Per capita emissions of nations should converge by 2050, says UK commission

The only way to a lasting international climate treaty is to accept equal rights of all human beings to release greenhouse gases, acknowledges a recent UK study.

Support from unexpected quarters has come as a welcome surprise for developing countries, which have been demanding that international climate change negotiations be based on the principle of equity. A study conducted by the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) says that an effective, enduring and equitable climate agreement will require greenhouse gas (GHG) emission quotas to be allocated to nations on a simple and equal per capita basis. This stand is similar to that taken by the Indian government and the G77 block of developing countries in the global climate negotiations over the past decade.

The UK government will respond formally, in writing, to the report from the RCEP, as it does to all commission reports. “That can take as much as two years, but we hope it will be within a year,” says Nicholas Schoon, press officer of the RCEP.“Also, the UK government is due to produce the final version of its climate change strategy, covering the period up to 2010, this autumn - we hope they will take our report into account when they finalise their strategy”. The formal response takes the form of a commentary on the report, an explanation of how existing policies and programmes can be reconciled with it and what new policies - if any - the government is considering in the light of the report.

Previous RCEP reports have influenced UK policy and the national debate on environmental issues, according to Schoon.  Sometimes they have led to new legislation.  Over its 30 years of existence, the commission's most influential reports have concerned exposure to lead, nuclear power, integrated pollution control (bringing together regulation of air, water and soil pollution from industrial processes) and transport.

It remains to be seen how influential the latest report on energy will turn out to be, but it will be a major shift in policy if the UK government accepts its recommendations. Like most developed countries in Europe and North America, the UK has held a position of indifference towards the South’s demand of calculate GHG emissions on per capita basis as each human being has an equal entitlement to the atmosphere.

As a system of per capita entitlements cannot enter into force immediately, the report proposes ‘contraction-and-convergence’.  “Initially shares are 'as is' i.e. approximately proportional to each country's income,” explains Aubrey Meyer from the London-based Global Commons Institute, a leading advocate of this approach. “Over an agreed future period of years however, all countries will converge on the same allocation per head of their population in a base year to be agreed.” This means the quotas of developed countries fall year by year, while those of developing countries rise until all nations emit equal amounts of greenhouse gases per head (convergence). The RCEP report proposes 2050 as the year for convergence. It will also be the cut-off date for national populations, that is, further changes in a country’s population would not affect its emission quota.

From then on, after convergence has been achieved, the quotas of all nations would decline together at the same rate (contraction). According to the report, commentators on climate diplomacy have identified contraction-and-convergence as the leading contender among the various proposals for allocating emission quotas to nations in the long run.To make an agreement based on per capita allocation quotas more feasible, the report supports emissions trading between nations. Countries that wish to emit GHG in excess of their respective quotas would be able to purchase unused quotas at prices that incline other countries to emit less than their quotas.

There are other similarities between the conclusions of the RCEP report and the Indian position. The commission also recommends that the international community adopt an upper limit for carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere of 550 parts per million by volume (ppmv). Current global concentration levels stand at about 370 ppmv. A target of 550 ppmv is not entirely safe because, according to the international scientific community, even stabilisation at 450 ppmv would result in a temperature rise of 0.7°C and a corresponding 10-65 cm rise in sea level.

If the contraction-and-convergence approach and the target of 550 ppmv are adopted, the UK’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will have to be reduced by almost 60 per cent from their current level by mid-century, and by almost 80 per cent by 2100. Though CO2 emissions are falling at the moment in the UK, they are expected to rise again as all but one of its existing nuclear power stations will close by 2025. Nuclear power is the main source of carbon-free energy in the country at present.

To achieve the 60 per cent reduction target, the RCEP recommends reductions in energy demand and a large deployment of renewable energy sources, both of which can be achieved partly through the introduction of a carbon tax. Revenues from this tax could be used to fund other measures of cutting down emissions, such as subsidies and tax relief for energy efficiency improvements and research and development of renewable technologies. Future sources of renewable energy for the UK, says the report, could include energy harnessed from waves, undersea turbines powered by tidal waves, wind energy and even solar energy.

The commission calls on the UK to play a forceful and leading role in international climate negotiations, and it is not only because the country has a moral imperative to do so. It is also because the greater the number of countries that are hesitant, the smaller the chances of concerted global action against climate change. Already, it warns, there is the danger that the Kyoto commitments of an overall 5.2 per cent GHG reduction below the 1990 levels by 2008-2012 will not be met by developed countries, and further commitments are modest or non-existent. In this case, climate change would continue unabated, with the poorest countries suffering the most. The report concludes that if the UK does not show its seriousness about the issue, it cannot expect other nations to do theirs, least of all poor countries.