argued that
although it appears at first sight to be an attractive view, a closer inspection reveals that there
are in fact no moral arguments in its favor. For instance, Eric Posner and David Weisbach
argue that there is a series of welfare-related and pragmatic problems with the per capita
approach(2010: 122); Simon Caney argues that we have no reason to accept the claim that
greenhouse gas emissions should be distributed on an equal per capita basis(2012:299300);
Yoram Margalioth and Yinon Rudich argue that EE fails because it is not grounded in any
general moral principle and therefore cannot provide an answer to the question regarding what
would be a fair allocation of emissions rights(2013: 191); Thom Brooks argues that EE is
implausible since equal sizes [of emissions permits] may not be fair(2016: 122); Dominic
Roser and Christian Seidel argue similarly that EE loses plausibility from a moral point of
viewbecause it fails to take account of differences in responsibility for the problem, of
advantages resulting from the causation of the problem, of capabilities of dealing with the
problem, or of differences between the needs of various people(2017: 156); and Christian
Baatz and Konrad Ott argue that EE ignores important aspects of both climate mitigation and
climate adaptation, and therefore EE fails as an ideal principle(2017:189).
Roughly, the arguments levelled against EE can be divided in two camps: (i) principled
arguments and (ii) pragmatic arguments. My aim in this paper is to defend EE. In section 2,I
clarify how EE should be understood in more detail. In the section 3, I answer the principled
objections leveled against EE, and provide some positive principled arguments in its favor. In the
section 4, I answer the pragmatic objections against EE, and provide some positive pragmatic
arguments in its favor. In section 5, I conclude that since the arguments against EE can be refuted,
and since some positive arguments can be given in its support, there is a case to be made for EE.
2 What Is Emissions Egalitarianism?
EE says that everyone has an equal right to emit, and that everyone should thus have the same
number of emissions permits (where each permit entitles an equal amount of emissions). In
that sense, EE provides an answer to the question of how much greenhouse gas an individual
or a country may emit, morally speaking. Although this might seem clear enough, there are
It has also been called the Equal per Capita View. See, e.g. Posner and Weisbach (2010), and Caney (2012). In
this paper, I will stick to the former label.
See also Ott and Baatz (2012). Note, however, that both Ott and Baatz changed their views in their (2017).
It should be noted that Baatz and Ott (2017: 1945) think that EE is not implausible from a pragmatic view.
750 O. Torpman
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some details that need to be spelled out before we can evaluate how EE fares as a principle for
emissions distribution.
It should first be emphasized that the basic good at issue is the usages of the atmospheric
absorptive capacity or, in other words, permits to emit greenhouse gas.
In the literature, this
good is discussed variously in terms of emissions rights,emissions entitlementsand
emissions permits. For the sake of simplicity, and for the sake of not being biased towards
rights-based moral theories, I will throughout this paper stick to the latter term. In any case, it is
not actual emissions that matters according to EE, but rather permissions to emit. Given that
emissions trading is allowed, the former is not the same as the latter.
It should also be noticed that climate ethicists are not basically interested in emissions
permits as such, but rather in the benefits that can be produced by emissions permits (e.g.
capabilities or opportunities for wellbeing). Still, EE is not directly concerned with the
distribution of those benefits, but rather with the distribution of an important resource (i.e.
emissions permits) considered as a means to such benefits.
In connection to this, there is a debate whether emissions permits should be distributed in
isolation from, or in integration with, other goods. There is also a debate whether or not we
should divide the burdens of climate change mitigation and adaptation as a whole. There is
thus a divide in climate ethics between so called integrationistsand isolationists.
isolationists, EE is a fair enough solution to one specific climate problem i.e., to how the
available carbon budget should be divided. To integrationists, however, EE is implausible for
disregarding other burdens of climate change as well as other considerations of justice. As
Caney asks: why should this one particular good (emitting greenhouse gases) have its own
principle regulating it and why should this principle be equality?(2011: 90). Since this
critique is embedded in several of the other arguments raised against EE, I will deal with it in
my discussion of these arguments in sections 3and 4.
At any rate, it is important to clarify the level of theorizing at which EE operates. Climate
ethicists often point out that there are first-level as well as second-level principles. At the first
level, we find fundamental normative theories (such as egalitarianism, sufficientarianism,
libertarianism, utilitarianism, and so on). At the second level we find, among other principles,
specific principles for distribution of emissions permits (such as EE and its rivals). Since all
second-level principles are justified primarily on the basis of first-level principles, the plausi-
bility of a second-level principle (like EE) depends on the justification it can get from first-
level principles.
As we shall see below, most objectors to EE have argued that it cannot be
justified on the basis of any first-level principle.
As this suggests, any specific principle for distribution of emissions permits, including all the
rivals of EE, is second-level. Something should therefore be said about these other principles.
Roughly, there are two main rivals to EE: a grandfathering principle, and a subsistence
principle. The grandfathering principle takes reliance on emissions (depending on lifestyles,
investments, plans and preferences for the future, etc.) as its main consideration.
The subsis-
tence principle takes peoplesneeds as its main consideration.
Since both reliance and needs
SeeBroome(2012:69):The good we are concerned with [] is annual permits to emit greenhouse gas.
See Caney (2012: 256, f.n. 3).
See Ott and Baatz (2012), and Caney (2012).
See Caney (2005:23).
See Margalioth and Rudich (2013). For a defense of the grandfathering principle, see Bovens (2011). For a
critical examination, see Knight (2013).
For a defense of the subsistence principle, see Shue (1993).
The Case for Emissions Egalitarianism 751
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differ between people, none of these principles recommend an equal per capita share of
emissions permits. Although there are more to say about these principles, and although there
might be further principles worth considering as well, what has been said here suffices for the
purposes of this paper.
The debate regarding which distribution principle is most plausible centers around
mainly two adequacy conditions: one about desirability, the other about achievability.
In Caneys words, a principle for emissions distribution should yield a recommenda-
tion thatis normatively compelling and that can be attained given the state of the
natural world(2012: 295, my emphases). The desirability condition concerns how EE
fares from a perspective of morality or fairness. Posner and Weisbach (2010: 142)
discuss this condition in terms of issues of principle, while Baatz and Ott discuss it
simply in terms of justice(2017: 185). This relates to the justification of EE on the
basis of first level normative theories, as mentioned above. The achievability condi-
tion, on the other hand, concerns pragmatic considerations i.e., how well EE fares
from a perspective of practicality or political feasibility. EE has been criticized for
failing to meet both of these conditions i.e., for being both undesirable and
These conditions suggest just as was indicated in section 1that the objections against
EE can be divided into two camps: (i) principled arguments, and (ii) pragmatic arguments. In
the following sections, I answer these types arguments one at a time.
3 Principled Arguments for EE
As explained above, EE is a second-level principle. Consequently, any principled justification of EE
is based on some first-level normative theory. Many authors have argued that there is no such
justificatory basis for EE. For instance, Margalioth and Rudich argue that EE is not grounded in any
general moral principle…” (2013: 191), and Posner and Weisbach argue that it is not easy to justify
from the standpoint of any ethical theory(2010: 169). As we saw above, Caney argues in a similar
vein that we have no reason to accept the claim that greenhouse gas emissions should be distributed
on an equal per capita basis(2012: 299300).
In this section, I show that there are several first-level normative theories that yield support to
EE. I start by examining libertarian arguments, and then I continue with utilitarian arguments
for EE. Thereafter I also discuss some arguments for EE on the basis of fairness theories.
Other principles discussed in the climate ethics debate include the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP), the Ability to
Pay Principle (APP), the Beneficiary Pays Principle (BPP), and the Greenhouse Development Rights approach
(GDR). While the first three of these principles are fairly simple, GDR is more complex. It is based on
considerations regarding capacity, needs and responsibility alike, and aims at securing an equal right to
development. However, while EE merely aims to answer how the available carbon budget should be distributed,
all these other principles provide answers to the question of how the burdens of climate change mitigation and
adaptation should be divided. Since these are different questions, I will not in this paper consider these principles
as rivals to EE. I will, however, return to this point in section 4.
Caney examines both egalitarian and non-egalitarian arguments in favor of EE, but concludes that they all fail.
Interestingly, Caney thinks that the only non-egalitarian argument that has any promise at all for defending EE is
sufficientarianism. Thus, he examines only sufficientarian and egalitarian arguments in favor of EE. Although I
shall not here object to Caneys particular arguments from egalitarianism and sufficientarianism, I will discuss
some other principled grounds for EE. In doing so, I will also respond to the other authorscounter-arguments to
these moral grounds for EE.
752 O. Torpman
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3.1 Libertarian Arguments
According to libertarianism, people have rights to use whatever they morally own. If the
atmospheric absorptive capacity can be regarded as a common global good that initially
belongs to everyone, it could be argued that every person owns an equal part of it and hence
has an equal right to use it for its carbon sink capacity. This argument has been given by, for
instance, Moellendorf (2011).
Baatz and Ott raise several objections against this libertarian justification of EE. First, they
argue thatsince it is impossible to privately appropriate the atmosphere, and since appropriation
is a prerequisite for libertarian ownership rights, no agent can have any rights to theatmospheric
sink capacity. Hence, this cannot support the view that everyone has an equal right to it either.
They say that [t]he property rights that (right) libertarians are so keen to protect from
infringements are different from the right to own parts of the earthssinkcapacity.[T]he
sink capacity is not created through investing ones labor, time, and/or money(2017:180).
This objection would be sound if it was the case that appropriation of a resource (such as
the sink capacity) was possible only through the creation (or improvement) of that resource.
But this is not the case. According to libertarianism, it is possible to appropriate a resource by
means of discovering, labor-mixing, using, claiming, as well as through purchase, exchange or
As this implies, one does not have to create (or improve) a resource to appropriate it.
Sure, it might be questionable to what extent the atmospheric capacity can be appropriated at
all. However, this does not exclude that it initially belongs to everyone in common, thus
providing people with equal rights of use.
Nevertheless, Baatz and Ott claim that it is not clear why ownership rights of the earths
sink capacity trump considerations regarding (basic) needs(2017: 181). This claim is
rehearsed by Roser and Seidel: [e]ven if it [i.e. the atmospheric absorptive capacity] does
belong to everyone, equal ownership does not necessarily entail equal rights of use. A series of
further relevant considerations (responsibility, needs, capabilities, benefits) actually support an
unequal distribution of usage despite equal ownership(2017: 157). Here, however, it can be
replied that considerations regarding needs and capabilities, etcetera, begs the question against
the libertarian view. Sure, one might see this objection as a reductio ad absurdum of
libertarianism, but that is a separate debate.
Whether or not a right-libertarian defense of EE would succeed, EE can find support from a
left-libertarian position. According to one version of left-libertarianism, so called Equal Share
Left-Libertarianism, everyone has a right to an equal share of external resources (the atmo-
spheric absorptive capacity included).
The argument from this version of libertarianism
builds on an interpretation on the proviso originally proposed by John Locke, according to
which anyone is allowed to use resources only as long as there is an equal share of resources
left for everyone else to use. This version of libertarianism suggests an equal division of
emissions permits.
Against this idea, Roser and Seidel claim that [p]erhaps the atmosphere belongs to nobody
instead of everybody(2017: 157). In a similar vein, Margalioth and Rudich argue that, [w]e
could assume that the atmosphere belongs to no one, rendering the equal per-capita argument
baseless(2013: 195). This, however, seems to confuse the doctrine of res nullius(that
things belong to no-one) with the doctrine of res communis(that things belong to everyone).
See Vallentyne and van deer Vossen (2014).
See, for instance, Vallentyne and van deer Vossen (2014), and Steiner (2009).
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From such confusion, no inference can be made against EE.
Just because something does not
belong to anyone, it does not mean that it may not be used by everyone. Indeed, left-
libertarianism is open to whether the atmosphere is initially owned by everyone or no one.
The Lockean proviso, as interpreted by left-libertarians, restricts all kinds of usages of external
resources whether owned or unowned. Hence, people can have an equal liberty-right to use
something even if that thing belongs to nobody. Therefore, it is possible to support EE on left-
libertarian grounds.
3.2 Utilitarian Arguments
There are both act-utilitarian and rule-utilitarian arguments to be given in favor of EE.
According to rule-utilitarianism, a distribution is right if and only if it is required by a rule
the general compliance with which (or the general acceptance of which) would produce the
most good.
The simple argument from rule-utilitarianism in favor of EE, considered as a rule
for distributions of emissions permits, is that the general compliance with (or acceptance of)
any other specific distribution rule, regarding emissions permits, would yield worse conse-
quences than the general compliance with (or acceptance of) EE. I will get back to this shortly,
as it relates to an act-utilitarian argument as well. Suffice it to say that, even if it might not be
shown that rule-utilitarianism recommends EE exclusively, EE is at least not incompatible with
the recommendations of rule-utilitarianism. And that is enough for my present purposes.
According to act-utilitarianism, a particular resource distribution, or any act in general, is right
if and only if it maximizes welfare. A well-known act-utilitarian, Peter Singer, argues in favor of
EE because it seems likely to increase global welfare(2010: 194). Singer argues accepting EE
would, at least at an initial phase, push the political process forward towards a solution to the
climate crisis, which is expected to have the best overall consequences. He says that this is
because of its simplicity, hence its suitability as a political compromise(2010: 194). I will get
back to this idea below, when I discuss pragmatic arguments in relation to EE (in section 4).
Another act-utilitarian argument for EE is that, since the welfare that is obtained
from an additional good is typically declining, an equal distribution of goods is in
general required for welfare maximization. Other things being equal, diminishing
marginal utility (or welfare) thus implies that act-utilitarianism recommends an equal
per capita distribution of emissions permits as well.
Posner and Weisbach object that since other things are not equal, this welfare-based
consideration may instead suggest an unequal distribution of emissions permits:
[S]ome poor states will become far poorer as a result of climate change; others are less
vulnerable. Some rich states will face serious adverse effects from climate change; others
are less vulnerable. Some poor states, and some rich states, may even be net gainers from
climate change. Ideally, permits should be distributed in light of these consequences, but
the per capita approach fails to take them into account. (2010:129)
I have two responses to this objection. First, without the precise knowledge about
whom will benefit exactly how much more (less) than others from receiving more
(fewer) emissions permits than others, it is hard to see why EE fails as a second-level
principle for distributions of emissions permits on act-utilitarian grounds. In the
Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out.
See Hooker (2013: 243).
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absence of such knowledge, it seems rather to be what act-utilitarianism would
recommend. A similar response is given by Singer:
The egalitarian principle [i.e. EE] will not, in general, be what utilitarians with perfect
knowledge of all the consequences of their actions would chose. Where there is no other
clear criterion for allocating shares, however, it can be an ideal compromise that leads to
a peaceful solution, rather than continued fighting. (2010:194)
My second response is that the argument raised by Posner and Weisbach mistakenly presup-
poses that emissions permits is the most efficient means by which inequalities should be
neutralized. However, there is nothing that indicates that existing inequalities between people
are best dealt with through differentiated emissions permits. For one thing, using emissions
permits as an equalizer in this regard would require a huge knowledge apparatus not only
regarding different peoples current possessions of goods, and their different needs, but also
regarding their different capacities to convert emissions to welfare. An obviously better
candidate in this respect, that is generally used in similar circumstances, is money.
Moreover, EE does not exclude the possibility of trading emissions permits (and other
resources). Just because everyone would initially receive an equal share of emissions permits
(and other resources) does not mean that they will not trade these resources with one another.
Also, EE is not the one and only principle for distributions in general. That is, EE is not
supposed to provide recommendations for all sorts of issues, but only for how to distribute
emissions permits. For this reason, EE should be considered as one second-level principle
among other second-level principles that deal with issues other than those regarding distribu-
tions of emissions permits. This moreover opens up for an overarching rectification principle,
whose purpose is to rectify other misfortunes for the sake of welfare maximization. Hence,
there is support to be given for EE on utilitarian grounds.
3.3 Fairness Arguments
EE can find support also from theories of fairness. There are at least three fairness arguments to
be given for EE: (i) a universalizability argument, (ii) a veil of ignoranceargument, and (iii)
an argument from procedural justice. Although none of these arguments alone yields conclu-
sive support to EE, they at least provide some inductive support.
The first fairness argument for EE the universalizability argument relates to Kantian
theory of morality. On this theory, we should understand EE as a maxim for distribution of
emissions permits. We may then run the Kantian universalizability test in order to determine
EEs plausibility on Kantianism. Since everyone could reasonably will to emit an equal per
capita share of the total amount of greenhouse gases that the atmosphere can absorb, EEs
recommendation is universalizable. Of course, there might be other principles for distribution
of emissions permits that passes this test too, for which reason we cannot conclude that EE is
the principle that Kantianism recommends. Still, this test indicates that EE is at least compat-
ible with a Kantian conception of fairness.
The second fairness argument, going back to Rawls (1971), is that a distribution along the
lines of EE is what rational and self-interested agents would choose behind a veil of
Interestingly, Caney discusses money as a distributive resource (e.g. 2012: 281). But he does not say why we
should not distribute emission permits equally, and then redistribute money to deal with remaining inequalities.
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ignorance. Under the veil of ignorance, no one knows his position in a global society. And
under the veil, proposals for competing principles are debated. Now, given that any emissions
distribution different from that of EE would imply that some people received fewer emissions
rights than they would receive from EE, and given that people behind the veil of ignorance
would choose distributions in line with the maximin principle, EE would be chosen. The
reason is that EE would ensure that the worst off were less worse off with respect to emissions
permits than they would have been with any other emissions distribution.
One could perhaps object to this argument that what matters according to the
maximin principle, and what matters to people behind the veil of ignorance, is not
emissions permits in particular. Rather, what matters is that the worst off are made
better off in general. Hence, it is not clear that EE would be chosen behind the veil
of ignorance. The crucial question is whether EE could be part of a distribution
scheme that would make the worst off as well off as possible. As was mentioned
above in section 3.2, however, the principle of diminishing marginal utility, and the
fact that EE is compatible with other principles that deal with distributions of other
resources, suggests that EE is well in line with such a distribution scheme. At the
very least, it is hard to dismiss EE on the basis of a veil of ignoranceargument.
The third fairness argument for EE can be inferred from the literature on procedural justice,
also going back to Rawls (1971). The argument goes roughly as follows: If we do not know, or
cannot agree on, what is the normative ground for just shares, we may be able to agree on a
procedure that is fair. The outcome provided by that procedure can then be morally motivated
by reference to the fairness of that procedure. One considerably fair procedure for dividing
cakes, for instance, is to randomly pick someone who cuts the cake and then let that person be
the last to choose a piece of the cake. Assuming that the person both wants as large share as
possible, and is somewhat skilled in cutting cakes, an equal distribution will be the result.
Given that the same holds not only for cakes, but for goods in general, this procedural justice
argument supports an equal division of emissions permits too.
One might object that a division along the lines of EE is implausible in cases
where some have already eaten up part of the cake prior to the actual division. This
objection applies to the climate case, since some people have historically used more
of the atmospheric absorptive capacity than others. In response to this objection,
however, it may be argued that EE is a history-sensitive approach, which takes
historical emissions into account. I will get back to this below, in section 4.2,asit
relates to an argument regarding political feasibility.
Summing up this section, it seems clear enough that principled arguments can be given for
EE. Let us now move to the pragmatic arguments concerning EE.
4 Pragmatic Arguments for EE
As we saw in section 2, the plausibility of EE depends not only on principled
arguments, or, in other words, the extent to which EE can be said to fulfill the
desirability condition. It also depends in part on pragmatic arguments, or, in other
words, the extent to which EE can be said to fulfill the achievability condition. Many
objectors to EE have argued that it fails to meet this condition too. More specifically, it
has been argued that (i) EE is impracticable, (ii) EE is politically unfeasible, and (iii)
EE fails to reach its goal. In this section, I defend EE from these charges.
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4.1 EE is notImpracticable
One argument against the practicality of EE, discussed by Posner and Weisbach (2010:137
138) as well as by Margalioth and Rudich (2013: 196), points out that the atmospheric capacity
is in part determined by other natural carbon sinks on earth, such as forests, oceans and lakes.
Since forests and lakes, at least, are typically owned legally by sovereign states, it is
implausible to consider them as something that should at all be divided equally among people.
Since such a division between the atmospheric capacity and the other natural carbon sinks
appears to be suggested by the equal per capita view, they think this view is impracticable.
There are at least four ways to answer this objection. First, it can be questioned whether the
forests and the lakes that are situated within national territories belong morally to these
respective nations. As Posner and Weisbach themselves suggest, [p]eople should not gain
or lose because of the contingency of the location of their birth, and so there is no ethical
reason for giving states control over resources that happen to be located on their territory
(2010: 137). If this can be argued, then it makes sense to claim that this capacity should still be
divided equally among people. Second, even if the forests and lakes that are situated within
national territories would belong morally to these nations, for which reason they should not be
divided equally among people globally, it could be argued that these resourcescapacity to
absorb greenhouse gas is still something that belongs morally to everyone. Third, it is in any
case meaningful to discuss the atmospheres absorptive capacity in isolation from other natural
carbon sinks. Even without forests and lakes, the atmosphere functions as a container into
which greenhouse gases can be emitted for decomposition. Fourth, the objection at issue does
not target only EE, but any principle for distribution of emissions permits (including the
grandfathering principle and the subsistence principle). Hence it does not settle the battle
between these principles.
Roser and Seidel provide another, however similar, argument against EEs practicality.
They say that it becomes apparent on closer inspection that equal shares are not so easy to
calculate after all, because the population and the emissions budget changes over time(2017:
157). Their claim is that the exact number of people that are simultaneously living on the
planet will vary from one year to another, and that a similar variation holds also regarding the
atmospheres absorptive capacity. The variation of the latter capacity is due to such things as
speed of deforestation, the capacity of the oceans to absorb greenhouse gasses, and natural
emissions from melting perm frosts, etcetera.
Just as with the previous objection, however, this does not affect EE in particular. It affects
any distribution principle for emissions permits: Any share, whether equal or not, will be hard
to calculate. What is more, it seems that the alternatives to EE fares even worse from the
perspective of practicality, since these principles will have to determine also peoples different
reliance (as the grandfathering principle requires) or needs (as the subsistence principle
requires) or whatever they would take into direct consideration (such as capabilities, costs,
benefits, or etc.) besides the size of the population and the size of the emissions budget.
For the better, however, it seems that none of these practicality objections are sound.
Indeed, EE could be assumed to work from some fixed numbers regarding population sizes
andcarbonbudgetsizesplausibly corresponding to estimates made by the UN. This is
suggested by Singer (2010: 195) and Broome (2012:7072). It should be fairly easy to make
at least approximations for each year, regarding how much the equal per capita share of
Some arguments to this effect are provided by Baatz and Ott (2017: 186194).
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emissions amounts to. Since we are contended with such approximations when it comes to
divisions of other resources (e.g., fish stocks), they should be sufficient also when it comes to
divisions of emissions permits.
4.2 EE is not Politically Unfeasible
Caney raises a feasibility objection against EE, claiming that [d]eveloping countries, in
particular the so-called BASIC bloc (which comprises Brazil, South Africa, India, and China),
are deeply opposed to an Isolationist approach. They argue that an equitable distribution of
greenhouse gas emissions must take into account different countriesneeds(2012:2789).
The idea is that, since EE treat emissions permits in isolation from different countriesdifferent
needs, developing nations will never agree to a climate treaty along the lines of EE.
We should recall from section 3.2, however, that EE is compatible with other principles
aimed at addressing existing inequalities. And, more importantly, the equal per capita view can
be considered an history-sensitive approach, according to which current and future allocations
of emission permits should take past emissions into account. Given the unequal past emissions
of different countries, the overall equal distribution suggested by a history-sensitive version of
EE implies that future emissions permits should not be distributed equally at least until an
equilibrium is reached. This has the effect that, to quote Broome, [t]hose who have already
taken up a lot of space by emitting greenhouse gas in the past will consequently receive fewer
annual permits to emit in the future(2012:70).
Since the present differences in needs between people are closely connected to their
respective countriesdevelopment stage, which in turn is closely related to their historical
emissions, the history-sensitive version of EE will account for this difference. For, once
differences in historical emissions have been considered, the amount of emissions that poor
countries are entitled to will typically exceed the amount that they are actually emitting.
Bangladeshis, for instance, who presently emit around 0,5 tons per capita annually will not
only be allowed to emit 0,5 tons more but also an additional amount as compensation for their
historically low emissions.
Since the number of emissions permits that they do not need to
use themselves can be sold to other countries, the revenues could be used to satisfy the needs
of the Bangladeshis.
Still, Posner and Weisbach argue against EEs pragmatic prospects from the other way
around: That EE will be rejected by rich nations. They say: Per capita allocations would have
the effect of redistributing hundreds of billions of dollars from wealthy nations, above all the
United States, to developing nations. For this reason, insistence on per capita allocations would
effectively doom any climate change agreement(2010:122).
My response to this objection is, simply, that EE does not require that high emitting
nations transfer money to low emitting nations. EE only requires that each nation emits
only as much as is consistent with an equal per capita share of emissions permits. Sure,
one way to do so is to purchase emissions permits from poor countries. But another
way is to transfer new technology to them as a means of emissions offsetting. For, by
doing so, a rich country can discount its own emissions in proportion to the reductions
See Chancel and Piketty (2015). Note that, on the history-sensitive version of EE, the only thing that is
compensated is peoples unequal historical usages of the atmospheric absorption capacity. Hence, within the
framework of EE, the role of compensation is not to correct for damages or impact on human rights, or the like.
A similar argument is raised by Margalioth and Rudich (2013:194).
758 O. Torpman
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it helps other nations to make. Moreover, a rich country could develop its own
infrastructure so that it becomes more or less carbon free e.g. through investing in
domestic fossil-free energy production, such as nuclear, biofuel, solar and wind.
Still, Posner and Weisbach (2010:137138) raise another feasibility objection against EE.
They claim, correctly I think, that EE must be understood as part of a so-called cap and trade
solution to the climate crisis. According to the cap and trade idea, climate stability is achieved
by a three-step procedure: (i) an emissions cap for all countries together is first determined by
international agreement, (ii) this emissions cap is then divided in terms of emissions permits
between the individual countries, and (iii) these emissions permits are then either used directly
by each nation or sold to other nations.
However, Posner and Weisbach argue that this
solution will not be accepted by the international community, partly because there are other
solutions that will do a better job in mitigating climate change.
For instance, they argue that a carbon tax is such a solution. According to a carbon tax
solution, each emitter pays a tax in proportion to the social costs of their emissions. And this
does not require any division of emissions permits in the first place. As they say, [a] carbon
tax forces polluters to bear the costs of emissions, and that is enough(2010:55).Moreover,
they argue, a cap and trade solution is “…probably less effective than a tax [](2010:2).If
this is correct, then it certainty speaks against the political feasibility of EE.
My reply is threefold. First, the argument in favor of a tax-based solution to the climate
crisis relies on empirical speculations about the outcomes of future conventions of the
international community. Whether or not these speculations will turn out to be correct, it
seems that climate ethicists should not take the risk of investigating only a carbon tax solution.
In case the international community would eventually agree on a cap and trade solution rather
than a tax solution, it would be a big mistake if climate ethicists had not investigated such a
solution. And a cap and trade solution requires an answer to the question of how the
atmospheric capacity should be divided, which EE provides.
Second, there is nothing that excludes that a cap and trade system is adopted alongside a tax
system. For instance, a tax system could be used within individual nations as a means to make
sure that they stay within the emission levels negotiated between nations. Consider the Paris
Agreement, which establishes that each country should decide its own ambitions in order to
reach a maximum of 2 °C warming target. Since this target is supposed to imply a maximum of
approximately 11 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, individual nations must still
get an answer as to what is their fair share of annual emissions in order to determine their
concrete climate ambitions.
And EE provides an answer to this question. Thus, EE can fill an
important guiding function for nations. At the very least it provides moral reasons for high-
emitting nations to accept a climate treaty that requires them to reduce their emissions.
Third, EE is not in itself supposed to solve the climate crisis. Its only purpose is to divide fairly
the emissions, provided by the atmospheric absorptive capacity, that are compatible with climate
stability. I will get back to this shortly, as it relates to an objection discussed in section 4.3.
A more general defense of EEs political feasibility points out that EE is at the moment a
popular principle for distributions of emissions permits. In Caneyswords,itisawidely held
See Chancel and Piketty (2015), and IPCC (2014).
Sure, Posner and Weisbach might argue that, on pure economic grounds, the cap and trade solution should not
be mixed with a carbon tax solution. In the real world of policy making, however, we will see such mixtures. For
that reason, the technical debate about instruments will not falsify EE. Thanks to an anonymous referee for
pointing this out.
The Case for Emissions Egalitarianism 759
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and perhaps, the dominant view among environmental philosophers and activists(2012:
25960). Moreover, EE seems to be the least bad alternative from a pragmatic point of view. A
principle that is more biased in favor of rich nations (such as the grandfathering principle) is
even more likely to be rejected by poor nations, while a principle that is more biased in favor
of poor countries (such as the subsistence principle) is even more likely to be rejected by rich
nations. And solving the problem of emissions distributions is presumably easier when
considered in isolation than when considered in conjunction with several other problems.
The political community will, plausibly, have an easier time agreeing on one thing at a time,
than agreeing on all of them at once. When deciding how to distribute emissions permits, it
would be an overwhelming task for COP negotiators if they had to take into account all
considerations of justice.
For this reason, Singer seems to be right that EE comes out as a
winner because of its simplicity, hence its suitability as a political compromise(2010:194).
To be sure, this defense of EEs political feasibility depends on empirical matters. But so
too does the feasibility objection in the first place. And, as I have argued here, it is far from
obvious that the available empirical evidence speaks against, rather than for, EE.
4.3 EE does not Fail to Reach its Goal
There is one final pragmatic worry: Even if EE is neither impractical nor politically
unfeasible (in the senses discussed above), EE might still fail to solve the climate
crisis. This worry comes in two parts.
The first part is less serious. It stems from the observation that there are at least
two different kinds of responsibility regarding the climate crisis: mitigation and
Mitigation is about alleviating the causes of climate change, while
adaptation is about coping with the effects of unmitigated climate change. Plausibly,
solving the climate crisis requires both mitigation and adaptation. Since EE is by most
climate ethicists supposed to deal only with climate change mitigation, it could be
argued that it cannot suffice to solve the climate crisis.
The simple reply to this part
of the worry is that EE is not alone meant to solve the climate crisis, which is
something we shall get back to shortly.
The second part of the worry is trickier. It observes that EE might perhaps not even fulfill
the purpose of climate change mitigation. Baatz and Ott, for instance, claim that since the
fundamental purpose of climate change mitigation is to make sure that peoples rights are not
violated, this is also the fundamental purpose of EE (2017:177182). They furthermore argue
that climate change mitigation will involve measures of climate change adaptation, and that EE
will, in virtue of neglecting issues of climate change adaptation, fail to assure that peoples
rights are not violated by climate change.
My response to this argument is that EE is not fundamentally an instrument for respecting
peoples rights. If it were, then proponents of theories that do not basically rely on rights e.g.
Singer and Broome would not be very interested in discussing it. But they are, and the reason
The COP (Conference of the Parties) is the supreme decision-making body of the UNFCCC (United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change). All States that are Parties to this convention are represented at the
COP. See:
Sometimes compensation is considered a third kind of responsibility with respect to climate change, aimed at
correcting for harms that are due to failures to adapt to unmitigated climate change. See Caney (2012). In this
paper, however, compensation can be seen as a sub-category of adaptation and thus be left to one side.
See, e.g., Vanderheiden (2008), Risse (2008), Caney (2012), Baatz and Ott (2017).
760 O. Torpman
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is that EE is a principle for distributing emissions permits, period. Of course, if no one emits
more than their fair share, then perhaps no ones emissions will violate any ones rights. But
that is a side effect, however welcomed. Whether or not it can be shown that EE can make sure
that no rights are violated by our emissions, this does not undermine the plausibility of EE.
Moreover, I think that it is a mistake to describe EE as a mitigation principle in the first
place. EE is not per se supposed to solve the climate crisis. EE kicks in only after such a goal
has been set, with the purpose of dividing fairly the emissions that are provided by the
atmospheric absorptive capacity that is compatible with climate stability. As we saw above,
EE is only part of a cap and trade solution to the climate crisis. For that reason, it is only in
conjunction with the other steps of such a solution that EE can help us reach such a goal. The
present objection seems to disregard the context in which EE is supposed to work.
Obviously, the climate does not care who emits. In other words, the climate is not
sensitive to how the amounts of sustainable emissions are divided. Climate stability
requires only that the total amount of emissions does not exceed the amount that can
be naturally absorbed by the atmosphere (i.e. without triggering dangerous climate
changes). As this implies, all principles for distributions of emissions permits will fare
equally well with respect to climate change mitigation. Although solving the climate
crisis is surely part of the motivation for ethicists and political theorists to debate
distribution principles for emissions permits, it is a misunderstanding to think that this
issue constitutes a tie-breaker in this debate.
5 Conclusion
This paper has shown that there are both principled and pragmatic arguments for EE.
First, it was argued that EE can find support from left-libertarian, utilitarian, and
fairness theories, respectively. Second, it was argued that EE is neither impractical,
nor politically unfeasible, and that it does not fail to reach its goal. In summary, there
is a case to be made for the view that emissions permits should be divided equally
between people. Consequently, and contrary to what some debaters have argued, EE
should have a role to play in both climate ethics and climate politics.
Funding Information Open access funding provided by Stockholm University.
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License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and repro-
duction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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Climate change presents us with perhaps the most pressing challenge today. But is it a problem we can solve? This article argues that existing conservationist and adaptation approaches fail to satisfy their objectives. A second issue that these approaches disagree about how best to end climate change, but accept that it is a problem that can be solved. I believe this view is mistaken: a future environmental catastrophe is an event we might at best postpone, but not avoid. This raises new ethical questions for climate change: what are the moral implications of a future climatic catastrophe that might be delayed at best? What practical consequences might these implications yield? This article argues most political philosophers have misunderstood the kind of problem that climate change presents and the daunting challenges we face.
Climate change and justice are so closely associated that many people take it for granted that a global climate treaty should--indeed, must--directly address both issues together. But, in fact, this would be a serious mistake, one that, by dooming effective international limits on greenhouse gases, would actually make the world's poor and developing nations far worse off. This is the provocative and original argument of Climate Change Justice. Eric Posner and David Weisbach strongly favor both a climate change agreement and efforts to improve economic justice. But they make a powerful case that the best--and possibly only--way to get an effective climate treaty is to exclude measures designed to redistribute wealth or address historical wrongs against underdeveloped countries. In clear language, Climate Change Justice proposes four basic principles for designing the only kind of climate treaty that will work--a forward-looking agreement that requires every country to make greenhouse--gas reductions but still makes every country better off in its own view. This kind of treaty has the best chance of actually controlling climate change and improving the welfare of people around the world.
Examines which political principles should govern global politics. It explores ethical issues in justice that arise at the global level and addresses questions such as: are there universal values, and if so, what are they; what human rights, if any, are there; are there global principles of distributive justice; should there be a system of supra-state institutions; is national self-determination defensible; when, if ever, may political regimes wage war; and is humanitarian intervention justified?The book outlines and defends an egalitarian liberal brand of cosmopolitanism to address these questions, maintaining that there are universal principles, arguing that these include universal civil and political human rights, and defending the application of global principles of distributive justice. On this basis, it makes a case for a system of supra-state political institutions to promote these universal principles of justice further. Having set out principles of ideal theory, the book then examines what principles should apply when injustices are committed. To do this it examines when political regimes may wage war and when they may engage in intervention, and thereby draws on cosmopolitan principles to derive and defend a cosmopolitan conception of just war and humanitarian intervention. In arriving at these conclusions, the book engages in a sustained analysis of the competing arguments on all the above issues, examining the arguments of nationalists, realists, and those who affirm the ideal of a society of states. To do this, the book explores and integrates the work of philosophers, political theorists, and international relations scholars, and illustrates its ethical argument and theoretical analysis with empirical examples. Furthermore, it argues that the issues examined in the book cannot be adequately treated in isolation from each other but must be treated as an interlinked whole.
Climate change is full of moral questions. These questions have been addressed by different scholars in recent years. Meanwhile, ‘climate ethics’ is an established sub-discipline within practical philosophy. This field aims both at critical reflection but also at moral orientation for climate policy making. The article gives an overview on the topics of current climate ethics. It addresses mitigation, adaptation, and the prospects of different types of geo-engineering. Within the domain of adaptation, some remarks on agriculture are made. The article argues for an enlarged and refined concept of ‘contraction and convergence’ which should guide international climate policies.
In this Article we attempt to narrow the gap between developed and developing countries’ respective perceptions of justice in the context of climate change. We show that, in spite of its intuitive appeal, the equal per-capita argument is not grounded in any general moral principle and therefore cannot provide an answer to the question regarding what would be a fair allocation of emission rights. We argue that the underlying moral theory is global distributive justice theory, which unfortunately can only be of very limited help. We briefly discuss the various particular principles/considerations that are offered in the literature either in support or in criticism of the equal percapita allocation and find that upon close analysis they generally support the developing countries’ view, but not a per-capita allocation of emission rights. We conclude with a practical suggestion.
Emissions grandfathering maintains that prior emissions increase future emission entitlements. The view forms a large part of actual emission control frameworks, but is routinely dismissed by political theorists and applied philosophers as evidently unjust. A sympathetic theoretical reconsideration of grandfathering suggests that the most plausible version is moderate, allowing that other considerations should influence emission entitlements, and be justified on instrumental grounds. The most promising instrumental justification defends moderate grandfathering on the basis that one extra unit of emission entitlements from a baseline of zero emissions increases welfare to a greater extent where it is assigned to a high emitter than where it is assigned to a low emitter. Moderate grandfathering can be combined with basic needs and ability to pay considerations to provide an attractive approach to allocating emission entitlements.