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Argument: Contraction/Convergence equalizes per capita emissions, burdens wealthy

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Jeff Huggins. Comment on Dot Earth article "Imagine Everyone Was Equal, in Emissions". New York Times Blog Dot Earth. February 15, 2008 - The Earth is a place that we all inhabit, of course, and we certainly share its atmosphere.

There is no (good) reason that person X should be entitled to put Z tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year while person Z must put only 10%, or 30%, or even 50% of Z tons into the atmosphere. Parents and children know this: When you go to a birthday party, kids don’t get slices of cake of different sizes depending on when they arrived at the party or when they were born. And, as a child, if you make 90% of the mess in a room, then you should be expected to clean up the same 90% of the mess, or at least you shouldn’t complain if you are asked to clean up your own mess, or at least you certainly shouldn’t complain if the other kids complain that they are having to clean up your mess.

Now, of course, there are also matters of practicality and cooperation involved here. So, I’m not suggesting that, immediately, all citizens of Earth must achieve equal per-capita emissions. But, we (in the US) should definitely start, right away, doing things to substantially lower our emissions. And, if we want any credibility whatsoever in getting others to also mitigate their emissions, we’ll need to show that we are energetically doing so.

We have relatively low energy costs, we waste huge amounts of energy, we already have some technologies that we have not used, much, to address the problem, and we consume like it’s “1999”, as the song goes. What nonsense it would be to argue that we have some sort of prolonged “right” to have per capita carbon dioxide emissions that are “way” larger than some level that (some would argue) everyone else in the world must have?!

Clearly, part of the issue comes back around to the issue of population growth. If we begin considering and addressing that issue in the U.S., then we can request other countries to consider and address it as well. Then, at some point, in the future, if some countries are still growing unsustainably and increasing emissions, we can point to the problem credibly. But, right now, in the U.S., we are hardly doing anything to address per capita emissions OR our own population. So, how can we be credible in asking other countries to address their own issues in these areas? It’s the “do as I ask, not as I myself do” problem.

Am I missing something here? Did I forget how to reason somehow? Please let me know.

Also, back to the media, I’m amazed that the media (here, I’m talking in general and on average, not Dot Earth) don’t point out the nonsense and un-wisdom in some of the arguments that suggest that we, in America, should be able to have per capita emissions that are an order of magnitude higher than those of people in many other countries. I’m not sure which is more bizarre: the arguments that are sometimes forwarded or printed on that question, or the RC hearing yesterday?

According to Plutarch, supposedly, Socrates once said,

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”


"A Global Solution to A Global Problem". Global Commons Institute - Introduction. At the Second World Climate Conference in 1990, GCI presented an agenda for solving the global crisis of climate change. This was essentially the proposition of "Equity for Survival". We argued that whilst the traditional proposition of equity for its own sake was a dream, unless the new and more rigorous proposition of equity for survival was adopted, the nightmare of global climate destabilisation would follow.

Limits to growth - certainly of fossil fuel consumption - must now be observed if we are to avoid this climate crisis. Until now however, the limits-free expectations encouraged by the success of laissez-faire economics have been obscuring this. It will be impossible to observe these limits unless, from now on, implementation is internationally configured in a way which corrects the skewed distribution between the rich and poor . This converts a merely moral dilemma into a moral imperative. Because everyone - regardless of status - is now increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the rich have little choice but to share the burden of contraction fairly.

Encouraged by the growing political recognition of this imperative, GCI has devised a greenhouse gas abatement methodology based on "Equity and Survival" . We call it "Contraction and Convergence". Early results of this were published to good effect at the Second Conference of the Parties (COP2) in 1996 and these have been distributed widely since then. Subsequently, the C&C campaign has received widespread support from many quarters (see list of references). To demonstrate the procedure, an all country graphic covering the period 1860 to 2100 was compiled as a demonstration example. It shows the history of fossil fuel consumption using data from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre (CDIAC). And it also shows a future budget of suggested "CO2 Emissions Entitlements" consistent with an outcome of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere of 450 parts per million by volume (ppmv) by the year 2100.

This is "Contraction". Contraction of CO2 output is the imperative for ecological survival. We observe that such a global consumption path is less dangerous than a path with an outcome of 550 ppmv, but do not wish to imply that we regard the 450 ppmv as being without dangers. We are already taking substantial damages at the present concentrations of around 360 ppmv.

But the budget also distributes available future entitlements to emit CO2 so that they are equalised on a per capita basis globally by - in this example - 2045, the year of the UN Centenary. This is "Convergence" and convergence is the political equity imperative. We consider that a failure to face and secure a global commitment of this kind will result in a perpetual stalemate in the international political process to the extent that the agreement and delivery of global abatement targets will become less and less possible. This view has been strongly reinforced by the snail-like progress of negotiations since COP2 and the extremely limited achievments at Kyoto.

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