Tuesday, October 28, 2008

China, Climate Change, and Climate Justice

This past Thursday, Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, gave a lecture at Beijing's Tsinghua University on the topic of China's role in combating global climate change. Lord Stern's central point was that a low-carbon economy is the only viable long-term economic future for China, a point which raises the more pressing issue of China's role in international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sometime last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest national emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), a dubious honor that makes clear China's central importance to any future climate change agreement. This importance is further enhanced by Beijing's sway among members of the G-77 developing-country negotiating bloc. Nonetheless, China has been notably reticent to play a leading role in climate change negotiations, and has vigorously resisted committing to "hard caps" on its GHG emissions. China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has laid out the principle that "developed countries should take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions...the first and overriding priorities of developing countries are sustainable development and poverty eradication." This principle, which of course amounts to a giant cop-out, has continued to frame Beijing's negotiating position with respect to climate change.

A cop-out, but a reasoned one: it is true that developed countries are responsible for the vast majority of historic, anthropogenic GHG emissions-- those that are now changing the global climate. At the same time, developed nations are better equipped, financially, technologically, and administratively, to adapt to the challenges posed by climate chnge. And so we reach the crux of the global climate question: how do you constrcut a fair and equitable agreement by which China and other rapidly developing countries reduce their emissions?

Many climate justice thinkers, including Princeton's Peter Singer, argue that a per-capita allocation of emissions, in which each person would recieve the "right" to emit and equal amount of GHG (or simply carbon dioxide) emissions, best satisfies the condition of fairness, since it essentially equates every human being, regardless of nationality, wealth, etc. Fair, perhaps, but radical: as Lord Stern points about, China's per-capita CO2 emissions amount to approximately 5 tons (MTCO2E), Europe's to 12, and America's to an astounding 20. A per-capita allocation would involve a staggering redistribution of the "right to pollute," and potentially an unprecedented redistribution of wealth, as well, as big emitters like America purchase the right to emit from lower-per-capita emitters like India (some 2.5 MTCO2E).

Understandably, countries like the United States balk at such a formula. Notably, a recent recent paper entitled "Justice and Climate Change," authored by law professors Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein, concludes that even a per-capita allocation would not "in practice satisfy objectives of fairness and welfare redistribution." And so the impasse continues.

Might there be a better way? Even if the next round of climate negotiations, which is supposed to produce a world-saving follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol, fails to answer the climate justice question, there's plenty that developed nations can do to help the developing world reduce emissions. This includes technology transfer, technical assistance, and policy advice on how to green businesses, supply chains, and everyday lives. It's not as grand or sexy as an international treaty, but it may be crucial. That will be the subject of future posts.


  1. Cheers for writing up Lord Stern's comments, Scott.

    I like the 'reasoned cop-out' moniker. But it's the to-and-fro over historical blame that contributes to the impression environmental 'outsiders' have of endless delays to actual action - instead of a big talking shop.

    To those of us who don't follow international climate negotiations at every twist and turn, but just get the general picture, the situation (especially between the US and China) looks like a deadlock, neither side willing to budge until the other does.

    It this kind of impression that engenders apathy, and this kind of apathy (on the part of the general population) which must make progress more difficult.

    I'd venture the first priority of a government serious about tackling climate change is to put more effort into inspiring its own population to:
    a) be aware of the very real consequences for their lives if nothing is done now
    b) not despair at the lack of adequate international cooperation to date
    c) (most importantly) be entrepreneurial about starting green businesses


  2. Scott,
    I'm a reporter from Louisville hoping to reach you via email. Can you contact me?

    Chris Kenning, The Courier-Journal, ckenning@courier-journal.com