Here’s the second of three posts on the shifting ethics of climate change, timed with recent events in Durban. The first, about the changing facts of cumulative emissions, and what this means for historical arguments for action, is here. This post considers arguments for action that employ talk of emissions rights or the call for equal per capita shares.
Some moral arguments for action on climate change depend not on the past but the present. They get us past a certain sort of recrimination – an objection to historical arguments on the grounds of a lack of foreknowledge on the part of the West – and move us all in the direction of equality with a clear and green conscience.
You might think, for example, that however we got to where we are, the benefits and burdens associated with using fossil fuels ought now be shared out equally. That’s what human beings ought to do with a limited, scarce and common resource. Maybe this is something you think follows from reflection on distributive justice or fairness. Maybe it has to do with emissions rights, which follow in a way from the rights that some argue all human beings have – rights to a secure and free life, for example.
If there are ‘safe’ emissions levels, if we can think clearly about the planet’s sinks as common resources to be divided up equally, then it follows pretty sharply that everyone on the planet has an equal right to emit within those safe limits. Perhaps you think in terms of a greenhouse budget, that some maximum concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere is acceptable, and we must divvy up the shares that remain equally, and take care to stay under that limit. (Here’s Peter Singer, arguing for a ‘fair deal on climate change’; you can read more details in ‘One Atmosphere’ in his book, One World.)
Whichever of these lines you choose to take, given the enormous levels of emission per capita in the West, it’s been argued on almost all sides that the West has an obligation to reign in its consumption, bringing it down and in line with others whose use of the planet’s common resources is less reckless. This, anyway, is part of the thinking behind such things as the contraction and convergence model, advocated with gusto by Aubrey Meyer and the Global Commons Institute and endorsed by a very large number of people and organizations, as a means to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions equitably. The idea is that some safe global emissions ceiling is set, everyone has an equal right to emit greenhouse gasses beneath that ceiling, and countries get emissions budgets based on population. High per capita emissions in the developed world contract, leaving room for the developing world to develop its way out of poverty, while levels converge beneath some safe threshold and, together, wind down and avoid the worst of climate change.
“If we agree to per capita allowances for all by 2030 then assigned amounts for Annex One countries would be drastically reduced. However, because all countries would have assigned amounts, maximum use of global emissions trading would strongly reduce the cost of compliance. In such a scenario Industrial Countries would have to do more, but it would be cheaper and easier.”
Jan Pronk COP6 2000, Dutch Environment Minister
“Liberal Democrats argue for the principle of contraction and convergence with the long-term goal of equalising per capita emissions globally.”
Chris Huhne, now the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
“When we ask the opinions of people from all circles, many people, in particular the scientists, think the emissions control standard should be formulated on a per capita basis. According to the UN Charter, everybody is born equal, and has inalienable rights to enjoy modern technological civilization.”
China State Counsellor Dr Song Jian, COP 3 1997
“We do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per capita rights to global environmental resources.”
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India, 2002
“The international climate regime should be based on legitimate principles of equity, such as long-term convergence of emission levels per capita in the various countries.”
Nicholas Sarkozy President of France 2008
“In the final analysis the per capita emissions in emerging economies will meet those of industrialised countries. I cannot imagine the emerging economies will one day be permitted to emit more CO2 per capita than we in the industrialised countries. With this proposal, emerging nations with rapidly expanding economies could be on board the global climate negotiations scheduled for 2009.”
Angela Merkel President of Germany 2008
But, again, the facts are changing. Around ten years ago, this was, and some places it still is, the model used for thinking about contraction and convergence:
The idea is that, fairly rapidly after 2000, developed countries have a steep drop in emissions to make, while China, India and the rest of the world can grow a bit, meeting us in 2030, where we all cruise downwards, eventually to nearly preindustrial levels in one hundred years or so. (EDIT: Note that the GCI has new models, updated for the current state of play, with new, challenging emissions reductions. You can see those, and the GCI’s dim view of the Durban platform, here.)
The trouble is that, in 2012, the world looks much different than it did just ten or even five years ago. The developed world has not undertaken a programme of rapid per capita emissions reduction, and China, India and the rest have not just grown a bit, with their emissions likely to flatten out and on course to meet us on the way down in 2030. While it is a mixed bag, with some countries taking steps to lower emissions rates, and indeed emissions dipping in places during the recession, the trend in global emissions has always been upwards – the global increase is now 45% on 1990 levels, coincidentally the date of the IPCC’s first assessment report.
According to a report published by the European Commission in September and another by the International Energy Agency this year, 2010 was a record year in terms of increasing emissions. The long term annual average increase in emissions from 1990 is 1.9%, but in 2010 the increase was 5.8%, the largest jump ever recorded. This was driven partly by increases in China of 10% and India of 9%, as well as rises in the developed world, notably the USA.
How far have we strayed from the lines on that graph? The USA’s emissions have not dropped sharply, but increased by 11% on 1990 levels. China did not slowly grow, but passed the US as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2006. Amazingly, again according to the European Commission, China’s per capita emissions could equal US levels by 2017 – it’s thought China has already overtaken France and Spain. China has promised not to let itself reach US levels, and its investment in renewables is huge, but it is astonishing to think that a country with a billion more people in it could match the United States in its bloated per capita emissions rates in just 5 years. It’s growth on an extraordinary scale.
The trouble with the moral equation and present emissions is not just this mess of facts, but the time we have left between now and 2030. It made sense at the start of this century to talk about emissions rights and equal per capita shares, which we might divvy up and keep under a safe emissions limit. As we move closer to the point of convergence, the 2030 deadline and the so called safe threshold, our ability to do the right thing, our room for moral manoeuvring, wanes. Emissions rates, on this model, should have begun falling rapidly in the West 5 or 10 years ago, but they have generally increased. Per capita emissions in the developing world had a bit of breathing room, but were not expected to rocket up past our own, already excessive levels.
Kant’s dictum, ought implies can, is something worth reflecting on in this connection. It makes sense to say that we ought to do something only if we actually can do it. It makes sense to call for climate justice, to demand that emissions be shared out equally among the people of the world beneath some safe threshold, only if this is something we in fact can do. There is now at least the possibility that it is now too late to do the right thing — it might already be too late for the LCDs and small island states, who are calling for an immediate deal and even tougher targets. As the space on the graph between us and 2030 compresses, and the lines we have to contemplate riding out become steeper and steeper and therefore further and further from the realm of the physically possible, the possibility that it’s too late is genuinely before us. Facts here intrude on morality, and sometimes the possibility of doing the right or just or equitable thing can slip beyond our grasp if we let it.
This kind of thing isn’t entirely outside our experience. Suppose you’re at an office party, your friend has been drinking, and you know he’s going to make a fool of himself as he walks towards the boss. You’ve got a few moments to grab his arm and save him from trouble he doesn’t deserve. But in that moment, at a certain point, it becomes too late for you to act, and in a single quiet breath, all your inner reflection about what you ought to do changes, passes from a live practical question to something theoretical, to a moot discussion of what you might have done or should have done. Maybe it becomes regret. We’ve all felt that, that sense of a chance slipping away. It’s possible to have that feeling about sharing out emissions rights. It’s possible to have that feeling about this part of the moral dimension of climate change.
We’ll turn to sustainability arguments, which depend on the future, not the past or present, in the next post. Meanwhile, I’d like to know what you think about arguments for equal emissions rights. What I’m contemplating is that calls for equal rights to emit will at some point bang up against so called ‘safe emissions thresholds’. What do we do when it’s too late to for ‘climate justice’? There are further thoughts to be had about morality in extremis. As it gets harder and harder to do the right thing, as ‘safe’ emissions pathways get more and more steep, is there room to excuse ourselves, and say that equal emissions rights are just beyond us? I’d say no, but it’s hard to square that with other things that seem true.