16 February 2008

Western greed and climate change

The New York Times' Dot Earth blog has an interesting, and compelling, post asking what would happen if everyone in the world emitted greenhouse gas emissions at the same per capita rate as the US or the UK. (It should be noted that this argument will be completely ineffective on someone who believe global warming is an excellent idea and who can't wait to take a beach holiday in Iceland.) As Mr. Revkin notes the current per capita rate of emissions world wide is about 4.4 tons which means about 29 billion tonnes annually. If everyone emitted at the British rate of 10 tonnes per annum world wide emission would be around 66 billion tonnes or an increase of about 125%. If everyone emitted at the incredible American rate of about 20 tonnes world wide emissions would be 132 billion tonnes into the atmosphere every year, a 350% increase! Even the most serious global warming doubters would probably admit that this is not a good thing.

So, what to do. Do Americans, Canadians, Australians and Europeans have the right to spew this waste into the atmosphere simply because they have the money to purchase the products and the lifestyle that creates it? Do companies and consumers have the right to externalise the costs associated with this consumption by transferring the financial implications to those least able to afford it?

I suppose that a true free marketeer would say that they do and the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent "invisible hand of the market" will ensure that all ends well. I do not think that way and am capable of seeing that the market in completely impotent in circumstances where foresight and proactive measures are required. This is especially true when, as in this case, these proactive measures are almost certainly in opposition to the short term self interests of those with the most power.

Clearly the first step that will need to be accomplished is to come to agreement as to an acceptable level of emissions would be. By itself this would be no mean feat but let us assume that the world community can reach agreement on this. If this level is higher than current total levels, unlikely, than some growth in total planetary emissions would be allowed. If the level is less then contraction would be required and a timescale, with interim milestones, would have to be agreed. Once again an extremely difficult task but less us assume for the sake of argument that this can be done.

This leaves us with the difficulty of allocation. Unless one believes that some humans have greater God given rights to these emissions than others the equitable mechanism is to allocate the right to emit on a per capita basis worldwide. These rights could then been bought and sold for those with a desire or perceived need to exceed their allocation. The west would clearly being doing much of the buying and developing nations much of the selling leading to a transfer of wealth that would go some way to financing the costs of addressing climate change in the poorer countries.

Why wouldn't this work? I am eagerly awaiting my boost in income!

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