Grounds for Enhanced National Greenhouse-Gas Commitments

Grounds for Enhanced National Greenhouse-Gas Commitments

Robin Attfield1*

1 Professor, Emeritus of Philosophy, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3AT, United Kingdom.

*Corresponding Author:Robin Attfield, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3AT, United Kingdom, Tel: +44 29 2087 4000; Fax: +44 29 2087 4000;

Citation: Robin Attfield (2022) Grounds for Enhanced National Greenhouse-Gas Commitments. SciEnvironm 5: 153.

Received: October 05, 2022; Accepted: October 10, 2022; Published: October 13, 2022.

Copyright: © 2022 Robin Attfield, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


The national greenhouse-gas mitigation commitments made at the Paris 2015 Conference on Climate Change would collectively fail to deliver the agreed goal of a ceiling of 1.5 degrees (Celsius) to the increase of average temperatures since the pre-industrial period. This goal was agreed at the same conference. The aggregated national commitments have been estimated as leading to an average increase of approximately 3 degrees, an increase that could prove disastrous.

Successive IPCC reports indicate that if greenhouse-gas emissions are unchecked there will be serious sea-level rises, and that coastal and island communities will be placed at risk. There will also be increases in the seriousness and the frequency of extreme weather events such as floods, storms, heat-waves, wildfires, and droughts. The impacts of these changes are likely to be massive movements of climate refugees leaving impacted areas and seeking new homes. There will be movements of the vectors of diseases such as malaria and dengue-fever to higher altitudes and latitudes, and migrations of land species, again to higher altitudes and higher latitudes, many becoming extinct, and losses to the biodiversity of coral reefs. These impacts are beginning to be experienced, as wildfires affect Australia, a heat-dome affects west Canada, and torrential storms cause flooding in Europe from Switzerland to the Netherlands. The perceived inadequacy of the 2015 national commitments has led to hopes that at further Climate Change CoP Conferences they would be racheted up. Some have been revised, but much remains to be done, particularly at CoP-26, planned for Glasgow in November 2021.

Grounds for ‘racheting-up’ include the self-interest of the countries already undergoing coastal flooding or extreme climate events. Grounds also include obligations to assist developing countries whose people’s human rights are at risk, and whose citizens are suffering from extreme weather events, human migration, the spread of tropical diseases, and biodiversity-loss. These problems are also likely to affect future generations severely, and grounds for urgent action include the need to take action before the prospects for future generations become intolerable.


be limited, if possible, to 1.5 degrees (Celsius) compared with average temperatures of the pre-industrial period. Such a ceiling on temperature increases proves to be needed, in view of the observable impacts of rising temperatures, and the predictable impacts of further such increases. Besides rising sea-levels and the endangerment of the coasts of oceans, of related seas and of islands, these impacts include extreme weather events of increasing frequency and severity: that is, more and bigger floods, storms, droughts and wildfires. Daily news report include accumulating evidence of such extreme weather events, and successive reports of IPCC strongly indicate that these larger and more frequent events are likely to become more intense and more common every year.

However, at the same Conference the various nations made voluntary commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions, or emissions of carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, methane and other greenhouse gases, which turn out to by massively insufficient. When aggregated, it is widely agreed that the Paris conference national commitments are consistent with an average increase not of 1.5 degrees but of 3 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Yet such an increase could prove disastrous to vast numbers of people living along coastlines, or on small islands, or on land prone to flooding, or in arid areas prone to either droughts or wildfires. The results of a temperature increase on this scale could prove catastrophic, with fires contributing yet further to climate change, with a spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue-fever as the animal vectors of disease move to higher altitudes and latitudes, with large areas of previously fertile farmland becoming too arid for food-production, with millions of displaced persons and climate refugees, and with the loss of thousands if not millions of species and of the ecosystems of many of them.

Meanwhile the oceans are becoming increasingly acidified, with consequent losses to the biodiversity of coral reefs. These losses are already in evidence, as corals become bleached. At the same time the other predicted disasters are no longer a matter of speculation, but are being experienced as wildfires affect Australia, a heat-dome affects west Canada, and torrential storms cause flooding in Europe from Switzerland to the Netherlands.

These disastrous impacts of climate change have underlined the inadequacy of the 2015 Paris national commitments. But fortunately, the Paris agreement also included provision for a series of review conferences, at which adjustments could be made in the light of subsequent evidence. This pattern of events follows the precedent of the Montreal Protocol of 1987 on CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons), which were destroying the protective layer of ozone which preserves humans and other animals from skin cancer. The Montreal agreement involved reductions in the production of these substances, but provided also for racheting up what had been agreed in the light of further research. Further evidence rapidly came in, showing that in addition to the ozone hole over the Antarctic, there was now a similar hole over the much more populous Arctic. So, by the time of the London review conference of 1990, more demanding steps were taken, leading to a banning both of trade and production of CFCs, and to what seems to have been a successful approach to the ozone problem.

This successful precedent has led to hopes that the Paris national commitments would be racheted up in the subsequent period. Some have already been revised, but much remains to be done, particularly at CoP-26, the conference of the Parties due to take place at Glasgow in November 2021. The aim of this paper is to present grounds to be taken into consideration by the various parties for revising their commitments, so a level consistent with constraining temperature rise to an average of 1.5 degrees.

The most obvious and easily understood ground for raising national commitments is national self-interest. This is most clearly a ground for coastal and island states, which are liable to have their coastlines inundated; it should be noted that coastal states include both China and India. But if is nearly as clear for states prone to flooding, droughts, fires or hurricanes, including those states that have recent experience of these; these states include Australia, Canada and USA, which are of course also coastal states. It also includes drought-stricken states such as those in the horn of Africa and many other African states. But all the states of the world are potentially liable to problems of the kind listed, and so all have a direct interest in increases in average temperatures being limited to 1.5 degrees.

A related ground concerns stemming the tide of climate refugees. Even the states least at risk from extreme weather events are for that reason likely to be or become havens for refugees from the impacts of climate change. Some have already taken in hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees, but their capacity to take in more is likely to be limited. All the states likely to receive refugees have an interest in the stability of the more vulnerable states, and thus in the stability of the climate of those states; if the climate of those states can be stabilized, or at least disrupted less than is currently feared, they will more easily cope with the inflow of refugees crossing international boundaries.

The likely future impacts of climate change comprise a further ground, which in some cases amounts to an extension of the ground of national self-interest. If average temperatures grow to be more than 1.5 degrees, deserts are likely to spread, ocean currents will be at risk, ever more land will be lost to the sea, and many areas will become uninhabitable because of rising temperatures and through the loss of farmland. Even where these factors are not yet in evidence, they are likely to come about across the coming decades, leaving a barely habitable world for our successors. Many countries are foreseeably subject to these threats, and have reason to take action now to secure prospects for a good life for their younger generations and for those soon to be born.

But future impacts are not only a ground on the basis of directly foreseeable national self-interest. For they will affect each country’s neighbors, and will produce international problems affecting the whole planet. Thus, countries have a reason to take action to protect the overall global climate, located in the welfare of the next few generations of humanity. If these impacts take place, there will be large humanitarian efforts made by those best placed to make them, but the current generation have a strong reason to pre-empt the need for such humanitarian efforts by increasing their commitments in the present. Another way of expressing this is that threats to human rights are all-too-foreseeable across the coming decade, but can be limited and possibly reduced if strong anticipatory action is taken in advance of these threats materializing.

It is also important that these reasons of national self-interest and of humanitarian concern extend to all the countries of the world. For action on the part of all countries is currently needed, and reasons of both kinds can be adduced to encourage the more reluctant of countries to play their part.

A further reason for countries to consider concerns the impact of climate change on other species, many of which will be made extinct by foreseeable climate trends. This is a source of concern for many people. And countries unimpressed by this factor as a reason for action should reflect on the disruption of ecosystems that are implicit both in extreme weather events and in species extinctions. For the disruption of ecosystems is capable of threatening weather systems such as the monsoons of the Indian Ocean region, and the food-supply networks of the planet. Thus the risks posed for other species by climate change opens up factors that turn out to bear indirectly on national self-interest, as well as on humanitarian concerns for non-human species.

It is now time to turn to factors that are likely to limit the ability of countries to attend to these reasons and to act on them. One factor for many of the less developed countries is that they have done little or nothing to cause the problems, and that the onus to counter the problems is on the countries whose development has resulted from industrialization and which have at the same time caused the problems.

The fact that the problems have largely been caused by others cannot be denied. But it these countries do not participate in stabilizing or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then the problems will become worse, and all countries will be affected, themselves included. It should be granted that the less developed countries need to generate more electricity so as to satisfy the needs of their populations. But this need must be met through electricity generation from renewable sources. The more developed countries can reasonably be expected to contribute both technically and financially to make this possible. But it remains in the interests of the less developed countries in any case (Attfield 2019).

The other obstacle worth being mentioned here is indebtedness. Some of the less developed countries find themselves in such huge debts that they have little or no ability to adopt policies of mitigation and of adaptation that are required to tackle climate change, or thus to commit themselves to alleviate temperature increases. This situation has come about through the stringent terms attaching to bilateral and international loans, as well as through misguided policy decisions in the past. The more developed countries need to recognize this problem and to write off some of the debts. They should also make provision for countries to declare themselves bankrupt, and have their debts annulled, a measure that has been supported by the General Assembly of the United Nations, but blocked by the main creditor nations. In the absence of measures of these kinds, heavily indebted countries cannot participate by making adequately strong climate-related commitments. Hence these measures are needed before heavily indebted countries can be placed in a position to respond to the reasons and considerations presented above.

It is incumbent on all of us to articulate and present these reasons for revising national commitments, and for overcoming the obstacles to the poorer countries doing so. If enough is done, we may hope that the revised national commitments, when aggregated, will prove consistent with limiting average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, and that humanity can continue to flourish on our planet.

About Author: Robin Attfield

Professor Robin Attfield taught and researched in philosophy at Cardiff University from 1968 to 2009. He has composed some 15 books, including The Ethics of Environmental Concern (1983; 1991) and Environmental Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (2018), and some 250 articles or chapters. He also taught in Nigeria from 1972-3 and in Kenya for part of 1975. He has addressed several World Congresses of Philosophy, and has written in recent years about the ethics of climate change.


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  2. Attfield Robin (2019) ‘Africa and Climate Change’ Utafiti 14.2: 1-14.
  3. Nightingale John, ‘Achieving Global Justice in International Debt’ (unpublished)
  4. Attfield Robin (2018) Environmental Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  5. Attfield Robin (2019) ‘Africa and Climate Change’ in Utafiti (Dar-es-Salaam) 14.2: 1-14.
  6. Guterres Antonio (2018) ‘Mobilising the World’, in UNA-UK, Climate 2020: New Leaders, New Approaches. London: UNA-UK
  7. Kelbessa Workineh (2018) ‘Environmental Injustice in Africa’ Contemporary Pragmatism 9: 99-132.
  8. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2021) ‘The Paris climate agreement?’>process-and-meetings>the-paris-agreement