Sufficientarianism in the greenhouse: The capability threshold and the distribution of greenhouse gas emission permits

Wouter Peeters

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Climate change represents one of the most serious challenges facing humankind in the 21st century. Its effects on human life include increased mortality (related to, for example, the increased frequency and magnitude of heatwaves), food and water insecurity, the spread and exacerbation of diseases, conflicts resulting from resource scarcity, and increased migration. Hence, unabated climate change poses a significant threat to people's lives and capabilities. One of the major issues inherent to the climate change debate is the question how to fairly distribute the limited permits to emit greenhouse gases under the presumption of a global cap. In this context, Henry Shue has made a normative distinction between subsistence and luxury emissions: whereas minimum vital emissions should be handed out for free in order not to make the life of the poor impossible, emission permits beyond the necessity threshold should be paid for, implying that the rich would bear the burden of climate change mitigation. However, this proposal encounters some objections. Most importantly, identifying the permission to emit greenhouse gases as a human right cannot provide a successful solution to the climate problem, since climate change mitigation crucially depends on the lowering of emissions, rather than on guaranteeing them. If subsistence emissions are deemed morally essential, then they have to be guaranteed, even if this leads to an overall allocation above the scientific optimum. Moreover, emissions only have an instrumental value in pursuing various goals and it is therefore implausible that people would have a human right to emit.

The latter objection is inspired by the capability approach's criticism of resourcism in general. Sen, Nussbaum and other capability theorists have convincingly argued that resourcist accounts focus on means rather than ends, whereas quality of life should be conceived as a relationship between persons and goods, in order to accommodate the interpersonal variations that govern the conversion of resources into ends. Yet, in contrast with an egalitarian distribution of resources - including greenhouse gas emission permits - the sufficientarian account sketched above is able to accommodate these interpersonal variations. Sufficientarianism is also central to Nussbaum's idea of a capability threshold, beneath which it is held that truly human functioning compatible with human dignity is not possible. The goal of social policies should be understood in terms of providing people with the means necessary to reach that threshold level. This approach is incomplete, however, since Nussbaum does not address issues of inequality above the minimum threshold. Moreover, the precise determination of the threshold remains a matter of further investigation, and can be done differently by each nation, in accordance with its history and traditions. Finally, Nussbaum warns against the pitfalls of utopianism (specifying the threshold so high that it is virtually impossible to meet) and lack of ambition (setting a low threshold that is easy to meet, but less than what human dignity requires).

Our aim in this paper is to elaborate on the sufficientarianism that is central to both accounts of distributive justice. We will argue that they can complement each other, since Nussbaum's account focuses on social justice and Shue's emphasis is on environmental sustainability, and both are essential for a comprehensive account of sustainable human development. Moreover, to some extent, a combination of the two can meet the challenges that each of them encounters separately. On the one hand, taking the capability threshold as point of departure shifts the focus on the ends (promoting and securing people's capabilities) rather than on the means (the emissions) to pursue these ends. We will argue that this feature emphasizes the necessity of environmentally sustainable development. On the other hand, the focus on emission permits highlights the environmental preconditions for enjoying capabilities, which is a remaining lacuna in the capabilities approach. Moreover, Nussbaum does not deal with inequalities above the threshold, although the unbridled lifestyles of the consumption elites are unsustainable. A focus on a global emission cap would enable us to address this incompleteness. Finally, we will discuss some of the remaining challenges to sufficientarianism in general and make some tentative suggestions as regards the threshold determination in view of the requirements of environmental sustainability.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2013 HDCA Conference: Human Development: Vulnerability, inclusion and wellbeing
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventUnknown -
Duration: 1 Jan 2013 → …


Period1/01/13 → …


  • capabilities
  • climate change
  • greenhouse gas emission permits
  • distributive justice


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