Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Fair deal on climate change can be achieved

The best thing to do would be to establish the total amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted without causing climate change to become extremely dangerous; divide that total by the world's population and then allocate emissions quotas based on each country's population

By Peter Singer


The agreement on climate change reached at Heiligendamm, Germany, by the G8 leaders merely sets the stage for the real debate to come: How will we divide up the diminishing capacity of the atmosphere to absorb our greenhouse gases?

The G8 leaders agreed to seek "substantial" cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and to give "serious consideration" to the goal of halving such emissions by 2050 -- an outcome hailed as a triumph by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet the agreement commits no one to any specific targets, least of all the US, whose leader, President George W. Bush, who will no longer be in office in 2009, when the tough decisions have to be made.

One could reasonably ask why anyone thinks such a vague agreement is any kind of advance at all. At the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 189 countries, including the US, China, India, and all the European nations, signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, thereby agreeing to stabilize greenhouse gases "at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

Fifteen years later, no country has done that. US per capita greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest of any major nation when Bush took office, have continued to rise.

In March, a leaked Bush administration report showed that US emissions were expected to rise almost as fast over the next decade as they did during the previous decade. Now we have yet another agreement to do what these same nations said they would do 15 years ago. That's a triumph?

If Bush or his successor wants to ensure that the next round of talks fails, that will be easy enough. In justifying his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, Bush has always referred to the fact that it did not commit China and India to mandatory emission limits.

Now, in response to suggestions by Bush and other G8 leaders that the larger developing nations must be part of the solution to climate change, Ma Kai (馬凱), the head of Beijing's National Development and Reform Commission, has said that China will not commit to any quantified emissions reduction targets.

Likewise, Indian Foreign Minister Navtej Sarna has said that his country would reject such mandatory restrictions.

Are China and India being unreasonable? Their leaders have consistently pointed out that our current problems are the result of the gases emitted by the industrialized nations over the past century. That is true: Most of those gases are still in the atmosphere, and without them the problem would not be nearly as urgent as it now is.

China and India claim the right to proceed with industrialization and development as the developed nations did, unhampered by limits on their greenhouse gas emissions.

China, India, and other developing nations, have a point -- or rather, three points.

First, if we apply the principle "You broke it, you fix it," then the developed nations have to take responsibility for our "broken" atmosphere, which can no longer absorb more greenhouse gases without the world's climate changing.

Second, even if we wipe the slate clean and forget about who caused the problem, it remains true that the typical US resident is responsible for about six times more greenhouse gas emissions than the typical Chinese, and as much as 18 times more than the average Indian.

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