12 December 2007

Prevention of climate change without binding targets?

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change is underway; Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol at last but refuses to accept binding carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction targets unless China and other developing countries accept them, too. Can such a stand be justified, and on what grounds? Let us look at some basic premises and evaluate the consequences.

Premise 1: Every human being, whether in a developed or a developing country, has the same right to a decent standard of living.

Premise 2: To stabilize the climate the world has to return to a sustainable level of CO2 output. I don't know what this level is - I assume Bali will be able to tell us that – but for the sake of the argument let us assume that the CO2 output of 1990 is sustainable. (The actual year does not matter to the argument, as we shall see.)

According to United Nations statistics, the global CO2 output of 1990 amounted to 21,563 million tons. The current world population is something like 6,602 million people. If we accept premise 1 we have to accept that every person is entitled to emit the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. To maintain the output of 6,602 million people at the level of 1990 means that every person should not exceed an annual output of 3.25 tons of CO2.

What does that mean for different countries? Again according to United Nations statistics, in 2004 India's per capita CO2 output was 1.2 tons; China's output was 3.8 tons, Australia's output was 16.3 and the output of the USA 20.4 tons.

It is obvious that the developed world will have to change very, very dramatically. It is also obvious that nothing but sheer selfishness can support the argument that the developing countries should reduce their CO2 output. On moral grounds we have to say that it would be nice and very generous of India if it tries to minimize its increase in CO2 output; but even if it doubled its output it would still not have reached its allowable limit. China has obviously reached its allowable limit and should not increase its output further.

This is not the first time this simple calculation has been done. The German chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the same idea once and was promptly declared off the planet. Nevertheless, Germany's electricity rates are the highest in Europe, and the country is moving ahead with the development of carbon-neutral technologies at a surprising pace, while Australia increases its coal export to secure its standard of living and the USA use its military force to secure the world's oil fields for its exclusive use.

I am sure that the actual numbers differ somewhat from my example – the world population has grown since 2004, and 1990 is probably not a good basis for sustainability. But the principle remains the same: The developed world has no moral or other right whatsoever to insist on CO2 output cuts from the developing world.

The idea of buying carbon credits from poor countries to allow oneself the continuation of one's reckless lifestyle is a fallacy. Besides being on very shaky moral ground it will not work, because the money paid to the poor countries will inevitably lead to rapid increases in their CO2 output as people use it to improve their living standard.

The only way forward for developed countries is to accept very high binding reduction targets and to begin with a profound restructuring of their lifestyles.

Reference: United Nations Statisitcs can be found at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/databases.htm.

The statistics on per capita CO2 output are at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/cdb/cdb_topic_xrxx.asp?topic_code=32

1 comment:

Matthias Tomczak said...

AAP (Australian Associated Press, the main Australian news agency) reports that the economist Ross Garnaut told the International Solar Cities Conference - held in Adelaide, South Australia this week - that "international agreements on emission reduction would need to be tackled on a per capita basis to ensure developing countries came on board."

It appears that the idea of allowing every man and women the same carbon output quota is taking root.

AAP points out: "While a minor contributor overall to the world's emissions, Australia has one of the highest per capita rates of pollution." Australians will therefore have to go through a major change of lifestyle. This is even more true for the USA, where the per capita rate is even higher.

Professor Garnaut is the brain behind the climate change policy of the current Australian government. He supports a minimum reduction target of 60% by 2050 and says that "the Government may need to go further than its target of cutting emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, and push other nations to follow suit." It remains to be seen what the government will make of his recommendations.