Equity and the End of Emissions

We have choices to make. Bringing greenhouse gas emissions down to a fraction of current levels will take an ongoing worldwide effort that engages all nations and touches all lives. We can fail to slash emissions, or fail even to try. We can try risky geoengineering schemes or simply hope to brave the heat and storms to come. Or we can adopt a positive attitude about preventing future emissions and adapting collectively to past ones, and we can get to work.

We live in exciting times and can rise to the occasion. We have handed ourselves a problem we can solve only by learning new ways to live and to cooperate for a common goal. It could be a good thing. But by any measure the 10 months leading up to the Copen hagen negotiations on the next climate agreement offer one last opening—any other 10 months might come too late—to seal a deal that can save the global climate for the next century and beyond.

One proposal gaining attention in advance of Copenhagen sets out to integrate emissions reductions and climate change adaptation with a "right to sustainable development." Called Greenhouse Development Rights and jointly developed by a U.S. group, EcoEquity, and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the concept is designed to share in fair ways the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions while shielding the poor from potentially high costs. It would base climate-related obligations on a national Responsibility and Capacity Indicator. Responsibility would reflect each country's contribution to the climate problem and be defined in terms of cumulative per capita greenhouse gas emissions from a specific date, perhaps 1990. Capacity would reflect each country's ability to help deal with the climate problem without sacrificing necessities and be defined in terms of national income.38

The indicator index combines these two pillars of the climate convention with a simple but critical adjustment: income below a "development threshold" of $7,500 per capita does not count in the calculation of capacity, and emissions corresponding to consumption below that income threshold do not count in the calculation of responsibility. This figure, the proposal developers note, is modestly higher than a global poverty line, to reflect a level of welfare that is beyond basic needs, though well short of today's levels of "affluent" consumption.39

The Greenhouse Development Rights framework thereby accommodates developing countries' claim that their development and poverty eradication must trump solving the climate problem. But it does so in a

Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate nuanced way. It assesses capacity and responsibility at the level ofindividuals, in a manner that takes explicit account of the unequal distribution of income within countries. It thus confronts a key obstacle to negotiating an agreement that few other proposals even acknowledge: many reasonably wealthy and high-emitting individuals live in poor countries. Their income above $7,500 per person per year would count in assessing each country's capacity to respond to climate change.

This graduated approach to climate-change-related obligations eliminates the need for a simplistic division of the world into industrial and developing countries. While it deviates from a division of the world's countries established in the Framework Convention on Climate Change and fortified in subsequent negotiations, it also takes the negotiations beyond one of the key stumbling blocks. After all, there is no reason why living in a country with an average income at the poverty level should excuse wealthy and high-emitting people from curtailing their emissions and contributing toward climate change adaptation efforts.

The nuanced treatment of countries' real differences, and the focus on a right to development and the principles of capacity and responsibility, may prove the ultimate strength of this and similar future approaches. Requiring developing countries to take on commitments only in proportion to the responsibilities and capacities oftheir wealthy and high-emitting populations offers the potential for a compromise that a diversity of countries could eventually endorse.

In practical terms, the emissions cuts needed to avoid a warming in the range of2 degrees Celsius or more would be so radical that under the Greenhouse Development Rights proposal the world's wealthier countries and individuals would have to finance emissions reductions in low-income coun tries long after the emissions in industrial nations bottomed out near zero. Will the wealthy and fortunate ever take on such obligations to save the world's climate? As the proposal's authors note, if they won't, no one else will.

Taking on such obligations will be more likely ifwealthier countries and a climate pact itself can ease and make economically attractive a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable sources. There are plenty of attractive options governments and private-sector investors can move forward aggressively and immediately—especially improvements in energy efficiency and electrical power generation through wind, solar energy, and geo-thermal energy. (See Chapter 4.) People do not really want carbon-based power per se, after all; what they want is power itself, whether at the flip ofa light switch or the turn ofa key in the ignition of the family car.

One promising mechanism to kick-start this shift, at least in the electricity production sector, is a concept known as feed-in tariffs or renewable energy payments. Already more than 40 nations, states, and provinces have enacted feed-in laws. These generally guarantee anyone who produces electricity with renewable sources priority access to the electricity grid and long-term premium payments for their electricity, thus reducing the insecurity of investment in renewable sources and technologies. Another approach, even simpler, is to root out and close off all government incentives that boost combustion of carbon-based fuels and other greenhouse-gas-intense activities. In the 1990s, a World Bank report estimated that such subsidies cost taxpayers an estimated $210 billion a year and prompted 7 percent of all global CO2 emissions.40

An idea that still waits to be more prominently touted is the concept of "shadow carbon pricing." Ideally, a climate agreement

Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate should contribute to a uniform high and rising global price for carbon dioxide that would both discourage release of the gases into the air and raise revenues for adaptation and further emissions reductions. But until the world's nations are ready for such a step, institutions from the World Bank to NGOs should pick a number—any number, almost— to define an imaginary or shadow price for a ton of the gas. Then the shadow carbon cost of any activity, from building a power plant to driving a gas-guzzler to the local convenience store, could be calculated and publicized. The point? Simply to educate the public about how deeply greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in daily living and the global economy and to prepare the way for eventual real costs applied to these emissions.

As human-induced climate change becomes increasingly palpable everywhere, people in all walks of life will grow weary of unfulfilled promises to reduce greenhouse gases at the margins. With enough public pressure, nations may find ways to push each other into action commensurate to the threat. In today's globalized society, few countries can manage without free trade, but trade should be freest among the nations that jointly commit to act forcefully to save the climate. The task is doable; of all the hundreds of scientists presenting diverse opinions on the climate problem, no prominent one has spoken up to say it is already too late to act.

The world needs to prepare to work cooperatively to adapt for serious and disruptive climate change beyond what has already been seen—while still preventing potentially cataclysmic changes. The approach may combine both cap and trade mechanisms, within and among countries and industrial sectors, and domestically focused carbon taxes. The latter may be refunded to people as dividends, thereby softening the regressive nature of the tax and building a constituency for the needed global anti-carbon price tilt. Also needed, even in an era of higher prices on carbon, may be some old-fashioned regulation of energy and industry practices where such governmental nudges can make an important difference at low cost.

Ideally, a climate agreement should contribute to a uniform high and rising global price for carbon dioxide that would discourage release of the gases and raise revenues for adaptation and further emissions reductions.

There is nothing inherently incompatible about applying all three of these diverse approaches—cap and trade, carbon taxes, and regulation—to the task of wringing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases out of the growing global economy. Nor is there any reason that industrial countries should not take on the lion's share of the load in helping developing countries reduce both their emissions and their vulnerability to human-induced climate change—with an understanding that wealthy people in developing countries have special responsibilities as well and that eventually economic development will both empower and obligate most of the world to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps this will turn into a world of fortified nations dealing individually with a warming climate and rising seas as best as they can while defending themselves against desperate neighbors. But as Hurricane Kat-rina in 2005 and the heat wave that killed thousands in France two years earlier demonstrate, the wealthiest nations are quite vulnerable to extreme weather events. Ultimately, to reduce climate risk the world will need to work toward a negotiated framework based on the equal right of all people to use the

Sealing the Deal to Save the Climate common atmosphere while advancing themselves economically. Even in the near term, the climate negotiating process could inspire— perhaps among a coalition of NGOs—development of a metric similar to shadow carbon pricing that builds an ongoing tally of who uses what "atmospheric space" on a per capita basis for a future allocation process that remains to be imagined.

This approach could be called "no loss— for the present—but no promises about the future." Simply by raising public awareness that everyone will need some day to contribute financing in proportion to excessive emissions today, and by developing an accounting system to illustrate and measure the growing burden of future payments, it may be possible to stimulate new pressure to shift away from carbon-based energies and create new innovations in carbon trading. That is just one unconventional idea to help unravel the post-Kyoto Protocol negotiations puzzle. There will be many more.

It helps that shifting away from fossil fuels will also mean shifting away from their rising costs as demand outstrips shrinking supplies as well as shifting away from the immense human and environmental costs of coal mining (and mining accidents), oil drilling, oil spills, and air pollution and the respiratory problems it causes. It helps, too, that some of the most abundant renewable energy resources—intense sun and high winds—can be found in developing countries.

In addressing the climate change that humans are causing, people may learn lessons to help them face the many other problems that stem from humanity's growing presence and appetite on a resource-constrained planet. While Earth and its envelope of air are fixed, there are no known limitations on the social sphere. In the century to come, people may well have to retreat from rising seas, to recycle most wastewater, to restore and cultivate ravaged soils, and to build cities that can survive brutal storms.

But if we act soon, shrewdly and with a commitment to fairness for all, there may still be time to keep nature and ourselves intact and even thriving despite the changes we will see. We may step safely into a manageably warming world, with a new appreciation of our common humanity and what we can accomplish together.

Solar Power

Solar Power

Start Saving On Your Electricity Bills Using The Power of the Sun And Other Natural Resources!

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment