Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Fair & Equitable Approach to Carbon Reduction

Nations that are disingenuous about cutting greenhouse gas emissions are those that play with percentages and baselines. That, unfortunately, is the approach most in vogue today. What's wrong with it? Plenty.

Beside the fact shown at Copenhagen that the "percentage and baseline" approach, or PB, leads to endless squabbling, suffocation by negotiation, it also preserves the status quo on per capita emissions. In the industrialized West, our per capita emissions tend to run about twice to three times that of developing nations and upwards of ten times that of Third World states. In other words, we're hogging far more than our fair share of the atmospheric carrying capacity when taken on a strictly per capita basis. If we start talking about reductions that don't address that per capita disparity, then we're simply locking in our unfair share.

Germany and the G77 Third World nations want a strictly per capita approach, worldwide. Work out the planet's remaining carbon carrying capacity, annualize that, count all the people, and then award each nation an emissions budget calculated according to its population. That sounds fair, but is it? I don't think so, at least not entirely.

What's unfair about the strictly per capita approach is that it "rewards" countries that have become dangerously overpopulated - China and India for example with several countries in Africa hell bent on catching up. Overpopulation is its own form of environmental scourge that extends into realms beyond global warming. With our planet's population already beyond Earth's resources carrying capacity, we're rapidly exhausting our natural ability to feed and fuel overpopulated societies. This manifests itself in soil exhaustion (desertification), water and air pollution, freshwater depletion - any number of intractable problems. Rewarding overpopulation by per capita allocations is no answer to anything.

So, if PB doesn't work and PC isn't really workable either, how do we find an equitable balance? I think I have a solution, one that I've not yet raised. A modified per capita approach. Here's how it would work.

We know the carbon targets man has to reach. Let's take the total population of the world, X, and the total landmass of the world, Y, and reach an average, landmass per person, or Z. Divide your overall carbon budget by Z to reach a final number which would be the carbon budget per man/hectare. You then work out each nation's landmass and multiply that with the carbon budget per man/hectare to fix that nation's carbon budget.

What's fair about that? It doesn't reward overpopulation nor should it. We've all come to realize the environmental value of landmass preserved in its natural state, particularly forests. They're enormous carbon sinks and we desperately want to arrest deforestation. It seems to me that the nations with the greatest remaining forestlands are, if anything, underpopulated and that deserves recognition.

Take Canada, for example. We have a per capita carbon footprint nearly identical to America's but - and this is a huge "but" - we also have vast tracts of boreal forest and tundra, enormous carbon sinks. Our population density is well less than one-tenth that of America's. There is no equitable way to treat the two countries identically.

Canada is the second-largest nation in the world by landmass. China, which is smaller in territory, has one-thousand, three-hundred million people compared to our paltry thirty-six million. (Think of it this way. The have Thirteen Dollars, we have Thirty Six cents) Their per capita emissions may still be just one-third or ours but, by hectare, they're vastly higher than ours.

A simple landmass calculation wouldn't be fair but a global population divided by global landmass factor strikes a fair balance that roughly redresses disparities in both per capita emissions and population density. It also provides a handy yardstick that we're going to need to address looming problems such as how to allocate dwindling open ocean fish stocks.

What I'm saying is that China and India both have to depopulate and African nations heading in that same direction have to stop. As I've written several times, when I was born the earth's population had just reached an all-time record of two-billion. Today we're at nearly seven-billion. We're already well beyond our planet's carrying capacity and we have to learn to live within the finite limits that Earth provides. We have to grow - smaller, smaller and cleaner. At the end of the day, that's the bottom line. And we all know it.


The Mound of Sound said...

I had no sooner written this than I realized the idea, while perfectly sound, would never be acceptable to Washington. That's because it would give Canada an enormous carbon budget advantage over the US in the order of 10-1. That said, however, if the United States could annex Canada, it would be just dandy.

Washington couldn't live with a Canada under this regime but it could quite readily swallow us.

The Mound of Sound said...

Of course we could always treat Canada/US as a bloc and harmonize our emissions allocations. In effect this would allow them to benefit from Canada's vast empty landmass without seeing us devoured politically.

Mark H said...

Two things. First, the math doesn't work out. The total sum of carbon budgets for each country end up being larger than the global carbon budget.

Second, any attempt to bring landmass into the equation, even on a landmass per person basis, would be rejected by most of the countries of the world, not just the US. And for good reason.

Using overpopulation as an excuse to bring in landmass is a non-sequitur. Even your formula would still massively favour countries that have low populations densities, for reasons that have nothing to do with environmentalism, while punishing countries that have good environmental records, but happen to be densely populated.

While I do agree that overpopulation is an issue that needs to be addressed, your proposal would not be an effective way of doing so. In terms of addressing climate change, your plan would still allow some of the worst carbon emitters to go on belching carbon, simply because they are geographically large, and would punish countries for being geographically small, even if they have made significant strides towards reducing emissions.

Under the current measure of carbon emissions, Canada's vast forests and agricultural land already count as carbon sinks.

Your plan would give Canada credit for the fact that most of our country is only marginally habitable, which would certain ease our burden, but makes no sense from an environmental perspective.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Mark. Thanks for your thoughts. I think we can work within a finite, global carbon budget. That's just what the German WBGU approach contemplates. Their proposal 'budgets' the annualized emissions on a per capita basis alloted to each nation according to its population.

You agree that overpopulation has to be addressed. I assume you accept that on global warming and resource issues as well. How then do you factor it in so as to encourage depopulation in already overpopulated nations and population curbs in nations otherwise heading down that same path?

It strikes me overpopulation will be dealt with either in some controlled fashion, that is to say voluntarily, or in other fashions such as catastrophe or climate wars. It also must be factored into some form of carbon budgeting.

Much as the developing economies would aspire to Western standards we know there are not remotely enough resources on Earth to accommodate that. They're certainly entitled to such aspirations but they can never hope to realize them. How do we deal with that?

Jingles said...

This is an aside but did you notice not once did the issue of water pass anyone lips at Copenhagen.