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Nancy Birdsall & Arvind Subramanian: Reduce Verbal Emissions First (Business Standard)

November 21, 2009

This op-ed originally appeared in the Business Standard.

Nancy Birdsall & Arvind Subramanian: Reduce Verbal Emissions First

By Nancy Birdsall and Arvind Subramanian

The emerging consensus is that no agreement on climate change — at least not one with specific commitments — will be reached at next month’s summit in Copenhagen. Environmentalists and policy-makers in many countries are dismayed and discouraged. But, in fact, now the world has an opportunity to fix the problem which has stymied successful cooperation on climate change.

International negotiations to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases driving climate change are gridlocked in part because of a fundamental misunderstanding about what is fair. The focus in the rich world and even in developing countries has been on greenhouse gas emissions — the “thing” that threatens the planet — and on who bears responsibility for cutting them by how much and when.

Americans focus on total emissions and see China and India as large emitters and co-offenders. In a recent Financial Times-Harris poll, 60 per cent of Americans thought that in any climate change agreement, China should reduce emissions the most.

China and India focus — with justification — on America’s high per capita emissions (20 tons) compared to theirs (5 and 2 tons per capita, respectively), finding it unfair that they should be asked to cut their emissions at all. They are bewildered that the United States could contemplate trade sanctions to induce such cuts. And succumbing to the rhetoric of recrimination, they accuse the rich of creating the global “bad” of polluting the atmosphere and demand reparations for past harm going forward.

The rich then retort by asking developing countries to take responsibility for their large populations and to take account of all the global “goods” they have created such as technology. Rarely in history have we seen constructive solutions coming out of blame games such as this.

But emissions are not the primary issue. People don’t consume emissions. They consume basic energy services. In the developing world, billions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America are now cooking over health-harming wood fires in shantytowns (rather than receiving piped gas and electricity), doing backbreaking hoe farming (not operating tractors) and walking or cycling to work (not driving small cars, let alone gas-guzzlers). Cutting emissions would push them from just above subsistence back to, literally, the dark ages.

What is the way forward? In a recent research paper, we propose restarting the narrative altogether based on a new definition of what is fair. The focus should not be emissions — not even emissions per capita — but access for people everywhere to basic energy-related services such as safe and convenient meal preparation at home, pleasant ambient temperatures indoors, and convenient transportation. The goal should be that developing countries’ access to such energy services is comparable to that achieved by rich countries at their corresponding stage of past development, while exploiting the latest available clean technologies to provide these services.

Our key finding is that improvements in technology (or reductions in the emissions-intensity of energy produced and used) at rates consistent with those we observe historically provide little hope of meeting the broadly agreed global target for emissions reductions of 50 per cent in 2050 relative to 1990 levels. That is true even for the most carbon-efficient economies among major emitters, and true even taking into account the current modest gains in conservation of energy use by rich consumers.

The implication of our analysis: Any prospect of meeting the aggregate global emissions target, consistent with developing countries not sacrificing their energy needs, will require massive, revolutionary improvements in the technology margins far greater than seen historically. There is a low carbon path out of the climate change problem, or there is no path at all.

In short, the world needs to go on a war footing to bring about revolutionary technological change. What does this mean for international cooperation?

It requires abandoning, or at least postponing, the primacy accorded to emissions reduction targets — a primacy that has been at the heart of the “narrative” problem in the climate change negotiations.

The US and other rich countries should drop their demand that developing countries commit internationally to emissions targets while continuing themselves to take clear actions to cut their own emissions. They should affirm that people in developing countries have the same rights to energy-based services as those in rich countries. They should offer to help them obtain those energy-based services at the lowest possible cost in the greenest possible way.

In return, China, India and other developing countries should adopt, and be encouraged to adopt, national targets for emissions intensity. China has already moved in this direction and India, which is considering such a move, should seize this moment to define its own target. All countries should be open to international verification of these emissions-intensity targets, which could also be the basis for technology transfers from industrial to developing countries.

Finally, the major emitters, developed and developing countries, should collaborate toward maximising efforts at public funding of green energy research, including creation of advance market commitments (as now exist for new vaccines, where donors guarantee a price for a product currently in development) and other ways of generating new green technologies. And they should focus on the tough challenge of an agreed global intellectual property regime specific to clean energy that balances the need to preserve incentives for technology creation while allowing for rapid dissemination — in the interests of all people everywhere. India, instead of seeing itself as a recipient of funding, should take the lead in global R&D initiatives and offer to make substantial financial contributions.

But the starting point is key: A new, shared narrative that places equality of energy opportunities at the forefront and recognises the need to address the vast current inequities in these opportunities. One concrete way of achieving this might be a revision of what the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, proposed at Heligendamm a few years ago: Long-run equality of emissions per capita across all countries. But as we have argued, it is energy services and not emissions that are the key issue; and the disparities between say India and the US are significantly greater in energy services per capita (nearly 18 times) than in emissions per capita (say 10 times).

We urge Dr Singh, when he meets President Obama, to propose adoption of a new principle: Long-run convergence not in emissions rights but in energy services for every citizen everywhere in the world.

Related Experts

Photo of Nancy Birdsall
Senior Fellow, President Emeritus
Photo of Arvind Subramanian
Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow