In a speech given during the 2008 presidential campaign, American Senator John McCain captured with brilliant cynicism what we can call the rich man’s approach to climate equity: “We made most of our contributions to global warming before anyone knew about global warming”, he said, just to add, later on, that countries which are “accelerating carbon emissions” today should not be exempted from the obligation of dealing with the problem.
In other words, the wealthy of this Earth should be forgiven – if only they knew back then it was wrong! But now the bill has grown way too big, and emerging economies were kindly asked to help foot it.
In stark contrast with McCain’s line is the so-called Brazilian proposal, put forward just before the Kyoto conference, in 1997. Brazilian government scientists devised a way of calculating how much developed countries had added to global warming before they reached the age of reason; it turned out that nearly all the warming observed until the 1990’s could be blamed on industrialized nations.
Historical responsibility has ever since become a mantra of developing countries’ negotiators, never mind that our countries today are emitting most of the greenhouse gases that will screw up our old age and the lives of our own children. For balance, let’s call this one the poor man’s approach to climate equity.
Those self-serving definitions of equity, of course, have stalled climate negotiations for 20 years. While they did so, storms like typhoon Haiyan, in the Philippines, and cyclone Pam, in Vanuatu, have devastated the lives of people who no one could argue have contributed to global warming in any noticeable way.
The problem with both the rich man’s and the poor man’s approaches is that they are not only morally indefensible; they are also plainly wrong.
The developed country perspective outlined by John McCain ignores on purpose the simple issue of per capita emissions: even though China is ahead of the United States on absolute emissions, each Chinese citizen still emits roughly one third of what your average American does. What’s more, and the international debate has barely skimmed that point, much of the carbon China dumps in the air is just outsourced production from the developed world.
The Brazilian scheme for allocating historical responsibility, on its turn, conveniently overlooks land use emissions. When those are computed, Brazil is shoved from innocent bystander to 4th top contributor to the observed warming, thanks to the clear-cutting rampage practiced in the Amazon and in the Cerrado in the second half of the 20th century. It’s too bad that we didn’t have the competence to convert those emissions into wealth, like other big polluters did, but the atmosphere just doesn’t care.
One way around the deadlock was already proposed and is broadly reflected as an option in the negotiating text of the upcoming Paris climate agreement: take a global carbon budget – one trillion tons of CO2 until the end of this century is the limit if we want to have at least a one-in-two chance of keeling future warming under 2 degrees Celsius, according to the IPCC – and allocate the right to emit the remaining 565 billion tons among countries, according, say, to GDP per capita or to the size of their middle class, with those who have already used up their budget making deeper cuts to compensate for those who still have the “right” to pollute.
In the international talks leading to Paris, Brazil has produced a diplomatic solution to the burden-sharing issue: it’s called “concentric differentiation”, and we’ll hear a lot about it this year. Its graphic representation consists of a series of three circles, the innermost of which should be occupied by developed countries with absolute, economy-wide targets; the middle one, by emerging economies, with intensity, per capita or relative reduction targets; and the outer circle, by least developing countries, with non-economy-wide targets. Every country should move towards the center in time, according to its respective capabilities.
While the contraption has the merit of moving beyond the rich man/poor man divide in a deal in which every country will have to contribute something with no slide back – which is no small feat –, evidently it can only be as good to the climate as the target each country sets to itself and in which circle it thinks it belongs. Without reporting back to a global carbon budget, the proposal risks becoming little more than a better way of communicating the status quo.
Fortunately, the real world has moved faster than the deadlocked world of governments. Inspired by, and perhaps afraid of, international climate regulations, the private sector has developed and given scale to technologies that have allowed us for the first time to think about net zero emissions by 2050. For some sectors in some countries, cutting emissions will mean making more money.
Brazil is one of those. Economic opportunities lie in the renewable energy sector, by pushing ethanol back into the market after a five-year slump and fostering solar energy; in the agricultural sector, by increasing pastureland productivity and scaling up carbon-saving technologies that are already being adopted; and in the forestry sector, by encouraging REDD+ schemes and payment for environmental services.
Some economic studies being finished over the next few months will show that stringent targets might increase GDP and the number of jobs in the South American country. For Brazil, it would make sense to move forward with significant greenhouse gas mitigation even in the absence of an international climate framework. The same could be said of China, whose air pollution problems became en economic liability and whose renewables industry is booming.
The old adage “we need to pollute so we can develop” is holding less and less true beyond climate conference rooms. Governments shouldn’t be held hostage of old concepts while they negotiate the future of humankind. This is why carbon neutrality is such a desirable goal: it helps break the link between development and emissions.
With the mitigation conundrum being sorted out by facts on the ground, the real equity story becomes the one of loss and damage. If the developed world cares a thing about fairness, it should seek to approve in Paris a strong mechanism for compensating the people of Vanuatu and the Philippines, and other vulnerable populations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific. They are due reparation from climate change, of course – but also from all the loitering.
Carlos Rittl is Director of Brazil´s Climate Observatory
This article was originally published by Progressives for Climate and can be found here.