Prof Henry Shue – Climate Mitigation and Subsistence Protection

PTRG 13 Oct 2017

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

We are delighted to have invited Professor Henry Shue from Oxford University as the presenter for PTRG yesterday.  In the presented paper, Professor Shue critically reflects upon his earlier argument: that it is important to make a distinction between ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’, and that this distinction should be incorporated into climate policy intended to achieve mitigation.  ‘Subsistence emissions’ are emissions necessary for securing the basic right to subsistence, whereas ‘luxury emissions’ are those that exceed a minimally adequate level of emission.  According to Professor Shue, it is morally unacceptable to ask the poor to sacrifice subsistence emissions so that the affluent can maintain their luxury emissions. 

In the first half of the paper, Professor Shue shows that the mentioned distinction can be practically operationalised in the form of climate policy.  To show this, Professor highlights several ways to incorporate the consideration of the subsistence right and subsistence emissions into climate policy.

In the latter half of the paper, Professor discusses two things.  First, he admits that we must eliminate fossil-fuel emissions including subsistence emissions very soon by making a rapid transition to a decarbonised energy regime.  But he also argues that, if we are to mitigate emissions using the market mechanism (e.g. a ‘cap-and-trade’ scheme), then we should do so in such a way as to protect the energy needs of the poor.  Again, his point is that climate policy should incorporate some protection for the subsistence emissions of the poor.

Meanwhile, Professor also notes that ‘subsistence emissions’ are not the substance of an inalienable human right.  What is an inalienable human right is the basic right to ‘subsistence’.  But, he continues, there may be circumstances in which social provision for subsistence is possible only by generating carbon emissions.  In such special circumstances, there should be an institution that confers upon the poor a legal right to subsistence emissions.  Or, as Professor admits later, there should be the international redistribution of wealth that enables the poor to escape poverty without emitting a lot.

Second, Professor also gives attention to recent change in circumstances.  There used to be a situation in which rabid decarbonisation was not something we could expect soon to occur.  But now, he explains, there seems to exist broad agreement on the goal of rapid decarbonisation, and, in certain places, non-carbon energy (e.g. solar) is as affordable as, or more affordable than, fossil-fuel energy.  It now seems possible to move to a decarbonised energy regime.  Therefore, we may think that to talk about subsistence emissions is no longer relevant today.  But Professor Shue thinks that this is not true.  There are two reasons why it isn’t, he explains.

First, although we now have a clearer picture of various paths to a decarbonised global economy, we have not yet reached their destination.  So, for the time being, political theorists need to discuss how much each country ought to reduce emissions, and how much each country is permitted to emit and why.  Answers to these questions enable us to evaluate what each country proposes to do to mitigate emissions, and what each country actually does to serve that end.  For example, the 2015 Paris Agreement allows each state to decide what commitments it will make.  But this agreement does not have an enforcement mechanism.  What we need to make such an agreement meaningful is to subject what each state proposes and what it does to moral evaluation.  And for this moral evaluation, we need to consider how much each country ought to mitigate, and how much each country is permitted to emit and why.

Also, consideration of subsistence emissions enables us to identify people who have no choice but to increase emissions in order to escape poverty.  After identifying them, we can proceed to ask this question: how do we provide another option that allows the poor to escape poverty without emitting a lot?

Second, even if that option has been provided (e.g. through the redistribution of access to non-carbon energy), and therefore subsistence emissions cease to exist, subsistence is a relevant factor to consider.  This is because subsistence may be threatened by new issues such as negative emission technologies.  Such technologies may be land- and water-intensive, and therefore may conflict with the use of land and water for food production (subsistence means).  So, if we are to use such technologies, we should also consider their effects on people’s subsistence.

Finally, Professor notes that the more aggressive mitigation we engage in now the less land- or water-intensive future negative emission schemes will become.  This is another reason why we should make robust mitigation efforts now.


Photo: Yuki Iwaki

The ensuing discussion covered a lot of constructive questions and comments.  Aren’t there several complications that may make it difficult to draw a distinction between subsistence emissions and luxury emissions?  To reduce emissions, do we not need to change our present consumerist lifestyles and make a transition to a non-capitalist economic system?  How could we achieve poverty eradication and fossil-fuel elimination at the same time?  How could we speed up a transition to a decarbonised energy regime?  Would unmarketable emission permits, which Professor discusses, serve to meet different needs of different individuals?  In devising and evaluating policy, should we put too much moral emphasis on emissions when what is really at stake is, more broadly, the means of subsistence not confined to emissions?  Should we not broaden our focus to incorporate all the complex issues behind poverty and climate change (e.g. consumerism, capitalism, etc.)?  Should we propose a change that people would not refuse to comply with?  Or should we propose a change that is actually needed to accomplish what has to be accomplished?  Isn’t it subsistence ‘energy’, rather than subsistence ‘emissions’, that Professor actually wants to discuss?  If so, could he not have focused on everyone’s entitlement to subsistence energy (grounded in everyone’s inalienable human right to subsistence), and asked who should be held responsible for ensuring that energy is renewable?  Professor answered each of these questions very carefully, not only from a normative perspective, but from a pragmatic perspective as well.

The paper will appear in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, edited now in Edinburgh University’s Politics and International Relations Department.  The paper will be a meaningful contribution to a difficult but serious question that humanity must address here and now: how to break through the present carbon-intensive global economy.


Written by Yuki Iwaki


Henry Shue is Professor Emeritus of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.  He is also Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for International Studies, and Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at Merton College, Oxford.  He is best-known for his book, Basic Rights, (Princeton 1980; 2nd edition, 1996); for his articles, ‘Torture’ (1978) and ‘Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions’ (1993).  His most recent books are Climate Justice: Vulnerability and Protection (Oxford 2014) and Fighting Hurt: Rule and Exception in Torture and War (Oxford 2016).