Dossier: Climate/ecological dept

, by  Echanges et Partenariats, Lisa B
IssamBarhoumi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <> via Wikimedia Commons

At COP27 in November 2022, an agreement was reached to set up a "loss and damage" mechanism. After many years of complaints, the countries most vulnerable to climate change-related disasters will finally be able to benefit from a fund made available by the most polluting countries []. But this decision represents only a small step facing with the scale of the ecological debt, and there is still a long way to go to achieve climate justice. The CADTM (Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt) defines ecological debt, sometimes called climate debt, as follows: "The ecological debt is the debt contracted by industrialized countries towards other countries because of the past and present plundering of their natural resources, to which must be added the delocalization of degradation and the free disposal of the planet in order to deposit the waste products of industrialization." [1] It has its origins in colonial times, and has grown ever since.

It can be broken down into four activities: the "carbon debt", which is accumulated as a result of atmospheric pollution due to greenhouse gas emissions, "biopiracy", which consists of "the intellectual appropriation of ancestral knowledge about seeds and the use of medicinal plants by modern agro-industry and laboratories in industrialized countries", environmental liabilities", i.e. the debt owed to "the underpaid exploitation of natural resources", and finally "the export to the poorest countries of dangerous products manufactured in industrialized countries" [2]. Ecological debt is difficult to quantify, as it is complicated to attach a monetary value to resources derived from nature. It may also be undesirable [3].

Ecological debt and foreign financial debt are closely linked. Indebted countries are put under pressure by their creditors to repay their debts, which they can only do, within such tight deadlines, at the expense of the rights of their populations and of nature.
Why is ecological debt a key concept for understanding the current global and urgent need to combat global warming? How can it propose sustainable and fair solutions to combat global warming and protect people and the planet from its consequences?

I - The concept of ecological debt: definition and history
II - The impact of ecological debt on people
III - Financial debt and climate debt
IV - Towards questioning the North?
V - Social movements and mobilizations around climate debt

I - The concept of ecological debt: definition and history

The concept of ecological debt

By the way, what is ecological debt? Reporterre, March 27, 2012

By schematically contrasting the countries of the North and the South, we can assert that the industrial development of the North has been based in part on the exploitation of the natural resources of the South. The North appropriated these resources by violence during the colonial era, and even afterwards, at derisory cost. On the other hand, the North’s greenhouse gas emissions were, and still are, far greater than those of the South. The peoples of the South have begun to denounce this exploitation of their territories and to defend environmental justice based on equal rights of access to and use of natural resources. As long as the richest and/or most powerful monopolize more vital resources than others, they accumulate an ecological debt towards them. The latter can then demand "repayment" in the form of reparations. The American researcher Mariano Torras, seeking to compare the ecological debt of the North with the external financial debt of the South, concluded that 41 of the 46 poor countries concerned would become creditors if they benefited from monetary repayment of the North’s ecological debt. Eric Toussaint, from CADTM, proposes that the reparations that the North must pay to the peoples of the South should be levied on the classes and companies that bear responsibility for this debt.

No Climate Justice without Debt Justice Global Action For Justice and Debt Cancellation

"No climate justice without debt justice". This is the slogan of the Global Action for Justice and Debt Cancellation movement. It denounces the accumulation of debts in the countries of the South linked to the consequences of global warming. The countries most affected by global warming have the highest borrowing costs, because the environmental risks they face are greater. As a result, they are obliged to borrow at high rates to implement policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The priority given to debt repayment prevents an adequate response to the emergencies facing populations. The cost of servicing debt falls mainly on women and children, making them even more vulnerable.

To break away from this unjust model, the countries of the North must recognize the climate debt they have accumulated, and grant reparations for the damage caused by colonization and, subsequently, by neo-colonial dynamics.
Sustainable climate financing, in the form of a gift rather than a debt, must be put in place to repay part of the ecological debt.Financial debts must be cancelled to guarantee a green, inclusive recovery and enable all countries to meet the challenges of climate change.At the same time, the countries of the North must contribute to ecological restoration, put an end to extractivism and change their modes of production and consumption.Global Action for Justice and Debt Cancellation demands a guarantee that alienating patterns will not be repeated.Because climate justice and economic and debt justice are mutually dependent, the movement calls on world leaders, governments and financial institutions to take nine urgent and ambitious flagship measures.

History of ecological debt

Ecological debt: repairing the past and securing the future Balises, November 22, 2021

The term ecological debt was first used in the booklet Femmes en mouvement (Women on the Move) by ecofeminist Eva-Maria Quistorp, in 1985. In 1992, the NGO Instituto de Ecológia Politica published the report Deuda Ecológica, blaming rich countries for the hole in the ozone layer and its impact on health. The same year, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Acción Ecológica, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs jointly sign the Debt Treaty, which recognizes the existence of the ecological debt owed by the countries of the North to those of the South, and calls for the cancellation of the latter’s financial debt. Restoring nature would be a compromise between Paul Taylor’s concept of "restitutive justice", according to which Man has a responsibility towards nature and must repay his ecological debt in full, and the thesis of sociologist Jack Katz, for whom restoring nature to its original state is impossible and for whom the debt is not repayable. For researchers at Ghent University, ecological debt is a debt owed by one state to another. When one of them enters the global market to allocate its natural resources, it exposes itself to "ecologically unequal exchanges", according to Juan Martinez Alier. Indeed, the prices of products exported by "poor" states do not take into account the social and environmental costs associated with their production. According to Noémie Candiago, ecological debt is the bearer of an "ambivalent" economic and legal framework; states are both sovereign in their management of natural resources and subject to the laws of the financial market. The concept of ecological debt has emerged from a legal and ecological counter-culture that challenges the established economic order; it is a "critical deconstructivist approach".

The colonial context of ecological debt

The real New Deal with Africa is to put an end to its plundering and neo-colonialism ! CADTM, Survie, May 21, 2021

On May 18, 2021, a summit on financing the economies of sub-Saharan Africa was held in Paris, at the initiative of Emmanuel Macron. He advocated the same neoliberal policies imposed on African countries for several decades and responsible for their structural weaknesses, under the guise of "innovative solutions" and a "New deal for financing Africa". If these countries are facing major difficulties today, it’s mainly because of the mechanisms of domination and exploitation put in place by great powers like France in the past, and still being nurtured today. These include the cooperation agreements imposed by France on its newly-independent former colonies, as well as debt, public development aid and the forced implementation of PPPs (public-private partnerships), which have been rejected in Europe by the European Court of Auditors as financially unsustainable. All this was done with the complicity of the International Financial Institutions (International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO)). Real measures to help African countries would be to cancel their debts on a massive scale, including the 14 billion euros of debt owed by France. France must acknowledge its ecological and colonial debt, and pay reparations and/or compensation. Official development aid must be replaced by a "Contribution of Reparation and Solidarity", which will take the form of grants only, not loans. We must abolish this economic system, which is based on inequalities and relations of domination that are detrimental to human rights and the planet.

II - The impact of ecological debt on people

Indigenous peoples’ rights facing extractivism

Tackling the root causes of problems faced by indigenous peoples Survie, August 31, 2021

The social movement "Survival" fights to defend the rights of indigenous peoples. It denounces the nature conservation projects promoted by Western states and major international NGOs. Today, the dominant model of nature protection is a product of colonization. Known as the "fortress conservation" model, it sees indigenous peoples as incapable of caring for their own lands and animals, and even as nuisances. This discourse justifies land grabbing, wrongly described as "wild" and "empty". This "green colonialism" involves the violent expulsion of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. However, long before the concept of "nature protection" was invented, these peoples had already developed effective practices for maintaining the richness of their environment. The majority of large organizations such as WWF, created at the time of decolonization, ensured the continuity of European control over these territories. By creating parks and prohibiting all human activity in them, industrialized countries are making those least responsible pay the price for the destruction of nature, in order to avoid changing their own production and consumption patterns. Furthermore, the target of 30% protected areas worldwide by 2030 accentuates violations of the rights of indigenous peoples. 300 million people are at risk of losing their lands and livelihoods. The rights of indigenous peoples to their lands must therefore be recognized as a matter of urgency.

Direct consequences of global warming on populations in the South

"Renewable" energy in Tunisia: an unfair transition Observatoire Tunisien de l’Économie, March 31, 2022

Tunisia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement and is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, even though it only contributes 0.07% of global emissions. The climate policies it has devised over the last few decades have failed to bring about the necessary changes, as they have remained anchored in a capitalist framework that imposes the pursuit of unlimited growth and gives priority to private profit. This translates into "energy expansion, rather than energy transition". What is desirable is a genuine energy democracy, focusing on the interests of local communities to implement a just energy transition. But if this transition is poorly managed and controlled by outside influences, it risks reinforcing Tunisia’s historic dependence on foreign powers. It can therefore serve to strengthen democratic control over natural resources, or on the contrary, exacerbate capitalist land grabbing at the expense of local communities. An example of the latter is the village of Borj Salhi, in northeastern Tunisia, which is not connected to the high-voltage grid and suffers untimely power cuts, while wind turbines are placed 50 meters from dwellings, causing soil erosion, olive tree dieback and sometimes accidents. Today, initiatives in this sector are tinged with neo-colonialism. They hinder the country’s sovereignty and maintain its dependence. The recent implementation of these neoliberal policies, advocated and encouraged by the International Financial Institutions and the EU, has opened the door to privatization of the energy sector. The strategy of public-private partnerships implies the prevalence of private investment and a short-term vision, whose sole objective is profit, over human rights.

Drowned by the sea, baked by the sun: life in a Sierra-Leone shantytown Reporterre, December 29, 2022

In Freetown, the capital of Sierra-Leone, a heat manager has been appointed. The aim is to put in place policies to adapt to global warming and protect populations from its effects. The people most vulnerable to these effects are those living in shantytowns, who suffer from the heat and are exposed to flooding. They don’t have the opportunity to leave these places. Trees are planted and metal umbrellas set up to provide shade and coolness, enabling the most precarious workers to work in tolerable conditions.

III – Financial debt and climate debt

Cancellation of financial debts to offset ecological debts

Debt and climate: two sides of the same crisis CNCD 11.11.11, October 27, 2021

The climate crisis and the sovereign debt crisis are mutually reinforcing. The debt crisis in low-income countries has intensified since 2013, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Measures already exist, such as the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), but their action is insignificant. As for the "common framework", created to complement the ISSD in order to restructure debts, it prolongs the domination of creditors by imposing a prior agreement with the IMF on any requesting country. And yet, the greater a country’s indebtedness, the smaller its budget for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The climate crisis is profoundly unjust because it is the countries least responsible for it that are suffering its impacts most. The richest countries, having exploited and monopolized the world’s natural resources in the past, have emitted the majority of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the current crisis. Consequently, they owe a climate debt to the poorest countries. Climate financing is therefore a moral and contractual obligation owed by the countries of the North to the countries of the South. An additional financial mechanism must be created to ensure the payment of reparations in the event of climate-related disasters.

To reduce their level of indebtedness, countries in the South tend to exploit more of their natural resources (deforestation, exploitation of fuel resources), but this contributes directly to global warming and is detrimental to them. On the other hand, climate-related disasters force countries to take on more debt to cope with material and economic losses, and exposure to these risks can increase borrowing costs for these countries. This creates a vicious circle. International climate financing, currently mostly in the form of loans, needs to be replaced by grants. Cancelling the debt could enable large amounts to be allocated immediately to investments in the ecological transition. "Climate justice will not be possible without economic and debt justice. And debt justice will not be possible without environmental and climate justice.

COP and demands

COP27: Cancelling the debt of developing countries, a solution to the climate crisis ? CADTM, November 9, 2022 (article relayé par Reporterre)

COP27 put on the table the notion of "loss and damage" due to climate change affecting the countries of the South. 189 million people a year are affected by extreme weather conditions in developing countries. Yet these countries contribute very little to climate change compared to the countries of the North. This difference is considered an ecological debt, for which the countries of the South are demanding reparations and financial compensation. The Green Fund launched in 2009 following the Copenhagen COP, which obliges the richest countries to pay 100 billion euros in aid to developing countries, is proving insufficient. Moreover, this aid has perverse effects, as it takes the form of loans, which the countries of the South have to repay with interest. This contributes to their indebtedness. The solution advocated by the CADTM is to cancel the debt of these countries rather than pay compensation, which is often conditional and maintains North-South dependence and the extractivist system.

Climate financing : estimations

Estimation. How much is needed to finance climate action in developing countries? ? Courrier International, November 8, 2022

A report commissioned by the COP27 presidency estimates that the countries of the South need $2,000 billion a year by 2030 to finance their climate action. This would be used to "reduce emissions, build resilience, address loss and damage caused by climate change, and restore land and nature". In parallel, the report proposes an overhaul of the multilateral development banks, or an increase in low- and zero-interest loans from developed countries. For Nicholas Stern, an economist who contributed to the report: "Rich countries must recognize that their own self-interest, as well as the idea of justice, obliges them to invest in the fight against climate change in emerging and developing countries, given the disastrous consequences of their past and current emissions."

IV – Towards questioning the North?

The Basque Country’s energy debt

Deuda Energética Vasca 2011: La energía que consumimos y lo que le debemos al mundo Ecología Política, December 12, 2011

In 2007, the residents of Ekologistak Martxan organized an international conference in Bilbao with the aim of curbing climate change, changing the energy model and recognizing the ecological debt. Even after long-term mobilizations, such as the one against the planned construction of a combined-cycle power plant in Amorebieta, companies manage to circumvent the obstacles by setting up their factories in another location, or in another country. They put pressure on local, regional and national governments to prevent citizens from enjoying their rights to land, health and an alternative energy model not driven by the lure of profit. Decisions are always imposed on local indigenous and peasant communities, despite their opposition to them. This is why it is essential to drastically reduce or even halt the extraction of fossil fuels, as the ecological debt contracted by developed countries is already immense. In 2009, the carbon debt of the energy-dependent Autonomous Community of the Basque Country was estimated at 5,348 million euros, more or less the same amount as the foreign debt of Cameroon or Costa Rica that year, and has continued to rise ever since. It is therefore necessary to reflect on the impact of these extractive industries on other territories, and to consider the social and environmental problems they cause, which are neither repaired nor compensated for. We need to recognize the Basque Country’s responsibility for these problems, but also for the investments made by Basque companies in controversial energy projects in southern countries. Struggles, however local they may be, must always be collective and universal in spirit.

Danish climate aid

Pollution. Denmark is the first rich country to pay the South for the climate crisisCourrier International, September 21, 2022

On September 20, 2022, at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, the Danish government announced that it would provide 100 million kroner (13.5 million euros) in climate aid to "vulnerable countries that have suffered loss and damage due to climate change". This is the first time a UN member country has pledged to offset the effects of greenhouse gas emissions for countries in the South, while the US continues to reject calls from climate advocates to compensate for these "losses and damages". They fear that a financial commitment would imply legal liability for the growing toll of climate change. Even if the sum released by Denmark is derisory compared to the amounts needed to repair the damage caused by extreme weather events, it is "the largest to date".

V – Social movements and mobilizations around climate debt

Environmental justice and social movements in Tunisia Aitec, April 11, 2017

In Tunisia, social movements are denouncing socio-economic injustices relating to the disproportionate and unequal exposure of certain populations to the degradation of biodiversity, deprivation of natural resources and/or environmental risks. These movements are opposed to the dynamics of monopolization, overexploitation and pollution of water, air and land, which are detrimental to the health of populations and their essential needs. The hydrocarbons sector, in which multinationals are particularly active, is the subject of local protests. Water is often overexploited for phosphate production, as is the case in Gafsa. This leads to regular, long-term cuts in the supply of drinking water to households, at a time when the region is already experiencing intense drought and desertification. Nevertheless, the authorities continue to prioritize economic imperatives. In 2010, Tunisia ranked 5th among the world’s phosphate-producing countries, to the detriment of the populations living in the extraction areas, who have seen their livelihoods (fishing and agriculture) condemned by the pollution released by this industry. On the other hand, in France in particular, many people are alarmed by the environmental impact of the over-consumption of phosphate fertilizers by intensive farming systems, without taking into account the ecological stakes of the entire phosphate industry, right up to Tunisia. It is therefore important for social movements to work towards solidarity between the victimized populations and the places of production and consumption, in order to combat the systemic causes of environmental injustice. There is an ecological debt that generates inequalities and reduces opportunities for alternatives in the South. In the light of these realities, André Gorz’s words could promote common ecological justice: "The only thing worth producing is that which neither privileges nor demeans anyone".

Organizaciones sociales protestan contra la "deuda ecológica" de Argentina Swiss info, June 28, 2022

On June 28, 2022, as part of worldwide protests against the G7 summit, a large number of associations, trade unions and environmental organizations demonstrated in downtown Buenos Aires and several other Argentine cities. They denounced the "ecological debt" and demanded the cancellation of "illegitimate" financial debts, such as the one Argentina has contracted with the IMF. Under the slogan "Debt is for people and nature", the movement denounces the "model of oppression, extractivism and financial colonialism" promoted by institutions such as the G7, the IMF, the World Bank and the Paris Club, which is responsible for an unjust system that prevents the fight against the climate crisis in the least developed countries. The activists recalled that Argentina is once again under the yoke of the IMF and has an illegitimate debt of over 40 billion dollars, making the country an emblematic victim of this extractivist colonial model.

[Action] « Debt for climate / Annulons la dette pour le climat ! » Attac France, June 27, 2022

On June 27, 2022, Attac, Extinction Rébellion and Youth for Climate participated in a civil disobedience action in Paris to ask the G7 to cancel the debts of the countries of the Global South. This action is part of the global Debt For Climate mobilization which demands to free countries in difficulty from their debt because it prevents them from implementing an effective environmental policy and forces them to intensively exploit their fossil resources. We must put an end to this extractivist model based on exports. Creditor privilege over human rights must be abolished. The G7, the IMF and the World Bank have immense responsibility in this vicious circle of debt, in the overexploitation of natural resources and therefore in global warming. The debt crisis is the result of the domination of the international financial system by rich countries. Cumulatively, the debt of the countries of the African continent reaches 1,400 billion dollars. The ecological debt of the countries of the North towards those of the South must be absolutely recognized, just like the historical responsibility of the G7 countries in global warming. Debt cancellation must be accompanied by quality climate finance allocations. International climate action must take the form of debt reform, solidarity with the countries most affected by climate disasters, a decolonial ecological policy and recognition of ecological debt.