Carbon and Debt

There are parallels between the 'debt crisis and the carbon emissions crisis?

There are parallels between the ‘debt’ crisis and the carbon emissions crisis?


This article is about the similarities between financial debt and ‘carbon’ debt. 

I wrote it almost 10 years ago back in December 2011, but the subject has been on my mind again recently. 

  • The financial situation was very different back then, but also very much the same! 
  • The carbon situation is now much worse: we have had 10 wasted years and emitted another 360 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.


I have been struck recently by profound similarities between the debt crisis and the carbon crisis. Here are seven points: see what you think:

1. Both these crises arise from a choice to consume now and pay later.  

With the debt issue, this is true both at a personal and a national level. Politicians have shied away from making people aware of the true cost of their policies for fear of unpopularity. Similarly, because of the potential unpopularity of the policies required to address carbon emissions, politicians have held back from policies that would dramatically cut carbon emissions.

2. Both these crises require us to address intergenerational morality.  

In the same way that it is unfair to spend money now and expect our children to pay it back, so it is unfair to emit carbon now, and expect our children to deal with the consequences.

3. Both these crises require international solutions.  

National politicians have failed us: they are unable to resist spending and borrowing more in order to stay popular. And so the Eurozone have now called for central oversight of national budgets to make sure countries do not surreptitiously borrow too much. Similarly, the nations of the world require external limits to be imposed upon them. Only in this way can politicians tell their people: ‘its not our fault’.

4. Neither of these crises will ever be ‘solved’.

Rather, they are perpetual struggles not isolated events.  Recent events in Europe may make it seem that a particular path to a solution has been found. But it hasn’t. The forces which drove Europe into its difficulties and which created spectacular indebtedness in the UK are still all in play. Similarly, the outcome of the Durban conference is neither a cause for celebration or depression: it is just another step on the path, and we really don’t know what lies ahead. [Note: I have no idea now what that conference was about!]

5. Accounting is difficult and dull and boring. 

But accounting is essential. This has been true of financial accounting for many years, and it will be equally true of carbon accounting when the concept becomes established. But what appears to be a constraint on freedoms or our growth, is simply a way of staying honest.

6. Spending money you have borrowed is like burning carbon.

Why? makes us feel good now. Building a hospital we can’t afford brings benefits and so does burning carbon – we get improved lifestyles today – and much cheaper than the sustainable lifestyles we might aspire to. But eventually we will have to pay the cost. In financial terms this can involve reduced incomes which will the harm people’s health as well as their wealth. In carbon terms, we really don’t know what the costs will be, or who will be required to pay them.

7. Paying back debt is really hard.

If you have ever had to pay back any significant amount of debt, then you know how hard it is. This is as true for nations as it is for people – with the additional unfairness in that the people who borrowed the money and benefitted are not the people who have to pay it back. If we are to ever get back to some kind of carbon neutral economy then it will involve real pain as we wean ourselves off carbon emitting technologies. Real pain – and most probably real reductions in quality of life.

I could go on because I think the parallels are quite deep, but I think I have made the point.

However, I do want to add that in both cases, there is no need to despair. The world is very beautiful, and very resilient. And we have each other. If we can learn a lesson, and teach our children, then we can still make things better than they otherwise would have been.

6 Responses to “Carbon and Debt”

  1. Tim Watt Says:

    All good points about symptoms of our current consumption mindsets that may have looked at the surface symptoms while possible falling into a deliberately set trap of thinking everything is just a matter of personal responsibility while the other side of the equation, the systematic causes are less unexamined.

    For example, what comes before personal and other debts is someone or some people deciding to incentivise desire for it and serve it. The power of debt is solely the personal shame attached to failing to service it, which maybe worth thinking about but is all part of the marketing infrastructure.

    Part of the marketing infrastructure about consuming carbon likely is also that there is no other choice, but such normalisation can only continue to thrive by ignoring the work of those pushing these addictions.

    Keep digging. I think you may find Jason Hickel’s book ‘Less is More’ has more on this…

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Tim, Thank you.

      I don’t disagree with your points. I think both financial and carbon debt does serve to bolster those with power – financial or commodity power.

      I do focus on the personal because I just don’t feel comfortable espousing grander visions.

      And I think the main point of the article – which I only said partially – is that payback is painful. In carbon terms, we have to acknowledge that have had the benefit already – and now come the costs. Responding to our climate emergency will make us feel poorer, but the choices about this were made a long time ago – basically in the 1980s – when we collectively [due in part to misinformation from energy companies] refused to acknowledge the reality. Since then we have had 40 wasted years. But the sooner we start payback, the better it will be.

  2. Tim Watt Says:

    Fair enough. This website is one person’s forum for expression of feelings – and the better for that – but feelings, especially expectations of future feelings, by the their nature are subjective, and of a passing nature….
    The expiation here is “payback is painful” and “Responding to our climate emergency will make us *feel* poorer”.
    But freedom and advancement only comes by overcoming fears, knowing that suffering (if necessary) should be accepted (and probably not as bad as feared) – if the benefits worth the sacrifice.
    But really, is the fear you describe more akin to fear of fear itself?

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      >But really, is the fear you describe more akin to fear of fear itself?

      No. I think my fear is fear of scary things – things that we should be scared of – not fear itself.

      While trying to stay positive, taking action where I can and encouraging others to do likewise, I am very concerned – fearful – about the consequences of collective inaction. Indeed I think we may have already left it too late.

      I think there are real risks of societal collapse both around the world in climate hotspots but also in the UK. I would much prefer we take decisive and governmentally-coordinated collective action now before people take matters into their own hands out of desperation.

  3. Tim Says:

    OK, I thought you meant fear of action rather than inaction.
    James O’Brien made a useful analogy yesterday, that our society is like that 98% of us are sitting quietly accepting our fate riding a bus heading at 100mph towards a cliff. While the 2% of people raising the alarm about the need to put on the brakes or turn around are the ones criticised.

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