How do we all share growth and atmosphere equitably?

Climate change is linked to emissions, in turn to economic growth. Limiting emissions is then about limiting growth. Thus, sharing growth between nations has been the main bugbear. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change expressed the principle of equity by enjoining countries to take action based on common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.


Consider the past
Climate change is about cumulative historical emissions—
a tonne of CO2 released in 1850 is equal to a tonne of CO2 released today. Rich countries account for about seven out of every 10 tonnes of CO2 that have been emitted since the start of the industrial era. Historical emissions amount to about 1,100 tonnes of CO2 per capita for the UK and the US, compared with 66 tonnes per capita for China and 23 tonnes per capita for India.

Historical burden
Share of global CO2 emissions, 1840-2006 (per cent)


 
Even at present:
Rich countries are still the major emitters of total CO2. Between 1980 and 2005, the total emissions of the US were almost double that of China and more than seven times that of India.

The current emissions from developed countries are still very high: with just 15 per cent of the world population, they account for 45 per cent of CO2 emissions

Cumulative emissions: 1980-2005
(million tonnes of CO2)

 
 
Unequal world While China may be about to overtake the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, its per capita emissions are just one-fifth that of the US. Emissions from India are increasing. Even so, its per capita carbon footprint is less than one-tenth of that in high-income countries. The per capita increase for Canada since 1990 (five tonnes) is higher than per capita emissions of China in 2005 (4.1 tonnes) Per capita CO2 emissions, 2005


Enlarge image
Big emitter and small emitter
When we are talking about action to manage climate change, can we compare US and India?

The per capita increase in emissions, between 1990 and 2005, in the US is three-fourths of India’s total per capita emissions in 2005. The current per capita emissions of the US is almost 20 times higher than India’s
 
 
Equity for all


The fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that to avoid serious ecological and economic damage, the global temperature should not exceed 2°C from the pre-industrial level—it has already increased 0.74°C. This in turn needs CO2 concentration not to exceed 350-400 parts per million (ppm). But this touched 379 ppm in 2005. If the world is to remain within the 2°C target, there is limited scope for future emissions.

The global budget is extremely tight. The question is how to share it. Over the years, different proposals have been presented. These have been based either on current and future emissions or historical emission burdens of different nations.

Current and future emissions
Three methods have been proposed under this approach:

l The sinks approach requires that the world not emit more than what the sinks can absorb. In 1991, the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (cse) proposed the concept of equal per capita entitlement based on available sinks on land and in oceans. Those on land are national property, but the oceans, which absorb around two billion tonnes of carbon (tC) each year, are global commons to which all people have an equal entitlement. Once entitlements are defined, low-level polluters would have an incentive to keep their emissions growth path low: trade unused emissions rights to high-level polluters.

l The budget approach requires an upper limit of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and sets down the year by which this limit must be reached. This gives a budget of total emissions to be distributed equitably among nations on per capita basis. A country not using its quota in a given year can trade it.

l The convergence approach agrees on a per capita emission level to meet the 2°C target. This would provide each person about two tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) per year. Countries above this limit would have to cut emissions, while those below it would have the opportunity to increase emissions.

Historical emissions approach
While it industrialized over the past 150 years, the developed world emitted much more greenhouse gases (ghgs) than developing countries. This historical inequity can be accounted for in a number of ways to create equal entitlements.

l In 1989, the International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths proposed that if the climate system was to remain stable, the world could emit no more than 428 billion tC between 1950 and 2100. Nations would share this budget on a per capita basis over the same period. If developing countries continued to emit CO2 at their 1986 rate, the project said, their quota would not get over till 2241. Developed nations had already used their quota by 1986.

l A few months before the 1997 Kyoto agreement, Brazil proposed that emissions targets be determined on the basis of contribution to temperature increase up to 1990. This put the focus on industrialized countries; while they were responsible for 75 per cent of the total emissions, their share for temperature increase was 88 per cent. The proposal required that countries falling short of their targets be fined us $3.33 for each extra emission unit. The money thus accrued would go into a fund to finance mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries.

l In 1990, Kirk Smith formerly of the University of California’s School of Public Health introduced the concept of natural debt, which accounted for cumulative emissions of each country from 1950. Just as there are economic disruptions when the financial debt grows too large, there will be ecological disruptions if the natural debt is too large, Smith argued. He showed the industrialized countries to be the largest natural debtors. He also showed that the international press’s current villains, India and China, will take decades to match the us in terms of natural debt. For instance, by 2025, India’s natural debt will be five times less than that of the US.

Today, seriously constrained by the amount of emissions it can put out in the atmosphere, governments of the rich world would like to rewrite the principle of burden sharing agreed in Rio. But civil society groups are proposing alternatives, which need to be considered and examined.

Recent moves
With the issue of burden sharing being debated for a post-2012 agreement, new frameworks have been proposed by civil society groups

Cap and share
The model, proposed earlier this year by the Ireland-based Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, requires that the world first agree to a maximum emissions level from burning fossil fuels. Once the emissions cap is fixed, emission levels for a year would be shared equally among the global adult population. Each individual would receive a pollution authorization permit which could be sold at market rates. Fossil fuel companies could buy permits from financial institutions to cover emissions from their products.

The amount of permissible emissions would be lowered each year so that it was under levels that could destabilize the climate. A yearly reduction of emission allowances would increase the market value of permits, raising incomes of the poor—who emit less—and enabling them to buy expensive food and fuel. Its proponents say that the cap-and-share model offers an orderly market-based path to manage the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy. The drawback of this approach is that it does not account for historical emissions.

Greenhouse Development Rights (GDR):
A proposal to consider seriously.
Read more about GDR and CSE’s critique


 
Editor's page
The just framework for climate
By Sunita Narain
Let’s cut to the chase. If we are serious about climate change then we have to be serious about changing (drastically) the way the world generates and uses its energy. But even as the rich world talks glibly about ‘decarbonisation’ of its economy it has done precious little to reinvent its energy system and to wean itself from its fossil fuel addiction. Between 1990 and 2005, emissions from fossil fuel have actually increased, in these countries. In this period, their emissions from energy industries have increased by 24 per cent and from transport by a massive 28 per cent. The only reductions, marginal at that, have been in the manufacturing and construction sectors, which many would say is only because production has moved to China and other countries.
Read more

 
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