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Whose carbon is burnable? Equity considerations in the allocation of a "right to extract"

Sivan Kartha, Simon Caney, Navroz K. Dubash, and Greg Muttitt (2018)

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This paper considers how extraction/supply-side fossil fuel policies can be equitable. It analyses equitable principles against the evidential backdrop that meeting the Paris Agreement's temperature targets requires us to work within a ‘carbon budget’, which dictates that no new fossil fuel extraction can occur.  

It makes the case for equity considerations when implementing supply-side policies, particularly as doing so ensures such policies are deemed fair and do not allow for “free-riders” to take advantage of those policies, thereby ensuring the climate regime is more “robust”, “forceful and enduring”. It notes that such equity considerations will differ between supply and demand side policies. For example, a demand side measure such as a carbon tax will impact a different set and scale of people than a supply side policy like shutting down a coal mine.  

In relation to supply-side policies the article argues two impacts are critical to consider: first, the implications of supply-side policies on development, noting the positive link between fossil fuel energy supply and enhanced development and the development ‘foregone’ due to a harsh transition away from fossil fuels. Secondly, the impacts of supply-side policies on “economies, communities and workers” that rely on fossil fuels should be considered, including severe localised disruptions. Considering these points, the article advocates an approach to addressing supply-side equity that supports poorer countries in phasing out extraction and diversifying economies towards renewable, low-carbon alternatives.   

The article considers the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, arguing that those with greater historical responsibility for extraction and those with greater capabilities to address extraction should bear greater responsibilities for supply-side policies. The article concludes that meeting the objective of equitable extraction policies requires: i) reducing fossil fuel extraction in a way that limits the disruption to developing states’ development priorities (e.g. ensuring ongoing provision of energy services and economic diversification efforts); and ii) distributing the costs of such policies fairly (e.g. pace of change would be slower in countries where a rapid transition would be most harmful). 

This article can be used to argue that high-income countries that have benefited from historical extraction should take the lead and bear greater responsibilities for implementing policies to restrict and reduce extraction, providing a clear mandate to reject extraction proposals. The article suggests that low-income countries (that did not historically extract fossil fuels) should be afforded some grace to ensure a just transition. This provides a normative response to carbon leakage arguments that claim that it is beneficial for the proposed extraction to take place in a high-income country rather than a low-income one.

Despite providing a strong moral case for equity considerations, the article still recognises that all countries will eventually need to ban extraction projects, supporting an argument to limit extraction proposals in poorer countries too, although noting that these countries ought to have considerable support in doing so.  

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