Emis­sions re­duc­tion by the num­bers

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Dis­cus­sions in Beijing be­tween US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping – the lead­ers of the world’s two largest car­bon-emit­ting coun­tries – pro­duced an un­ex­pected, ground­break­ing bi­lat­eral agree­ment on green­house-gas emis­sions. Un­der the new deal, the US is to re­duce its emis­sions by 2628% from 2005 lev­els within 20 years, and China’s emis­sions are to peak by 2030. In the ab­sence of a bind­ing global agree­ment, such uni­lat­eral or bi­lat­eral com­mit­ments by coun­tries to rein in their con­tri­bu­tion to global warm­ing rep­re­sent the most re­al­is­tic hope for ad­dress­ing cli­mate change.

The 1997 Ky­oto Pro­to­col marked a ma­jor step for­ward in ef­forts to head off the most dis­as­trous con­se­quences of cli­mate change, es­tab­lish­ing a prece­dent for legally bind­ing lim­its on emis­sions. But it lacked com­mit­ments by large de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, such as China and In­dia, and, largely for that rea­son, the United States never rat­i­fied the treaty.

A loose sys­tem of in­di­vid­ual com­mit­ments, in which each coun­try uni­lat­er­ally sets emis­sions tar­gets, can help build trust and mo­men­tum for a more in­clu­sive suc­ces­sor to the Ky­oto Pro­to­col, which many hope will be forged at the United Na­tions Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Paris in 2015. But if such a sys­tem is to work, gen­eral agree­ment would need to ex­ist about what con­sti­tutes a fair tar­get for each coun­try. Then ad­vo­cacy groups and re­searchers could com­pile score­cards that would show which coun­tries are meet­ing the stan­dard – and shame those that are not.

At first blush, there would seem to be no agree­ment on what fair cuts would look like. In­dia point outs that an av­er­age Amer­i­can emits ten times as much as an av­er­age In­dian, and ar­gues that emis­sions al­lowances should there­fore be al­lo­cated ac­cord­ing to pop­u­la­tion. The US in­sists that it would be un­fair to bur­den its com­pa­nies if en­er­gy­in­ten­sive in­dus­tries could sim­ply re­lo­cate to de­vel­op­ing coun­tries that had not yet con­strained their emis­sions. Both sides have a point.

For­tu­nately, a study of the emis­sions tar­gets to which coun­tries have al­ready agreed – in Ky­oto and at the 2010 UN Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Cancún – al­lows us to de­scribe, and even quan­tify, what has his­tor­i­cally been con­sid­ered fair and rea­son­able. Emis­sion tar­gets im­plic­itly tend to obey a for­mula that quan­ti­fies three ma­jor prin­ci­ples: all coun­tries should rein in their emis­sions, but rich coun­tries should ac­cept big­ger cuts than poor coun­tries; coun­tries where emis­sions have re­cently in­creased rapidly should be given some time to bring them back down; and no coun­try or group of coun­tries should suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ately large eco­nomic costs.

In Ky­oto, ev­ery 10% in­crease in per capita in­come cor­re­sponded to an agreed emis­sions re­duc­tion of 1.4%. In Cancún, ev­ery 10% in­crease in in­come cor­re­sponded to a cut of 1.6%. If this pat­tern con­tin­ues through the rest of the cen­tury, with em­pha­sis grad­u­ally shift­ing from his­toric lev­els to per capita tar­gets, eco­nomic mod­els pre­dict that no coun­try need suf­fer a loss of more than 1% of GDP in present dis­counted value (as­sum­ing that mar­ket mech­a­nisms such as in­ter­na­tional trad­ing are al­lowed).

To be sure, the ques­tion of how to share the eco­nomic bur­den of any par­tic­u­lar global emis­sions path is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the ques­tion of how en­vi­ron­men­tally am­bi­tious over­all cli­mate-change mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts should be. But, as ne­go­ti­a­tions pro­ceed, this ap­proach can al­low us to eval­u­ate whether the bur­den of re­duc­ing the harm­ful ef­fects of cli­mate change is be­ing fairly dis­trib­uted, and to judge whether in­di­vid­ual coun­tries are do­ing their part as they head into the 2014 UN Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Peru next month.

The graph be­low com­pares the per capita in­come of coun­tries with the emis­sions cuts that they have pledged to de­liver in 2020. Each coun­try’s cut is mea­sured rel­a­tive to a par­tic­u­lar base­line that av­er­ages its ac­tual emis­sions level in 2005 with emis­sions ex­pected in 2020, ab­sent in­ter­na­tional ac­tion.

The slope of the line cor­re­sponds re­mark­ably well with the data from Ky­oto and Cancún, in­di­cat­ing that what is con­sid­ered fair has re­mained sta­ble over time. On av­er­age, each 10% in­crease in in­come cor­re­sponds with a 1.4% cut in emis­sions. The fact that coun­tries clus­ter close to the line in­di­cates that the re­la­tion­ship is sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant.

The graph re­veals fur­ther in­ter­est­ing in­sights. For ex­am­ple, In­dia’s tar­gets are mod­est, but also ap­pro­pri­ate, given its res­i­dents’ low in­come. Norway of­fers the big­gest cuts of all. This can be ex­plained partly by its high in­come; but it is do­ing more than its share. Sin­ga­pore, Turkey, and Moldova ap­pear to be shirk­ers.

Most im­por­tant, the graph al­lows us to eval­u­ate the tar­gets that China and the US – the two most prom­i­nent hold­outs from the Ky­oto pro­to­col – have pro­posed. As the fig­ure shows, th­ese tar­gets are roughly in line with what has his­tor­i­cally been con­sid­ered their fair share, though each could do slightly more.

As oth­ers join China, the US, and the Euro­pean Union in set­ting tar­gets for 2030 and beyond, this sta­tis­ti­cal yard­stick for judg­ing fair­ness can serve as a pow­er­ful tool for es­tab­lish­ing what share of the bur­den is ap­pro­pri­ate for each coun­try to as­sume.

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