North/South historical versus future emissions

It is common to hear officials from developed states say things akin to this: “Yes, we are the ones who have historically done the most to create climate change – but we will be eclipsed by developing nations in the future.” While probably valid to some extent, there are many possible responses to this. There are arguments about who got rich how, as well as whose current per-capita emissions are high or low. What I am objecting to here is the curious methodology sometimes used to describe the developed/developing past/future dynamic.

Sometimes, states say both (a) developed states will continue to increase their emissions, in line with how they have been rising recently and (b) we will cut our emissions, according to our existing plan. If you step beyond that to compare your target future numbers with your business-as-usual projections for developing states, you make them look like a huge problem by comparison. One problem with this is that it is akin to saying the following: “I know I have been a problem gambler, but I have a plan to cut it down. I am going to halve my annual gambling losses in three years, and eliminate 80% of them in five. My buddy here, however, is a really compulsive gambler. He keeps losing more and more at an increasing rate. As such, his projected future losses are huge. Indeed, the amount I have lost so far is tiny compared to the amount he is going to lose in the future.” It is paradoxical because you are using the assertion that you will do better in the future to avoid present demands that you do more to reduce future emissions.

You are basically assuming that you can and will change, while others will not. No rich country government that has adopted targets for cutting emissions claims that cutting emissions requires cutting GDP. Nobody in power is touting a “stop climate change through recession” approach. As such, they must believe it possible to maintain economic growth while cutting emissions. While that may or may not be a valid assumption over various spans of time, it is an assumption that must be applied to developing states as well as developed ones.

In short, both developed and developing states need to cut emissions. The large probable future emissions from states like India and China are relevant to climate planning, partly insofar as concern about them could prompt useful transfers of wealth and low-carbon technology towards those states. At the same time, the wealth of the developed world – and the historical emissions that helped generate it – are also highly relevant. So too are the much larger non-climatic challenges being faced in the developing world. The developed world needs to start taking the kinds of steps necessary for actually hitting their 2020 and 2050 targets, in the process demonstrating to developing states how the transition can be accomplished in a politically acceptable way.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “North/South historical versus future emissions”

  1. Climate questions we don’t want to ask

    10:10 will fail if it becomes merely a hobby for the wealthy west. We must make the developing world cut emissions too

    The 10:10 campaign supported by the Guardian resonates because of its simplicity. It suggests that wealthy western consumers who make modest, personal commitments to the fight against climate change are making a real difference. We’re saving the world, one insulated loft at a time. That, very unfortunately, is misleading and the numbers tell us why.

    Here in the developed world, we produce an average of 12 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Though that figure has risen in the last three decades, it has done so fairly slowly. Meanwhile, the number of us actually living in the developed world is also hovering at a fairly static level.

    Where that stasis gets interesting is when we look at the developing world by comparison. For “developing world” I am taking the most frequently used definition: all nations in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia (except Japan) and Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

    Since 1996, the average per-person emissions across that vast section of the planet has ballooned from two tonnes per person per year to a whisker shy of four tonnes. So, while the UK’s contribution has shrunk by 1% and that of the US has increased by only (only!) 7%, China’s has more than doubled. India’s has grown by 55%.

    Where those numbers get scary, if they weren’t already, is when you put them next to the population projections. In 2000, 42% of the population of the least developed nations on earth was aged under 15 – more than twice the proportion of kids in developed nations. That’s why it only took us 12 years to get from a global population of 5bn to one of 6bn. In fact, the LSE’s survey of population growth in the developing world forecasts the 8bn mark will be hit around 2040.

  2. Global CO2 emissions from energy use remained roughly flat in 2016, according to a report from BP, a big oil firm. A year-on-year increase of 0.1% was well below the ten-year average growth rate of 1.6%. Improved energy efficiency and a slowing global economy were partly responsible. China also played a part: the country remains the world’s largest source of CO2 but its emissions fell by 41m tonnes in 2016, partly thanks to weakness in some energy-intensive industries. In contrast, India’s emissions increased by 114m tonnes last year. The landscape has changed over the past quarter-century. In 2016 the Asia-Pacific region produced almost half of global emissions, up from 25% in 1990.

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