Responsibilty for emissions

Members of Kiel University who focus on issues of environment and climate protection express their views in the "Unter Zwei" (below two) interview series run by klik – klima konzept 2030. Among them is junior professor Christian Baatz. He researches climate ethics, sustainability and global justice.

Crowded highway
© iStock/deepblue4you

In 2020, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector amounted to 146 million metric tons of CO2, according to the Federal Environment Agency's climate balance sheet. A large part of this is caused by private transport.

klik: Why is it important for ethics to deal with the climate crisis?

Christian Baatz: Because at its core, the climate crisis, like probably all major social crises, is an ethical crisis. Ethics considers how society, certain stakeholders or individuals should react to this type of global crisis. It also looks at, for example, who should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, when, how quickly and by how much and what alternative or additional strategies there are. Climate change can be viewed through the different "lenses" of philosophy.

What is the difference between justice in the climate crisis and justice in other global crises?

The climate crisis is more complicated in that the negative consequences for people are not caused by direct interventions by others but are conveyed through climatic and more recently weather-related phenomena. There is no direct link between the greenhouse gas emissions of one stakeholder and a harmful event. The total volume of greenhouse gas emissions makes it more likely, for example, for a certain extreme weather event to occur. Something needs to happen at societal level if the negative effects of climate change are to be prevented. On the one hand, we need to combat the cause by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On the other, we need to adapt to climate changes so that they stop being so harmful.

Is everyone affected by the climate crisis to the same degree?

In the case of the climate crisis, the damage is mainly caused and the costs mainly incurred in places where people contribute very little to climate change. It affects the poor, weak and vulnerable rather than the wealthy, who can protect themselves accordingly. By contrast, the wealthy contribute more to climate change through their greater consumer activity. As a result, there is an asymmetry between those responsible and those affected, which represents a great injustice. If, for example, everyone lived like the people in the Sahel region, there would be no man-made climate change. And yet the people there are particularly heavily affected by this change.

[Translate to English:] Christian Baatz
© Jürgen Haacks, Uni Kiel

[Translate to English:] Christian Baatz

What approaches does climate ethics take to distributing the costs of the climate crisis fairly?

The fact that very many people and institutions are responsible does not mean that they are all responsible to the same extent and have identical obligations. For example, the so-called Polluter Pays Principle applies at individual as well as national level. Put simply: the higher the emissions, the greater the obligation to reduce them and bear any costs, for instance, for adaptation measures. It is, however, difficult to apply the Polluter Pays Principle to historical emissions.

What responsibility do we have as citizens for the climate crisis?

The question of individual responsibility can be answered in different ways. Compared with global emissions over centuries, my individual contribution appears to be irrelevant. You could conclude from this that as an individual you have no responsibility to reduce your emissions and that instead you should take political action to change social structures. The contrasting position asserts that it is an illusion to believe that certain volumes of emissions are too small. Rather, everything contributes to the total volume of emissions. Accordingly, you are not only obliged to stand up for structural change, but also reduce your own emissions as much as possible.

This interview was conducted by Ravn Haid

The text from the "Unter Zwei" (below two) interview series was abbreviated for unizeit.
Unabbreviated version:

"Unter Zwei" (below two)

"Unter Zwei" (below two) is an interview series run by klik – klima konzept 2030, which is assisting the university on its path to climate neutrality. The format was given its new title in early 2021 – in reference to the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius. "We want to make environmental and climate protection visible here at Kiel University through the people who deal with the subject in different ways as researchers, academics, students or members of staff. Kiel University has a strong sustainable profile in its operations, academia, teaching and research," explained Sebastian Starzynski, Head of Environmental Management at Kiel University. The interviews are conducted by students involved in klik. Suggestions for interesting interview partners are always welcome. (apr)