Kate Mackenzie New ways to tackle fraught questions of carbon emissions

A couple of novel proposals to climate change dilemmas came out this week:

First: one that seeks to address those difficult moral and philosophical questions of how developing countries should be expected to cut emissions. These countries point out that their wealthier peers got rich by using lots of fossil fuels without regard for the cost of emissions; is it fair that their own economic development should be burdened with the higher costs of making their energy use cleaner and more efficient?

One study proposes to solve this by focusing on the emissions of individuals, rather than nations.

All countries would be given an emissions target based on their population, and each country would then be able to place the biggest reduction burden on the highest emitting individuals. The authors say that would mean targeting the highest one billion or so emitting individuals.

The Christian Science Monitor explains how this would play out:

What happens in this scenario? The US and China still get the largest “abatement assignments.” But India pretty much has a “free pass.” Surprisingly, as a whole, Africa doesn’t, however. That’s because of carbon-intense lifestyles in South Africa, and a concentration of energy industries North African nations. Middle Eastern nations and Russia also get a significant carbon homework assignment due to their energy industries.

The authors also propose a free pass for the lowest-emitting 3bn people:

The proposal also sets a floor for the 3 billion people predicted by 2030 to be emitting less than one ton of carbon dioxide a year. Those people – the poorest of the poor – should focus solely on bettering their lifestyles, and they should do so via any economical means, the authors say. They can safely come up to one-ton-a-year emissions target without breaking the global carbon bank.

It’s a little like a progressive tax system – those who emit the most would have the make the steepest reductions. One of the authors says: “It’s mischievous – but it’s meant to be a log-jam-breaking concept.”

Meanwhile, another study published later in the week suggested getting rid of emissions targets altogether. The paper, from Oxford University and the LSE, argues that targets are too difficult to negotiate and to enforce.

The WSJ’s Environmental Capital blog writes:

Real progress on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be easier—and crucially, cheaper—if the world focuses less on headline-grabbing targets and more on doing what it’s done for the last two centuries. That is, steadily decarbonizing the energy system by using cleaner forms of energy, more efficient industrial processes, and the like.

The report uses Japan as an example of how much can be achieved through efficiency and clean technology development.

Jim Watson from Sussex University, however, writes in the Guardian that this approach amounts to a new form of environmental scepticism: targeting the methods rather than the science. Caps on emissions are needed, he writes, because clean technology and efficiency savings alone are not enough to reach the emissions reductions that are needed – and efficiency measures include something of a ‘rebound effect’, also known as Jevon’s Paradox.

Related links:

Climate talks: What China, India and Brazil want (FT Energy Source, 29/04/09)