Climate Change for the Haves and the Have-Nots

by Bill Chameides | July 14th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 4 comments

How do we divvy up the work needed to avoid dangerous climate change among the countries of the world? The world’s have and have-not nations can’t seem to agree, but maybe there’s another way.

This week finds me back in D.C. at another meeting of the Committee on America’s Climate Choices; the topic this time is the international context for a U.S. strategy to deal with climate change. Coincidentally, one member of our committee, Rob Socolow, of Princeton University, has just co-written a paper with Shoibal Chakravarty (first author) and others that provides a new and potentially important context for this issue. More on that in a moment. First, the big hurdle.

The Impasse: Initial Reductions Targets Too Small for Developing Countries Sign-on

The international community agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut significantly to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate. Most recently, at the Group of 8 summit meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, countries reaffirmed the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by stabilizing carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations at 450 parts per million.

As discussed in my previous post on international issues, things get a little dicey when the discussion focuses on which country does what. There’s no problem with a consensus on the basic principle for cutting emissions — called “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Because developed countries (the haves) are responsible for much of the burden of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere today, and because the haves already enjoy high standards of living, nations agree that the developed countries should go first in reducing emissions while developing countries (the have-nots) catch up to the haves and alleviate poverty.

However, while they’ve agreed to go first, the developed countries want the developing countries to agree to get into the emissions cutting game in the not-too-distant future. The developing countries, though, find the developed nations’ near-term commitments too small and are not willing to commit to specific emissions targets themselves.

The critical round of negotiations slated for Copenhagen in December — the ones that are supposed to give the world the son of Kyoto, a bigger, better, more inclusive global treaty on climate change — rapidly approaches. But the impasse between the have and have-not countries is for now proving a thorn in Copenhagen’s side.

Sometimes when faced with an insurmountable obstacle you just have to barrel on through. Other times it’s better to just detour around it. The new paper by Chakravarty and colleagues, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests such a workaround for the international stumbling block in climate talks. It goes a little like this.

A Different Approach: Target Individual High Emitters Wherever They Are

Instead of assigning national emissions responsibilities, the authors suggest starting with individual emissions; instead of dividing the world into have and have-not nations, divide the world into have and have-not people.

Around the world, both developing and developed nations include citizens who enjoy a high standard of living, create large individual carbon footprints, and are therefore responsible for relatively high personal levels of greenhouse gas emissions. It is these emissions, the authors suggest, that should be cut regardless of where the individuals responsible for them reside. The emissions cuts of each nation would then be determined by aggregating the emissions cuts of each nation’s high emitters. To address the need for poverty alleviation, the authors also propose an individual emissions floor such that each nation gets an allotment of extra emissions to bring its people living beneath that floor up to it.

An Example of This International Fix

Chakravarty et al. illustrate the concept with an example: the world decides to cap annual emissions at 30 billion tons of CO2 in 2030 — some 13 billion tons below the estimated business-as-usual numbers. To achieve these cuts, individual emissions would have to be capped at about 11 tons of CO2 per year. (For comparison, Americans currently emit on average about 20 tons of CO2 per person per year from fossil fuel consumption (source); about seven tons of those are direct emissions from driving, and heating/cooling and lighting their homes and so forth, with another 13 tons of indirect, or embedded, emissions from the products they buy.)

Initially, most of the burden of the emission cuts would fall on the United States and the other developed countries because of the preponderance of relatively affluent people in these countries.

But things change as the developing countries’ economies grow. By 2030, it is projected that there will be about 1.1 billion people whose personal emissions will exceed the approximate 11-ton cap, and they will be roughly equally distributed between the United States, the other economically developed countries, China, and the rest of the world. At that point, in the Chakravarty approach the responsibility for cutting emissions would have to be shared among these regions.

A Path to Equity

The authors speculate that their approach could provide a path to emission equity (or convergence) over the long term as high emitters are capped and an emission floor is used to bring the impoverished up the consumption ladder. But that is only the case if each country applies its emissions reductions in a manner that actually caps its high emitters while providing emission opportunities to its emission-poor.

It’s an interesting idea; let’s see if it gets any traction in the coming months.

filed under: climate change, faculty, global warming, international, science
and: , , , , ,


All comments are moderated and limited to 275 words. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Read our Comment Guidelines for more details.

  1. Deborah
    Aug 18, 2009

    While the idea seems fair and feasible, the US will always be on the short end of the stick with regard to this issue. Most families I know are having between 0-1 children these days (myself included). We’re electing to have fewer children because it’s helping the planet. However, we have very LARGE numbers of illegal aliens that enter this country on a daily basis. Currently, Obama has plans to bring over 800,000 more a month (who knows for how many months). The point is, with such large numbers of illegals entering the US, our own CO2 emissions will grow even larger despite our efforts to curb emissions. Meanwhile, the countries that lost the illegals to us, will by the same margin lower their own emissions while not even actively trying to do so. This creates a larger burden for the US and its LEGAL citizens. If we are to maintain our current standards of living without placing extra hardships on hardworking LEGAL Americans, then we MUST demand tougher border laws and send illegals back to their own country of origin.

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 18, 2009

      Deborah, This is an interesting point. But I guess I would ask why the ‘illegals’ are coming to the U.S. One reason is because our standard of living is so high. On a per capita basis we in the U.S. emit more CO2 than the citizens of almost all the other countries in the world. We may have fewer children but our children have a far greater planetary ‘impact’ than other children. Fairness may depend upon which side of the border you live.

      • Deborah
        Aug 18, 2009

        I have nothing against those that wish to improve their quality of life via LEGAL immigration. However, that said — the land upon which we live and rely, has only so much excess in natural resources. When a population exceeds the ability of the land to support it, it lowers the quality of life for all that reside upon that land whether they’re legal or illegal.

        • Bill Chameides
          Aug 18, 2009

          Deborah, Illegal is illegal, no argument.

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff