Payback time: international debt and the climate crisis

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Payback time: international debt and the climate crisis

Danny Chivers writes about the links between international debt and the climate crisis.


Global action: activists in London ask G7 leaders to cancel the debt of the countries in the Global South, on 26 June 2022. VUK VALCIC/ALAMY

Some big debts need paying soon. On paper, countries of the Global South owe trillions of US dollars to Northern governments, banks, and financial institutions.

But Southern activists are leading a growing movement and it is changing things. Most of these debts are not OK. Past dictators often took out the debts and with crazy high interest rates. This makes it impossible to repay them. But more than this, campaigners are saying that the North owes a real and greater debt to the South, for hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, and the effects of the climate crisis.

Cancelling the debts of the Global South would be a first step towards paying for these greater damages. It would also reduce the pressure for countries to extract more fossil fuels to pay for their immediate debts, and free up money for a just and self-determined change to green energy. Esteban Servat is an Argentinian scientist and spokesperson for the Debt for Climate campaign. He says, ‘Debt is a key tool of colonialism. The North asks for big interest rates from the Global South. It’s like a knee on your neck that doesn’t let you breathe.’

These debts and high interest rates support the fossil-fuel industry. ‘When we have these anti-mining or anti-fracking campaigns, we’re often not strong enough to fight them one by one. But debt is common to all of these campaigns, and by targeting debt we can bring all the protests together – especially the worker unions of the South. They are so important to this.’

There were successful campaigns in the early 2000s that cancelled some debts for the worst-hit countries. But the Global South’s debts rose from 90 per cent to 170 per cent of GDP between 1990 and 2019. In 2020, Southern countries spent $372 billion paying for debts, and Covid-19 made the problem worse.

There are other problems with many of these debts. In Argentina, the last government took out multi-billion-dollar loans with the idea that they could pay back the debt with the fracking of the big Vaca Muerta shale mine. Esteban Servat was in the protest against the fracking – there were big protests and the criminalization of activists. There were death threats against him and his family and so he had to leave the country. Vaca Muerta is one of 425 ‘carbon bombs’: fossil-fuel projects with the possibility to emit at least one gigatonne of CO2 over their lifetime. Over 60 per cent of these projects are in poorer countries with very big debts.

Esteban says that cancelling debt is not the only demand of the Debt for Climate campaign. The campaign calls for the North to pay climate reparations to the South, and for governments to follow the climate finance promises made in the Paris Agreement. ‘Cancelling the debt may not be enough to pay for the change to green energy. But it’s an important first step, and it can help to build the powerful movement we need,’ he says. In July 2022, Debt for Climate’s activity around the G7 Summit saw actions in 24 countries – with unions taking a leading role, particularly in Latin America. They are planning more action to target the UN COP27 climate summit in November 2022 in Egypt. Egypt also has big debts and it is extracting fossil gas to help pay for them and at the same time the climate crisis is affecting the country badly.

Learn more at, and follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @DebtforClimate


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)