This morning one of my interns came into my office and asked about the Green Climate Fund that President Trump claimed was unfair to the United States when he withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. Putting aside that he didn’t seem to understand the numbers, it does beg the question, “Why should America have to pay anything when China is emitting more than us and all these other countries also have a role to play?” I provided her with this allegory:

Consider this thought experiment:

John owns a house with a lawn. His buddy Rex owns a garage next door where he changes oil in vehicles. Every day for the past twenty years Rex has been dumping used motor oil on John’s lawn. At 2 quarts of oil a day (he works slowly), even if he takes 4 weeks of vacation in France every year, over 20 years that adds up to a lot of oil on John’s lawn. John even pours some quarts of oil onto his own lawn once in a while, it’s easy after all. In fact, a few years ago some of the other folks on the block had oil to get rid of so they started leaving it at John’s house too. They weren’t mechanics so they only dumped a little every week.

In the last week Jim from across town started his own garage and started carting his oil over to John’s house, dumping 5 quarts of oil a day (he was a faster worker than Rex). John’s lawn suffered. The oil spilled over into his neighbor’s yard, making them sick. His dog’s hair fell out.

Rex, meanwhile, had built a ditch around his property so the oil he was adding to John’s yard didn’t run back onto his garage’s parking lot. He was doing well. After all, he hadn’t had to pay an environmental fee to get rid of his oil. He lived in a big house farther down the street so although the smell of the oil was annoying he could get away. He’d also used some of his profits to try out some new-fangled synthetic oil, which just evaporated when removed from the car! He even started teaching other folks how to change their car’s oil more efficiently.

Eventually John realized that this oil was affecting him – 97% of the doctors he went to said it was the cause of the weird rash on his skin and his neighbor’s ailments. The vet said the oil caused his dog’s hair to fall out. John decided something needed to be done. He gathered up all the people who had been dumping oil on his lawn and said “this is not sustainable, I am living in a house surrounded by a lake of oil! My grass won’t grow, it smells terrible and I have this gross rash! Oh, and my neighbor is sick and can’t afford medical care. We need to stop putting oil here.”

So what would be a fair solution?

Your initial thought might be, “Well, stop dumping any oil at all!” But there’s no infrastructure set up in the town (after all everyone had just been dumping it on John’s lawn) and it would take time to build it. So, they convinced John to let them keep dumping it, at least until there was an alternative. The new, synthetic oil had been gaining popularity so they decided to develop a solution that would allow everyone to wean off of the oil over time. But how should it happen? Should everyone stop at the same rate? Rex was a lot wealthier than everyone else, and was dumping a lot every week, should he reduce the amount he was dumping faster than, say, Sally? What about the (unnamed) neighbors’ medical bills? Should the dumpers help them out? The neighbors hadn’t dumped any oil and yet were suffering the most.

If you look at the amount of oil dumped last week it looks like Jim is the biggest culprit so you might say he needs to be the one to reduce his dumping. Or you might say everyone needs to cut their amount in half – just to be fair.

However, if you were to look at it over time, you might choose a cap – everyone can only dump 40 quarts of oil a year. And even though that’ll impact Rex more than anyone else you decide that’s okay because Rex is rich and can afford the more expensive synthetic oil.

Or you might look at the total amount of oil dumped over the past 20 years and decide, “Wow, Rex dumped WAY more oil than anyone else, even after he knew it was bad for the lawn.” You also might decide he should pay for some of the clean-up. Maybe even the neighbor’s medical bills.

But he doesn’t think that’s fair because he’s already worked hard to be more efficient and switch to synthetic oil. Plus he doesn’t have the money to pay for the cleanup or the medical bills (don’t they have insurance for that?) – after all he’s spent most of the money he’d earned building his new house.

What do you think would be fair?
So how does this relate to the Paris Climate Accord and the Green Climate Fund? Consider this diagram:

This is a snapshot. This is the equivalent to last week’s oil dumping in our fictional town. China is like Jim, the biggest dumper.

Then consider this graph:

This shows how the US and the EU, like Rex have been emitting carbon for a lot longer than China.

Lastly, consider this graph:

GDP is a proxy for wealth showing that the US, like Rex, has been in business for a long time and is much wealthier than China, who like Jim, recently joined the industrial revolution.

This graph kind of says it all:

Interested in reading more?

Check out these graphs of global carbon emissions:

The Stockholm Environment Institute has developed an equity share approach to addressing the competing needs of countries to develop and to reduce emissions. See their report here:

You can also watch a video of Sivan Kartha, the lead author, explaining the basis.

Design your own solution with the World Resources Institute Equity Explorer!