Earlier this week, Bloomberg flagged work by the Stockholm Environment Institute and others to nail down answers to those questions with hard numbers. Their conclusion?
As of now, the United States bears fully one third of the burden to reduce global carbon emissions, with much of Europe shouldering nearly another third. It’s a bracing conclusion. The latest analysis suggests the per-unit social and economic damage from carbon emissions due to global warming is as much as twice what we thought. Several countries with much more modest obligations than America’s have already moved to price carbon, leaving the U.S. sticking out like a sore thumb. Even China is tip-toeing up to it.
Much of the researchers’ work comes from the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework. First, they set a global threshold for living standards, below which people are considered free from the responsibility to sacrifice in the fight against climate change. They came up with $7,500 a year in dollars (adjusted for purchasing power parity) — it’s the living standard at which malnutrition, infant mortality, low education, and other problems of poverty begin to fade, plus a bit of breathing room. Even then, about 70 percent of the globe lives at or below this level, and taken all together is responsible for only 15 percent of the cumulative global emissions.
Capacity to invest in climate mitigation and adaptation was then defined as all income per person falling above that threshold. As you can see below, the United States’ capacity swamps that of both India and China, despite the much larger populations of the latter two countries:
The researchers then tried to quantify responsibility for climate change by accounting for cumulative emissions since 1990, and all projected emissions going forward, while excluding all emissions associated with income below the threshold. Putting it all together, they calculated the “responsibility and capacity indicator” (RCI) for each country. In other words: everyone’s fair share of the responsibility to reduce carbon emissions enough to keep the planet’s climate under two degrees Celsius of warming.
The result? The United States has 33.1 percent of the global RCI in 2010, dropping to 25.5 percent in 2030. The European Union has 25.7 percent in 2010 and 19.6 percent in 2030. Thanks to its economic growth, China does jump from 5.5 percent in 2010 to 15.2 percent in 2030. But no other country even cracks 8 percent, or changes much over that period.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Other data suggests the U.S. can claim a third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-1800s, and our per capita emissions top nearly every other nation. We’re also the most economically developed nation without a price on carbon, meaning we implicitly subsidize fossil fuel use far more than anyone else.