Briefing Note 9 – What Implications Does Net Zero Have on Equity, Ethics and Intergenerational Justice?


Why Should Having the Last Chance on Climate Change Matter?


The current generation is seeking to limit the severity of climate change for future generations. However, how far are we prepared to take this and why is it important for us to try?


Managing climate change is crucial not just today but by the nature of the crisis for all generations to come. Acting now means we can lessen the burden on future generations.


The decisions we make now will affect future actions and needs. If we have and share empathy for future generations, it is only fair we protect them by reducing emissions and controlling atmospheric GHG concentrations.


The burden of climate change presents physical, socio-economic and socio-political impacts. For example, the failure to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will trigger physical-climatic impacts, which could result in massive shifts of populations and migrant flows due to induced flooding and heat-rise. The effect does not respect state boundaries and multilateral actors need to be aware of this to take coordinated civil response. 


If we do not address all aspects of climate change in the short-term, future generations will not only endure the greater physical effects of climate change, but also experience harsher socioeconomic circumstances, under which mitigating emissions might be made ever more difficult.


What Ethical Issues Arise from Stock and Flow Pollutants?


There is tendency to treat all GHGs as equivalent to CO2. However, this approach to GHG reductions raises issues of fairness based on the different emissions profiles of countries. For example, CO2 is a long-lived GHG (stock pollutant), accumulating over time, whilst methane is short-lived GHG (flow pollutant) that only remains in the atmosphere for around a decade. Consequently, if long and short-lived GHGs are increasing, so are the associated effects. 


However if flow pollutants decrease, their effects drop off. Similarly, if sinks for pollutants are temporal, GHGs can be re-released and the effect passed onto further generations; this is of particular issue with types of non-permanent CO2 sinks.


Issues of fairness arise when trading off fossil fuel emissions (often wealthier countries) with subsistence emissions (often poorer countries) by treating the two as equivalent. Should the “polluter-pays” rendition include the impacts of different atmospheric lifetimes of GHGs and their effects on intergenerational stock versus flow pollutants?


It is questionable whether methane, typically associated with subsistence production such as rice, should in fairness be traded off against CO2 that is more associated with energy production. 


How Do Different GHGs Impact upon Intergenerational Justice?


From 1750 to 1900, early fossil fuel uses of prior generations left a permanent climate-warming legacy. Our legacy from coal-use prevails as it is mostly cumulative, and changes to future levels of CO2 production will not change this. Methane emissions are however not cumulative and legacy-yielding, and reducing production levels will see decreases in atmospheric methane concentration and thus the climatic effect. 


This raises the point of fairness when accounting for stock and flow GHG producing activities, and the impacts in tailoring required actions for climate change control within different nations. Countries with the highest ratio of methane to CO2 emissions (equivalents) have the lowest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, and vice versa for lowest ratios, which raises issues of fairness in climate policy and contributions to net zero.


For trade-offs, we similarly need to be aware of temporary versus permanent carbon capture. For example, trading carbon emissions on international markets for nature-based solutions such as a permanent forest balances. However trading off emissions for plantation forests does not mitigate nor remove CO2 but instead places it in a circular flow of sequestration and de-sequestration which does not remove a problem for future generations.


Given differing characteristics and sources, it is considered we must firstly focus on CO2 reduction by transitioning away from fossil fuels.


How Can We Make a Just Energy Transition?


The concept of a ‘just transition’ appeals to ensuring that efforts toward decarbonisation are underpinned 

by equity and justice concerns. Attention to local government and local perspectives, which tend to remain marginalised in the macro-level, are necessary in any ‘just transition’ debate. The protection of jobs and livelihoods is a dominant narrative; however, strategic framings often need to go beyond this to incorporate concerns for democracy, decentralisation, energy ownership, economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth.


The tensions brought about through different understandings of a ‘just transition’ away from polluting technologies align with previous trade-offs between sustainability and social justice goals. These include tensions between decarbonisation and the elements of inclusivity, recognition and equity. Understanding the ‘just transition’ discourse, particularly from local perspectives, are crucial to advancing a ‘just transition’ toward a decarbonised economy becomes a reality.


What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?


  • Immediate action against climate change is essential to lessen the burden on future generations. Unfairly discounting costs and benefits to future generations may undervalue the added risks associated with a climate-changed world.


  • Create new forums for all players involved in fossil fuel reduction and a just transition


  • Call for individual GHG impact appraisal that goes beyond equivalence and include atmospheric lifetimes and sink timeframes