One way to decide how nations reduce their carbon footprint

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,

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?

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.

What happens in this scenario? The US and China still get the largest "abatement assignments." But India pretty much has a "free pass." Surprisingly, as a whole, Africa doesn't, however. That's because of carbon-intense lifestyles in South Africa, and a concentration of energy industries North African nations. Middle Eastern nations and Russia also get a significant carbon homework assignment due to their energy industries.

There's also the possibility of a "floor," a bottom limit below which emitters are exempt from co2 reduction strategies – say 1 ton per year. Here's why, they say in the paper:

Establishing such a floor has the consequence of shielding the lowest one-third of the world’s emitters from the CO2 reduction strategies that will need to permeate the activities of the other two-thirds of the world’s population to achieve significant global CO2 emission reductions. The world’s lowest emitters would not be thwarted from obtaining diesel engines to produce their first electricity for lighting, television, and the charging of batteries; gasoline fuel for their first motorized transport; and liquid petroleum gas for their first modern cooking fuel—where these technologies are the lowest-cost options.

Of the idea, Ottmar Edenhofer, a professor at the Technical University Berlin not involved in the research, and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III, told a Daily Climate reporter: "These numbers strengthen our conviction that industrialized countries will have to take the lead in reducing their emissions, but that the fight to prevent dangerous climate change can only be won if all countries act together."

Larry Susskind, a professor of environmental planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology also not involved in the study, told the Daily Climate: "It's ingenious[....] It's a great way to shift the conversation."

It's worth pointing out that our federal income taxation scheme works along similar lines. Under our "progressive tax," the more money a person earns, the higher the percentage of income the government takes. With the intent of illuminating the carbon debate, it's worth unpacking the thinking behind this arrangement. First, higher-income people can afford to pay more without impacting their own essential necessities, the thinking goes, like food and shelter. A greater share of their money is disposable income.

Second – and there's certainly much quarreling surrounding this assertion – richer people benefit more from the infrastructure that their taxes supports; it follows that they should pay for more of it.

And third, in both cases – taxes and the so-far unsuccessful carbon mitigation schemes – there's an implicit recognition that as citizens of a single nation in one case, and of a single planet in the other, we're all in this together. No one benefits from the presumed social decay that ensues when a government that can't provide the necessary infrastructure. And no one – or few – will benefit from the fights over water, the flooding of coastal cities,  and the sundry other upheavals predicted in "business as usual" climate change scenarios.

In the case of progressive taxation, society has recognized that while no one benefits from decaying infrastructure, richer people can do a lot more than poorer ones to shore it up. That's why they're taxed more.

The authors of this study make a similar argument for addressing climate change. High emitters, who tend to be richer, can do more to mitigate climate change than poorer without overextending their pocketbooks.

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