“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Climate "reparations"

In my post on my family's carbon footprint I concluded that we are major offenders. My friend Michael Tobis of the blog "Only In It For The Gold" provided a link to an interview by Amy Goodman of the Democracy Now web site, television, and radio program. The interview was with Naomi Klein, an author and journalist with a decidedly anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, some would say anti-western point of view (though I snarkily note that her books are for sale at the usual outlets).

The interview centered on the contention that the (primarily western) countries most responsible for the carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions should be responsible for both the most drastic reductions in emission rates (i.e., primarily in the reduction in the burning of fossil fuels) and for providing the capital to developing countries likely to be most affected by climate change for mitigation of the effects of climate change and for steering their economies toward a trajectory of sustainable development. This latter is considered to be much more expensive than the non-sustainable model exemplified by western economies.

This certainly seems to be a reasonable position at the outset - we in the U.S. emit at about five times the worldwide average per capita and, until recently, were the largest emitter as a nation. China has now surpassed us as a nation, and this will be of note later in this post. Klein characterizes this position as "you broke it, you bought it."

We've certainly benefited from our emissions, achieving a standard of living to which many citizens of the countries demanding "reparations" aspire and doing so by converting fossil fuel to carbon dioxide and water at prodigious rates. So is it really as simple as "you Americans have emitted the carbon dioxide that will drive climate change. You must pay for the mitigation and you must pay us to develop in a way different than the one you chose."

Let's look at China and the U.S. The Union of Concerned Scientists web site shows that, in 2006 the U.S. emitted 5902.75 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, while China emitted 6017.69 million metric tons. For the U.S., this is 19.78 metric tons per capita, while for China it's 4.58 metric tons. That makes us four times as bad, right?

Sorry, I don't totally accept that. If we're "bad" for our per capita emissions, then why is China not equally "bad" for its population? The fact is, the Earth doesn't care whether a ton of carbon dioxide was emitted by one person or by five. China's land area is almost identical to that of the U.S., so it's not as if their percentage of the land area of the Earth somehow justifies their enormous population. And as China's wealth increases so will its emissions, despite China's pledge to reduce its so-called "carbon intensity."

What, then, for countries such as Bangladesh? Here's a country that is inundated regularly by flooding and is desperately poor. And yet it's the seventh most populous country in the world and has a population density 35 times that of the United States. That density has increased by about 2 1/2 times since 1970. When looked at in terms of CO2 emissions per capita, the U.S. is about 709 times as intensive as Bangladesh. When looked at by CO2 emissions per U.S. dollar of purchasing power parity adjusted GDP, the U.S. is about twice as intensive (this reflects the extremely low GDP of Bangladesh). Finally, when looked at in terms of CO2 per unit of land area, the U.S. is about 2.2 times as intensive, reflecting the large population of Bangladesh compared to the relatively small land area. Interestingly, Bangladesh has a higher economic output per unit of land area than the U.S.

While one can endlessly play games with countries' numerical data, I want to make the point that the contention that it's as easy as requiring the "rich" countries to pay for all consequences of atmospheric CO2 and for the sustainable development of the developing (poorer) nations is naive. This would, in many cases, merely be rewarding overpopulation. Overpopulation is the 700 pound gorilla in the room and, no matter what else we do or stop doing, if we don't control population it's all for naught.

No one should think, based on this, that I believe that we as a country, or that I individually can wash our/my hands of responsibility. We certainly have a huge role to play in emissions reduction, mitigation, sustainable development, and humanitarian aid to countries who "missed the boat" on the easy and carefree exploitation of fossil fuels. But totaling each country's cumulative emissions, dividing into world cumulative emissions to derive the fraction of "responsibility" for reduction, mitigation, and sustainable development investment is not something that I believe is right or that I could support.


Charlie said...

I'm curious if you have read much on the subject such as the October (?) economist that talked about the worldwide declines in fertility and its connection to economic activity? If the solution to overpopulation lies in economic growth, but growth is driven by the availability of cheap carbon intensive fuels, then cutting emissions may have negative impacts on overpopulation. Inversely, striving to reduce fertility is most easily achieved (barring Chinese style birth restrictions) by promoting economic growth. It seems to me this makes a case for rapid investment is green energy solutions starting in the parts of the world with the highest fertility rate.

King of the Road said...

The so-called "demographic transition" is a well-studied and commonly accepted phenomenon. It stands to reason that, as lifespans increase, the need for replacements to support parents in survival activities decreases, educational opportunities - especially for women - increase that birthrates would decline. As you suggest, uncoupling such considerations from the burning of fossil fuels, thereby achieving a reasonable level of sustainable growth, is a win for everyone.