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One way to decide how nations reduce their carbon footprint

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / July 8, 2009

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pose for a photo at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy,

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When it comes to reducing human-emitted greenhouse gases, it's all about fairness. By how much should rich nations reduce their carbon footprint? By how much poorer nations, for whom a reduction may hurt much more?

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That's been a constant foil in climate negotiations so far, including, it seems, the ongoing G8 meeting in Italy. Monitor colleague Pete Spotts gives a good rundown of what's at stake here about the climate.  And so far, the news hasn't been good.

According to The New York Times:

The world’s major industrial nations and emerging powers failed to agree Wednesday on significant cuts in heat-trapping gases by 2050, unraveling an effort to build a global consensus to fight climate change, according to people following the talks.

In a later paragraph, the Times says:

The breakdown on climate change underscored the difficulty in bridging divisions between the most developed countries like the United States and developing nations like China and India. In the end, people close to the talks said, the emerging powers refused to agree to the limits because they wanted industrial countries to commit to midterm goals in 2020 and to follow through on promises of financial and technological help.

Enter a team of Princeton University scientists. The team includes the creators of the "stabilization wedge" concept made famous by Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

In the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, they outline a way to divide the responsibility for carbon emissions fairly among nations, to get past the finger-pointing that has so far stymied talks, and to get on with the already overdue job of mitigating the buildup of heat-trapping gases in Earth's atmosphere.

Recently, it's become apparent that developing countries contribute more than half of all carbon emissions, a share that's growing. The authors attempt to circumvent the inevitable developed-versus-developing-nation quagmire by operating on a simple principle: Go after high carbon-emitting individuals, not nations.

That, they say, gets at the heart of the problem: a few, generally richer, people burn through a disproportionately large share of the world's fossil fuels. But they live scattered throughout the world, not in any one country. They – not the comparatively poorer majority – are responsible for an outsize share of human-emitted carbon dioxide.

How large?

The authors estimate that half the world's emission come from just 700 million people, about 10.4 percent of the world population. (By 2030, this group of "high emitters" will have grown to 1 billion people of 8.1 billion.)

Go after them, say the authors, by establishing a hard cap on what an individual can emit anywhere, and letting individual countries decide how to tamp down on their citizens' emissions. The cap will depend on our goals.

Right now, every human being on the planet is associated with some 5 tons of CO2. Of course, that figure masks the reality of extreme variation in emissions. Europeans produce 10 tons per year. Americans average 20. But if, for example, the goal is to stabilize at today's CO2 levels by 2030 – around 387 ppm – then, say the authors, the cap should be set at 11 tons of carbon dioxide per year per person.

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