Public debt and intergenerational ethics: how to fund a clean technology 'Apollo program'?

Climate Policy 21 (7):976-82 (2021)
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If the present generation refuses to bear the burden of mitigating global heating, could we motivate sufficient action by shifting that burden to our descendants? Several writers have proposed breaking the political impasse by funding mitigation through public debt. Critics attack such proposals as both unjust and infeasible. In fact, there is reason to think that some debt financing may be more equitable than placing the whole burden of mitigation on the present generation. While it might not be viable for all countries to take this route simultaneously, a vanguard state, or group of states, could use public debt to fund an ambitious programme to develop inexpensive forms of clean low- or no-emission technology. This would ensure that vanguard actor or set of actors a leading role in those sectors while at the same time benefiting future generations around the world. Key policy insights: (a) Debt-financed clean technology research can shift part of the burden of greenhouse gas mitigation to our descendants, breaking the political impasse of inaction or delayed action. (b) Far from being an injustice to future generations, this could actually be fairer than expecting the present generation to bear the full burden of mitigation. (c) Such an initiative may be most feasible if pursued by a vanguard actor.

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Matthew Rendall
University of Nottingham


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