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The Robin Hood of Emissions Policy

Published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the article “Sharing Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions Among 1 Billion High Emitters,” compiled by numerous Princeton professors and researchers, among others from Harvard and abroad, is calling for new policy regarding international caps on carbon emissions. Instead of setting national caps based on total emissions per country, as is the current standard, the body of authors suggests instead to single out the 1 billion most emissions inefficient people in the world, and place caps on the emissions activity of the country based on that nation’s proportion of high emitters. The paper reported that its goal was to “propose a simple rule to derive a global cap on individual emissions and find corresponding limits on national aggregate emissions from this cap”, noting that “all high emitters [are] treated the same, regardless of where they live.” To assure their audience, the authors explicitly defined the terms of their new formula, stating that it is fair and equal because “countries with a larger proportion of high emitters do more, and countries with similar emission profiles have similar commitments,” essentially pointing out that wealthier, more green- capable countries will all be held to higher proportional standards of emissions capping.

But the team—which includes, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, a mechanical and aerospace engineer, a physicist, and an economist—does not stop at capping emissions for and based on the most polluting 1 billion. They also seek to help the poor of the world as well, “addressing poverty alleviation and carbon emission reductions simultaneously.” Their plan, basically, is to exempt the poorest 1/3 of the world population from emission caps, and allow them to use fossil fuels to gradually elevate their standard of living. Said the report, these people will be allowed to use “diesel engines to produce first electricity for lighting, TV, the charging of batteries, gas for first motorized transport, liquid petroleum gas for first modern cooking fuel—where these technologies are the lowest- cost options.” Instead of a cap, there will be a floor placed on the emissions of this sector of society to ensure that their lives become more livable, while the other 2/3 of the earth has to comply with capping standards.

The team identified 7 major regions of concern for emissions—the US, China, OECD Europe, India, Africa, Russia, and the Middle East—and have placed stringent hypothetical caps on all but India and Africa, pointing out that the populations of these two are expected to explode by 2030 while the populations of the other 5 nations are projected to decrease. By using this method of emissions allocation, India and Africa will be allowed to increase their emissions to over six gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, while the USA must decrease theirs to less than two.

By taking from the rich and giving to the poor, this dynamic and diverse group of people has undoubtedly come up with a new approach to climate change and to reducing world poverty. However, some concerns arise: Will countries with so large a proportion of high per-capita carbon emissions be able to decrease their emissions by such a large margin in a relatively short period of time? Will this plan cause further outsourcing of American jobs to India and other countries that will be granted carbon emission floors? Is it a good idea to build developing world infrastructure around fossil fuels and risk dependence? What happens to the poor of a country like the US that will be hard hit by emissions caps because of the wealthy elite? Is any of this really fair?

To read the complete article, visit http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/07/02/0905232106.full.pdf+html

What do you think? Comment.

by M. Molendyke

  • John
    Jul 8th, 2009 at 15:21 | #1

    Why does the capita in per capita not matter? If a countries population doubles, does it follow that they should be permitted to double their emissions?
    After all, the planet doesn’t care about per capita, only the total.

  • Knoxville, TN
    Jul 9th, 2009 at 08:56 | #2

    @John
    You bring up a serious issue – after all, growing populations and an oil-based economy are how we all got into this mess in the first place. It seems that the developing nations (actually, all nations for that matter) should be given an allocation for carbon emissions based on current poverty-level population, and for future populations growth that all has to be covered by renewable energy sources only. This would provide an economic disincentive for population growth unless renewables drop in price – which it may also encourage.

    You hit the nail on the head: The planet only cares about the total carbon emitted. As politically incorrect as it may be to say so, social justice has to be issue #2 unless it can be done in a way that is consistent with reducing carbon emissions.

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