The Gross Injustice of Demanding Poor Countries Lead on Emissions Reduction

Amartya Sen tells a story about three kids arguing over a flute to illustrate ethical approaches to distribution. The first child says, “I’m the only one who can play the flute”; the second, “I have no other toys”; and the third, “I made the flute.” Sen’s point: in isolation, each argument is strong—you can think about property rights, you can think about maximizing utility, and you can think about equality. But the three approaches can point to very different conclusions about what is just. 

When it comes to climate change, concerns about rights, utility, and equality always swirl in the background of discussions, but at least in the case of future greenhouse gas emissions, the three concerns point to exactly the same conclusion.

Who has the property rights to the remaining global carbon budget (however large you think that budget should be)? Those who have preserved the most and expended the least of their share of the total budget to date. In other words, the countries that have contributed the least on a per capita basis to existing greenhouse gas stocks. Which are those countries? The world’s poorest economies.  

Where would use of the remaining global carbon budget have the maximum impact on utility? As Todd Moss points out, the marginal impact of a ton of greenhouse gas emissions on quality of life is far higher in low-income countries than rich countries. The electricity to power the first lightbulb or refrigerator, or the cement to pave dirt floors, has a far large impact on quality of life of householders in Mali than the electricity to run the Halloween decorations or power the wine fridge, or cement to pave the parking space for the second car, does for householders in the UK or US.

Where would the use of the remaining carbon budget have the greatest impact on equality: the distribution of harms from greenhouse gas emissions? In the countries that will suffer the worst from climate change. That would be the countries least able to afford adaptation approaches like sea walls and air conditioning, most reliant on agriculture, most likely to suffer the greatest temperature and extreme weather changes. Once again that points toward the world’s poorest countries.

When negotiators come together in Egypt for the climate change conference, they should think about Sen’s fable of the flute, and recognize the ethical imperative of supporting low-income countries’ response to climate change, including through the use of greenhouse gas emitting technologies. Considerations of rights, welfare, and equity all demand nothing less. The same kid owns the flute, knows best how to play the flute, and has no other toys to play with. She should get the darn flute.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.