Wednesday, December 14, 2011

UN Climate Summit: Part 2

An Alternative Standard for the Climate Change Summit
That Is Equally Fair

K. Edward Renner, PhD

The goal of the UN Climate Summits is to reach an agreement on a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. The previous summits have failed because the US and China, as the two major players, have each made proposals that would be largely achieved through “business as usual” for themselves, but which would severely impact the other.

As such, neither can realistically expect the other to agree.

Both focused on only two factors -- the absolute levels of GDP and CO2 emissions – which are only a small part of the relevant knowledge necessary for finding a solution. The resolution of the impasse requires creating an alternative standard that is equally fair by taking into account three additional concepts from the environment sciences: “Ecological Footprint,” “bio-capacity” and “overshoot.”

Source: National Footprint Accounts Data from Global Footprint Network

The Ecological Footprint is a measure of humanity’s demand on nature. It measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes. Bio-capacity is measured by calculating the amount of biologically productive land and sea area available to provide the resources a population consumes and to absorb its wastes. Overshoot is when a country has a larger Ecological Footprint than their bio-capacity. Both the United States and China are in “overshoot” situations, but in very different ways.

Historically, the US has been the leading producer of greenhouse gases. But, as a result of their recent industrial growth, China has now surpassed the US. However, because of their large population, their per-person Footprint is still nearly five times smaller than the United States. It is for these reasons that a per capita index, as well as the absolute amounts, must figure into any alternative world standard. High levels of consumption by a small number of people in the US, and large economic growth spread over a large population in China, are two very different circumstances responsible for similar absolute levels of emissions.

The deficits created by these two types of overshoot have been made up by seriously depleting the resources of Least Developed countries, such as Columbia and the Congo, to dangerously low levels. Thus, as bio-capacity creditors, these nations must be included as principal players in the global economy. It is essential to restore and then to maintain their bio-capacity for any of us to have a sustainable life on the planet.

The simple arithmetic is that neither China nor the US can continue to destroy the bio-capacity of the earth without crashing the planet.

Source: National Footprint Accounts Data from Global Footprint Network

In practical terms this means both the US and China must start to reduce and then eliminate their own overshoot, and to invest real resources in the creditor nations to help them restore and maintain their bio-capacity. However, the way the US (and other Developed countries) and China (and the other Developing countries) are able to do this is very different due to the two very different types of overshoot.

Developed countries, such as the United States must “pay backwards.” Because the US has a declining share of the world’s GDP and a huge long-standing ecological debit, the US only has the capacity to pay back its debit by redirecting some of its excessive consumption toward reducing its overshoot and toward helping to restore the bio-capacity of the Least Developed countries.

Whereas, the Developing countries, such as China, only have the capacity to “paying forward” by redirecting some of their future growth toward reducing their overshoot and toward helping to restore the bio-capacity of the Least Developed countries.

Internally, for both countries, it means making heavy investment in alternative energy and creating a green-based rather than a growth-based consumption economy. Externally, it means sharing technology with the Least Developed nations and adjusting their policies to support sustainable living – such as for the US to stop making it more profitable to grow plants for ethanol than for food.

To be fair, the amount of “paying backwards” by the US should match the amount of “paying forward” by China. This is a mathematical equivalence that can be calculated.

But, fairness alone is not a sufficient condition. In addition to being feasible, the solution must also be politically acceptable with in each nation. Therein is the cause of the stalemate and the challenge to be overcome.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This material is based on his podcast at:

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