Rich and poor, under the Kyoto Protocol

2008-12-13

in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

This article in Slate makes a convincing case that the definitions of rich and poor states under the Kyoto Protocol make no sense and produce distorted outcomes:

The original climate negotiators had a simple way of defining wealth. First, they took the list of 24 countries that were part of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a pre-eminent club of wealthy, democratic, free-market states that was formed in 1961; these included the United States, most of Western Europe, Japan, and a few others. Then they added several states of the former Soviet Union, like Russia and Belarus, as well as a handful from Eastern Europe, like Poland and Slovenia. This was basically Cold War logic on cruise control: First World and so-called Second World countries were rich; Third World countries were poor. The Kyoto Protocol, concluded six years later, maintained the same division. Rich countries agreed to institute caps on their greenhouse-gas emissions while poor countries agreed to do nothing.

The resulting deal had its flaws then. It makes absolutely no sense today. Belarus, for example, is lumped together with the rich countries, despite a GDP per person of about $10,000. As a result, it has an emissions cap like those in place for Europe and Japan. Kuwait, meanwhile, is considered poor. That means the oil-rich emirate is spared any obligations, despite the fact that its residents are about five times wealthier than the Belarussians.

Future climate deals will need to do a better job of distinguishing between those who have already developed and become wealthy (largely on the basis of CO2-generating greenhouse gas emissions) and poor states that are likely to suffer the worst effects of climate change after contributing disproportionally little to its emergence.

It makes sense to shift some states from the poor category to the rich one, and vice versa. It also makes sense to establish a special category for states that are (a) major emitters (b) relatively poor and (c) experiencing relatively rapid growth in emissions. An effective climate change treaty will need to address emissions from these states (such as India and China) as well as those from unambiguously rich states like Canada, Australia, and the United States. While the biggest issues in relation to the very poorest states concern how people will adapt to climate change, starting all major emitters (regardless of wealth) on the path to low carbon economies is the only way to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Of course, establishing a new category doesn’t answer the tricky moral question of who ought to pay how much, in order to achieve the stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. December 13, 2008 at 2:32 pm

How would the reclassification work? Would it be automatic, based on per capita GDP, or would it somehow be negotiated between states?

Milan December 13, 2008 at 7:58 pm

Whether the reclassification was based on negotiating new lists or negotiating new terms, it would still be political.

What is more interesting is the consequences either selection approach would have when things change in the future.

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