Internationally, the big hurdle to fighting climate change and global warming is figuring out a fair way to divvy up responsibility. Serious efforts to curb carbon emissions will require considerable upfront investment, so who should make those investments and how much? That impasse then influences domestic political reluctance in the United States. If the rest of the world isn’t moving, why should we?
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.
In fact, the paper notes that even if the advanced countries get their carbon emissions down to practically zero by 2050, the two degree target doesn’t give the poor and developing countries much room to work with. That matters, because reducing poverty requires reducing energy poverty, and reducing energy poverty usually means increased carbon emissions. It’s possibly the key paradox of human advancement — the world is creeping up on an astonishing reduction in global poverty, even as our greenhouse gas emissions keep driving us towards likely climate and ecological catastrophe. It’s what led the International Energy Agency and the World Bank to note that tackling energy poverty and climate change at the same time is going to have a hefty global price tag.
Here in America and the developed west, meanwhile, we’ve basically got the problem of deep poverty licked. Given the position of extraordinary economic privilege we enjoy in the global order, it’s right that the lion’s share of the climate change burden falls to us. To that end, the paper suggests establishing an international fund to invest in global climate change mitigation and adaptation, with countries contributing in accordance with their RCI share. Or just use the RCI proportions to calculate direct emission reduction targets for each country.
But it’s not grim self-sacrifice. The insurance bill the U.S. is paying for extreme weather disasters — increasing thanks to climate change — far outpaces that of any other country, meaning reducing global warming is in our quantifiable financial self-interest. We also need jobs, and specifically jobs that pay well but are accessible to less educated Americans, in order to avoid falling into an economy with just an upper and lower class, but no middle class. Research suggests renewable energy produces more jobs per unit of energy generated than the fossil fuel industries, green jobs are both more accessible to less educated Americans than all jobs as a whole, and their more likely to involve manufacturing. Finally, if we ‘re exporting renewable technology to China and the world, rather than importing it when they develop it first, we’ll help close our trade deficit and improve the government’s finances.
But self-interest aside, at the end of the day there’s no escaping the simple morality of the matter. As President Obama pointed out at a prayer breakfast in 2012, quoting Luke 12:48, “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” He was talking about justly distributing the burden of deficit reduction, but the point applies to carbon reduction just as much.