Carbon injustice: Fossil fuel exporters still undermining climate action

Climate Economy

Carbon injustice: Fossil fuel exporters still undermining climate action

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In his new book Carbon Justice, author Jeremy Moss says nations subsidizing and exporting fossil fuels are morally culpable for the climate crisis.

The final days of the U.N.’s COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow saw India emerge as the last-minute climate villain for apparently insisting that coal should be “phased-down” not “phased-out.” 

Disappointing as it was not to have stronger wording, and all fossil fuels included, the wrangling over the final text masked a deeper set of problems. 

Even though India’s response could surely have been stronger, they rightly recognized that placing too many burdens on poorer countries is simply unacceptable. As I argue in my new book, Carbon Justice, the climate response of countries such as Australia, Norway, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. is far worse than anything proposed by India. 

Take Australia as a case in point. The greenhouse gas emissions from its fossil fuel exports –– coal and gas –– are greater than the domestic emissions for the whole of Africa, home to 1.3 billion people.

The same is true of Canada and the U.S. The UK is the second-largest fossil fuel exporter in Europe.

These exported emissions, which are subsidized and supported by the respective governments, are, I argue, a huge and morally significant contribution to climate change. Being a large fossil fuel exporter makes these countries morally culpable for the climate harm their exported coal, oil and gas are causing globally. Yet we continually overlook the injustice of blaming poor countries while wealthy countries continue to produce, export and profit from fossil fuels while failing to shoulder the cost. 

It’s hard to believe but big fossil fuel exporting nations such as Australia, the U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia and Saudi Arabia take no responsibility for the emissions that result from their exported fossil fuels. Currently, countries that rely heavily on fossil fuel imports such as India, China and Japan must account for 100% of the emissions from the burning of the coal, oil and gas that they import. Sadly, COP26 did nothing to address this major emissions responsibility imbalance. 

The importance of justice considerations can also be seen when we look at the response of some of the big mining companies –– many of them based in the major exporting countries. 

These exported emissions, which are subsidized and supported by the respective governments, are, I argue, a huge and morally significant contribution to climate change.

When mining giant BHP announced that it would sell its stake in its oil and gas business to another miner –– Woodside –– to form a new merged oil and gas business, it appeared to be some welcome good news. A big miner finally takes climate seriously. Yet decisions to sell fossil fuel assets are not good news at all. They are, in fact, very bad news. 

BHP did not do the right thing by selling its oil and gas operations for the simple reason that the climate is no better off after its actions. BHP’s new oil and gas assets will continue to produce oil and gas –– just with new shareholders. 

See our recent story on fossil fuel sterilization: Five Rules to Make Sure Coal Plant Buyouts Aren’t Making a Big Climate Problem Bigger.



Decisions to sell mines or set up “dirty” parallel companies are coming thick and fast as the big polluters scramble to cut their losses. One of Australia’s biggest polluters, energy retailer AGL, has just announced it will create a separate company for its emissions-intensive assets. 

What the likes of BHP and other miners are doing is banking some profits from their failing assets and washing their hands of their responsibility to do something about their past and ongoing contribution to climate change.  

Over the 15-year period from 2004 to 2018, BHP’s Australian operations have produced the equivalent of 2,361 megatons of CO2-e in emissions from their coal, oil and gas. That is equivalent to 4.5 years’ worth of the current rate of Australia’s total domestic emissions.

Yet, as even the CEO of Glencore Ivan Glasenberg recognizes, “Disposing of fossil fuel assets and making them someone else’s issue is not the solution and it won’t reduce absolute emissions.” 

Big mining companies such as BHP are selling their fossil fuel assets, transferring their liabilities while at the same time ensuring that these assets continue to produce fossil fuels. 

Another glaring injustice of COP26 is how the risks of phasing out fossil fuels are slowly but surely being transferred from the market to the public. So many of the big mining companies risk financial collapse as the markets for their fossil fuels dry up. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), phasing out thermal coal use by 2030 is crucial and many countries will do so. As this occurs, many of these companies will not be profitable and may not be able to pay for the costs of decommissioning their operations. 

Many of the big mining companies risk financial collapse as the markets for their fossil fuels dry up.

A report commissioned by the oil industry peak body the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) found that decommissioning Australia’s 65 offshore oil platforms could reach A$60 billion over the next 30 years, and that does not include onshore gas, Australia’s just under 100 coal mines and its export terminals.

Without swift action by governments to ensure companies set aside resources, these costs will end up being borne by the public. Such a result would be hugely unjust for the simple reason that those companies who have caused climate harm ought to pay for it. 

What this tells us is that all responses to climate change should not just aim to reduce emissions, but to do so in a way that accords with robust principles of justice such as those developed by the Mary Robinson Foundation that include a commitment to sharing the benefits and burdens of climate change equitably.

If justice considerations are not part of the mix many of the world’s poorest will be hit with “double harms;” the direct harms of climate change such as floods, heatwaves, drought, fires and storms, plus the harms of having to pay for a problem that wealthy nations that created the problem should, and can, fix.

Written by

Professor Jeremy Moss

Jeremy Moss is professor of political philosophy at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. His main research interests are political philosophy and climate justice. Web site: Twitter @jeremymoss25