Paying the Piper - Repaying our Historical Carbon Emissions
Nations are built from the efforts and investments of successive generations of it's citizens. These citizens use resources to build the cities, roads, economies and society that future members of that nation will inherit. Future generations have a responsibility to manage this legacy, add to it and pass it to their children.
However, future generations also have an obligation to pay the debts of their forebears.
For many nations, a key resource in building their prosperity over the past hundred years has been the energy obtained from burning fossil fuels (and releasing Green house gasses). This energy powered their industries, illuminated their societies and lifted them from poverty.
As the following graphs indicate, the growth of Australia’s GDP, our wealth, is intrinsically linked to and dependent on their consumption of fossil fuels (and releasing Green house gasses). Australia, since the 1930s, has aggressively used fossil fuels to build the Nation that most Australians now enjoy and prosper in.
Table 1 – Australia’s annual Carbon emissions from 1860 to 2008 (in tons of CO2)
Table 2 – Australia’s GDP from 1860 to 2008 (in millions of 1990 Geary-Khamis Dollars)
Source: Maddison Project
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere; emissions released in 1950 still make up a part of the total atmospheric greenhouse gasses and are currently contributing proportionally to global warming.
In the period since colonization to 2007 Australia released approximately 14,146,460,925 tons of CO2 (14th most amount of all countries in the world to 2007).
Table 3 – Australia’s cumulative Carbon emissions from 1860 to 2008 (in tons of CO2)
Ten people share a Well; the Well produces 100 liters per day. Each person takes 10 liters per day and the Well is a sustainable resource for all ten people. Life is good. However, one day, one person, realizing extra water would allow him to expand his wealth, decides to take 20 liters a day. Soon the well starts to run dry. Who is responsible for the well running dry? And who should pay back the addition water they took? Morally, it is the one person who took more than their share.
Australia’s cumulative or historical Carbon Dioxide emissions define the extent of our debt, our “contribution” to global warming, and thus our obligation to halt further emissions and start removing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere as soon as possible.
According to Professor Stephen Lewandowsky, “Australia has 1/3 of a percent (or .0031) of the world’s population—and yet we are number 14 on the list of total emitters and have more responsibility for global warming than about 94% of all other countries.” (Source: Shaping tomorrows world).
Just as each Australian inherits the wealth of those generations of previous Australians, we also inherit their debts. One of the costs of our accumulation of wealth as a Nation over the past century is the Carbon Emissions we (and our ancestors) produced.
As a result, each Australian has a historical emissions debt (in 2008) of over 653.60 tons of CO2 to pay off.
Table 4 – An Australian’s Historical Carbon Emissions Debt - 1860 to 2008 (in tons of CO2)
Fortunately, while generating this historical carbon emissions debt, Australian’s have also increased their per capita income fivefold, and are in a good financial position to repay this debt.
Table 5 - Australian’s per capita income - 1860 to 2008 (in 1990 Geary-Khamis Dollars)
Source: Maddison Project
Paying off one's historical carbon emissions debt consists of two steps;
Step 1 - Stop you current carbon emissions
There are many action in this site that will assist you to reduce and/or eliminate your current carbon emissions, from Eating less meat through to Riding a bike or Buying renewable electricity. Explore and engage, this site indicates the extent to which the various actions you can take will reduce your carbon emissions and potentially save you money. It is critical to constrain and eliminate your ongoing emissions.
Step 2 - Pay back your historical carbon emission debt
While removing over 653.60 tons of CO2 seems a big ask, once your have your ongoing emissions down (so the debt is not growing) the debt can be paid back over a reasonable period of time, i.e. 10 years. In addition, the opportunities to sequester atmospheric carbon are greater and cheaper for those that start earlier. For example, planting a tree is easy and cheap now, but would become more expensive if everyone was doing it.
Some actions that will start to payback your historical carbon Emissions debt:
- Start a Plantation - A recent study "Carbon sequestration in low rainfall areas" published by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, found that a planting 3 hectares of native Australian trees (i.e. Sugar Gums) will sequester over 650 ton of CO2 over a 20-25 year period.
- Join a Revegetation group - help plant trees, scrubs and grasslands.
- Invest ethically - speed the transition to renewable energy, recycling and other advances that lighten our carbon emissions
- Offset your emissions - by paying non-profit organisation to plant trees you can offset your debt directly in one hit.