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Ethics, Responsibility and the Carbon Budget


Exports and the carbon budget

This area of research has two related dimensions. The first concerns the distributive issues associated with limiting global CO2-e so as to achieve a high probability of avoiding a temperature increase of 2°C or more (our ‘carbon budget’). Avoiding an increase of 2°C or more represents the highest threshold at which the most serious effects of climate change may be avoided. A first step in responding to this problem involves determining the quantity of carbon that can be emitted if we are to avoid this 2°C rise in temperature.

The moral and practical dimensions of the carbon budget problem centre on how we allocate entitlements to emit and ensure access to a safe climate in a way that is just. Outlining a framework involves conceptualising the dimensions of harm related to dangerous climate change, identifying the justifications for dividing emissions between countries, understanding what kinds of distributive schemes are consistent with these justifications and, finally, determining whether the framework can provide guidance in a real-world setting, which may include policies on emissions trading, exports and land use.

Additional issues include:

  • What should Australia’s carbon budget be?

  • What are the justifications for exclusions from the budget?

  • How will the size and timeframe of the budget affect climate transitions?

  • Do individuals in high-emitting countries have extra obligations?

  • What role do historical emissions play in the carbon budget?

  • How should carbon budgets for developing countries differ from those for developed countries?

For some discussion of these issues see Climate Change and Justice, ed., Jeremy Moss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

This dimension of the stream’s work focuses on the social and ethical dimensions associated with the introduction of renewable energy technology. The increased introduction of renewable energy technology has many benefits, including: low or zero emissions, low maintenance costs, enhanced competiveness, the creation of employment and significant environmental/health benefits. Indeed, the move to renewable energy is seen by many as the path most likely to mitigate the threat posed by dangerous climate change. Nonetheless, the transition to renewable energy will also inevitably raise questions which include the following.

  • What are the moral issues associated with different ownership models (public/private) of new renewable energy infrastructures? Do certain models of infrastructure deployment (household solar) have benefits such as increased household autonomy?

  • To what extent ought a transition to a low carbon economy include maximal moral considerations such as increasing equality or reducing poverty?

  • What role does community or individual endorsement play in deciding on whether to develop and deploy new technologies?

  • Do we have duties of compensation to employees in industries displaced by climate transitions?


Divestment from companies that produce or heavily utilise fossil fuels has become one of the biggest issues in the contemporary moral debate surrounding climate change. Pressured by student and civil society based movements, universities and other institutions are being asked to divest themselves of their fossil fuel related investments.

To date, there have been some very major institutions and funds that have begun to divest, the most notable being Norway’s Government Pension Fund. Many universities have also followed suit. Given the prominence of divestment campaigns, it is important to be clear about the arguments for divesting, as there is a plethora of arguments often used to support divestment, not all of which have equal strength. Moreover, it matters a great deal for the strength of the conclusions regarding divestment which of those arguments are employed. For example, holding shares in companies that produce fossil fuels might be wrong because it inadvertently involves an institution in wrongful collective action. An institution might be guilty of wrongful collective action in two ways; positively, in the case where an institution does not know that the collective they are part of is polluting the environment. Or, negatively, because there is a duty to campaign on some issue and a particular institution does not join in.

A further argument that is often made in favour of universities divesting is that investing in harm causing fossil fuels is not in line with the university’s key values. This is especially so where a university invests in a company that deliberately denies or supports deniers of many of the claims of the very climate scientists who work at universities. A great deal of attention has also been paid to the economic arguments for divestment. Divestment advocates claim that given the danger of ‘stranded assets’, institutions and funds who do not divest risk their capital by keeping their fossil fuel holdings. Important though these arguments are, this research focuses on the reasons to divest that are derived from either the duty not to harm others or as part of a general positive duty to contribute to averting dangerous climate change. This way of framing the arguments for divesting accords with how the problem is discussed in the broader literature. 

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