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What is Climate Debt and How Can We Help?



Picture this: you’ve booked an unbelievably cheap flight to a country in the tropics, with multiple layovers; you’re participating in a packaged deal on a cruise ship where you stop at multiple towns, disembarking en masse for 8 hours and then departing; you are backpacking through a continent, staying in one place each night, doing a whirlwind budget tour. What do these all have in common? They continue to perpetuate a concept called climate debt.


This concept was first developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, where 197 parties participated in the discussion regarding the perpetual worsening of the world’s climate. The climate debt concept states that wealthy countries and companies should be held accountable for their long-term exploitation (Oxfam 2020).


What’s different about this type of debt? Because it’s based on a systemic problem rather than a financial problem, it flips the script on who are the debtors and who are the ones that are owed. This theory operates on the idea that poorer, marginalized countries of the “Global South” are the ones that are owed to by the richer developed, industrialized nations of the “Global North.” Marginalized countries are also typically the ones that bear the weight of budget travel. An influx of citizens from Global North countries descend upon the Global South each year, taking up resources and leaving behind deep scars in tourist-heavy areas. What’s owed to these developing countries is not for their individual gains, but rather for the benefit of humankind and the planet (El Transnational Institute 2010).


The Global South has a myriad of reasons why they are owed from the Global North. According to the Head of Climate Policy at Oxfam, 10% of the richest, most developed countries in the world are responsible for more than 50% of the carbon emissions added into our atmosphere between the years of 1990 to 2015. The results of those emissions disproportionately affect the Global South. For example, the increase in the global temperature of 1°C has resulted in catastrophic cyclones in India and Bangladesh, ruined crops from locust swarms all across the continent of Africa, and incomparable heatwaves and deadly wildfires in Australia.


So how can this debt be paid? Theoretically, the climate debt structure focuses on three main elements: adaptation debt, emissions debt, and reorganization.

Adaptation debt pushes for the developed nations of the world, who are responsible for the majority of climate change to provide compensation to the developing countries that are unequally the victims. According to Dissent Magazine, “compensation would cover not only reparations for the damage already done but also the costs of absorbing and combating impacts in the future,” meaning that both the past and the future deserve to be paid back.


Emissions debt refers to the idea that most of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases has been depleted by the Global North, leaving no space for the developing nations of the world to advance. In today’s world, the Global South is being told to limit their economic growth to be more climate-friendly. This debt would be repaid in the form of developed nations severely cutting their emissions to allow for others to grow.


The final piece of the puzzle lies with the mitigation debt. This debt focuses on the extreme cost of a complete reorganization of societies to produce far fewer greenhouse gases. For developing countries to achieve this level of reorganization, almost every industry would need to be altered. This includes agriculture, global trade, transportation, city development, and many other facets of human life (El Transnational Institute 2010). Every aspect mentioned has a relationship with the travel industry.


We, as travelers, play a huge role in the perpetuation of this climate debt by choosing to travel in an unsustainable way. This type of tourism includes taking multiple flights to reach a destination, city-hopping day-to-day, and not operating under a “leave no trace” policy. Participating in this kind of “fast travel” negatively affects developing nations where it is more prevalent.


So how do we travel more sustainably to help mitigate this harm? Trying your best to take as few flights as possible can drastically reduce your carbon footprint. If you can, purchasing carbon offsets can be even more helpful. Additionally, supporting locally owned and operated businesses directly benefit the people that live in the areas you travel. While traveling, it is important to adopt a slow travel mindset. According to the Independent Traveler, where this concept was first discussed, this type of mindset states that “rather than attempting to squeeze as many sights or cities as possible into each trip, the slow traveler takes the time to explore each destination thoroughly and to experience the local culture.” Finally, acting under “leave no trace” is an excellent way to live and travel. The basic premise is that wherever you go, you leave nothing behind but your footsteps.


Our planet is a magical wondrous place filled with both natural beauty and amazing achievements built by humans. Taking the time to travel in a way that both benefits the Earth and the people in more developing countries can help begin to pay off the climate debt owed.