The Economist says a new approach may be needed in which high-polluting people, instead of countries, are targeted. Citing a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which argues that it’s “rich people, rather than rich countries, who need to change the most,” the Economist says the paper’s authors “suggest setting a cap on total emissions, and then converting that cap into a global per-person limit. This would be low enough that if everyone stuck to it, the worldwide target would be met.”
While difficult to implement across and within countries, this type of formula would put the onus on the world’s worst polluters to address their own carbon emission levels, which would perhaps help distribute mitigation costs more equitably. “Each country would then have the task of reducing its national consumption according to its number of ‘high emitters’—people with an extravagant output of carbon. Such individuals are scarce in India, more common in China, and common in America. If the goal were to cap emissions at 30 billion tonnes in 2030, say, that would mean squeezing the behaviour of some 1.1 billion ‘high emitters’ worldwide. So the high-living, carbon-guzzling rich minority in India and China would not be able to hide behind their poor and carbon-thrifty compatriots.”
The Economist wrote that dicussions at the recent G-8 meeting held in Italy proved “fractious” because India and other developing countries argue they should be able to take up the same share of the “carbon space” as the developed world has taken. “Past emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases from rich countries have taken up much of that space. Now the poor countries are standing up for their right to a little bit of that space too.” The Economist says: “Put in those terms, it seems a matter of plain justice.”
Shyam Saran, the head of India’s negotiating team for the UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen in December, argues that India will only accept the same limit on per-person greenhouse-gas emissions as citizens from developed countries. Unfortunately, this would be extremely bad news for the global climate, as India and China together account for a large share of global population. While their emissions per person are currently low in comparison with citizens from the U.S. and Western European countries, Brazil, China, and India are all aiming for developed world living standards for a majority of their citizens. These developing countries and others agree they deserve an equal share of emissions, as they are currently tied to economic growth.
Meanwhile, developed countries recently pledge to cut their own emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as part of an effort to reduce global emissions by 50 percent (meaning developing countries would essentially make a 20 percent cut). The Economist writes: “rich countries think they have already done a lot to meet the poor world halfway.” The Economist argues that disagreements between the developed and developing worlds on emissions allocations could unravel any agreement based on “common but differentiated” responsibilities among the two sets of countries.
Image credit: PNAS