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One Billion High Emitters

Reflecting further on a PNAS paper by a group of authors that includes Professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow leads me to suspect that elements of its proposed policy framework are unworkable and may have unintended unethical consequences :-

It also leads me to conclude that research partly financed by Oil and Gas companies may be part of the Climate Change policy problem – how to reach global agreement on a way forward.

“Sharing global CO2 emission reductions among one billion high emitters”, by Shoibal Chakravarty, Ananth Chikkatur, Heleen de Coninck, Stephen Pacala, Robert Socolow and Massimo Tavoni, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Volume 106, Number 29, 21st July 2009.

Global Climate Change negotiations have continually suffered from the obvious entirely preventable obstacles posed by splitting the world’s nations into two camps, “Developed” (“Annex I” under the Kyoto Protocol) and “Developing”.

The Annex I countries were asked to take “historic responsibility” for their excess Greenhouse Gas emissions and finance emissions reductions, either within their own borders, or elsewhere via the “flexible mechanisms” of Carbon Trading based on “Clean Development” in other countries.

Such is the disparity between the emissions of the world’s rich and the world’s poor, the Kyoto Protocol recognised that there were “common but differentiated responsibilities” between the two groups of nations towards achieving global emissions reductions.

However, even in 1997, when Kyoto was inked, it was clear that development trends in some countries would push them from non-Annex-I to Annex-I category pretty soon – however, the map would not be re-drawn to take account of this effect.

Thus, we have what I call “China Syndrome”, policy opinionators blaming China’s massive emissions increase for everything that’s wrong about Global Warming. You must have heard the narrative that goes : “China builds one/two/several coal-fired power stations a week/month, so how on Earth can we stop Global Warming ?”

Chakravarty and his colleagues take a somewhat different approach to responsibility for Climate action, which has some merit – blame the rich – in every country, no matter which.

They establish how Carbon Dioxide emissions are related to income in every country, then look at the distribution of emissions amongst the populations of four broad regions of the world.

They then set a cap on emissions, targeting the roughly one billion highest emitters, and identify which countries would have which proportion of these high emitters.

Thereby they set a target for “burden-sharing” amongst each country according to its density of high emitters.

Now, if you didn’t get that, don’t worry. That is my first issue with this framework – it’s quite complex. And as we all know by now, complexity means non-conformity. How could the international Climate conferences agree something like this, depending as it does on strongly contestable assignments of responsibility, based on massaged interpretations of data ?

The second problem that I have with this proposal is this – those countries with high levels of exceedingly poor people would find it problematic to exert regulatory pressure on the small number of their exceedingly high emitters.

The capacity of poorer nations to enforce emissions reductions on its elite rich is presumably quite low – considering that those in political power are probably going to be the richest.

In fact, the wealthiest people in a country are often deeply connected with the governance of the country. Often, the rich are the rulers.

And the rich don’t want to change their own lifestyles of consumption. A country handed a Carbon emissions reduction target on the basis of the behaviour of its wealthiest, would probably determine that the poor should reduce their emissions rather than the rich. The poor would be forced to adapt instead of the rich.

Chakravarty and his colleagues do attempt to address this issue by looking at what it would take to eliminate the deepest poverty in the world at the same time as cutting emissions globally. They say, “We…place a floor on emissions of the world’s lowest CO2 emitters and demonstrate that climate mitigation and alleviation of extreme poverty are largely decoupled.”

So the emissions reductions that nations would have to adopt would only need to change marginally in order to guarantee development space for the poorest.

But this still does not answer the main problem – if you give a country an emissions target that relates to the wealthy powerful, how can you be sure that the poor won’t be delegated to suffer the consequences ?

Obviously, achieving the aim of the alleviation of intense poverty is a noble one. But it could be done without this framework, and it might not be achievable through this framework.

It is my conclusion that the poorer countries would be given too high a demand for emissions reductions under Chakravarty’s proposal.

They wouldn’t necessarily have the capacity to act, or the political will to act in the way asserted.

Far, far better would be the Contraction and Convergence framework, designed and promoted by Aubrey Meyer at the Global Commons Institute, which would allocate equal per capita emissions rights for everyone, everywhere.

Fair shares, and all that.

The wealthiest nations would not have a complaining leg to stand on. They could not protest that they were being handed unfairly high responsibilities for emissions reductions.

And the poorest in the poorest countries would not be handed a ransom note for the sins of their elites.

So why are Chakravarty, Pacala, Socolow and all pursuing a biased framework ?

At the end of the paper, we read,

“ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank…S.C., S.P., R.S., and M.T. are supported by the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University, funded by BP and Ford Motor Co. A.C. acknowledges support from the Energy Technology Innovation Project, which is financially supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a gift from Shell Exploration and Production and unrestricted grants from BP
Corporation. H.d.C. thanks the Princeton Environmental Institute for its hospitality and numerous colleagues at Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands and participants of COP13 in Bali for fruitful discussions.”

Could this be a case of “obfuscate and derail” ?

Could the Oil and Gas companies be supporting complex Carbon emissions framework research and development in order to slow down global policy agreement ?

This could be similar to their suspected reasons for supporting Carbon Trading – evasion of personal responsibility.

The Oil and Gas companies love the international Climate Change negotiations, for Oil and Gas companies are virtually invisible in the debates on policy.

Where no finger of blame is pointed, no duty will be assigned. It’s as simple as that. Fact of life and human psychology.

It is time that the major mining and energy companies were brought into the international Climate Change discussions, as significant actors in the global Economy, and responsible for some of the “burden-sharing”.

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