A shadow climate regime (2)

In the second section of a two-part essay, Robert Engelman explains his radical proposal to tackle global warming that, he says, the world will one day accept and enforce.

Let me sketch out the elements of the proposed human-caused climate-change elimination framework that I believe—and I write only partly in jest—the world will eventually accept and enforce. [Read part one of this article here ]

In this proposed framework, there would be no emissions caps for nations or individuals. All would be free to emit whatever they wanted, but they would accept that there would be economic implications in these emissions. A global emissions target would be set for “carbon dioxide equivalent” (CO2e)—the full basket of greenhouse gases standardised by their warming power, with carbon dioxide the standard unit of emissions “currency.”

This emission target would shrink gradually on an agreed-upon schedule to drive the world toward an emissions trajectory calculated to make human influence on climate change essentially negligible. Nations would agree to set a uniform global price per ton of CO2e aimed at providing economic incentives to drive global use close to or below the target annual global emissions cap. Payment would be tabulated on a national basis but would be based on the per-capita emissions of each nation. Ideally, individuals and nations would eventually also receive credit for greenhouse gases withdrawn from the atmosphere and effectively sequestered, but the concepts around this will require future scientific validation. That is also a problem for CO2 emissions beyond those related to fossil-fuel combustion and the production of cement—mostly those involved in deforestation and other land-use changes. Our capacity and determination to monitor both “positive” and “negative” emissions of all greenhouse gases, however, will no doubt grow with time.

An international body of scientists, probably selected through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), would apply best-available research methods and data to establish a gradually decreasing level of global greenhouse-gas emissions aimed at achieving anthropogenic atmospheric stability  by the end of this century. (By “anthropogenic atmospheric stability” I mean that gas concentrations might vary naturally, but not significantly due to human influence.) A global per-capita emission rate would be calculated by dividing the world population into the global emission total. This number would shrink if world population grows and it would increase if world population contracts in any given year—which we can hope it will be doing by the end of the century. Then this global average for per-capita emissions—let us call it, for lack of a better term, the “global average climate-sustainable per-capita emission”, or GASPE—would be compared to each country’s per-capita emissions. These would be calculated based on the previous year’s national emissions divided by that year’s national populations. Nationally averaged per-capita emissions above or below each year’s GASPE would determine the size of each nation’s per-capita payment into or withdrawal from a Global Climate Change Mitigation Fund. The total national payment would be calculated by re-multiplying per-capita payments.

Payments could be made through any combination of private or public contributions from nations. After a pilot phase, or grace period, such payments would be considered national obligations under international law. Withdrawals from the fund would be made by governments of under-emitting nations, unless another body is delegated for the purpose, and would be transparent and dedicated to uses on which all countries agree—low-carbon energy development, for example, health and education, or possibly rebates to citizens. National self-interest would dictate that withdrawn funds be applied to building social well-being and economic growth that preserves to the extent possible poorer nations’ under-emitting status so that the source of income is preserved as long as possible. Non-economic and bilateral CO2e trading, along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, might be possible as well, but would require rigorous verification. With growing urgency to stop climate change and acceptance of the system, the price per CO2e tonne would rise progressively. The levels of international transfer payments eventually would nonetheless decline as global economic development proceeds, wealth gaps diminish, and technologies for reducing per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions proliferate. At some point, ideally, global emissions would become too negligible to account for, and the transfer system would fade away out of irrelevance.

This system is simple and uniform. It is anchored in individual rather than abstract national or economic sector-specific experience. The need for separate national “commitments,” emissions “base years,” sector-by-sector emissions reduction goals and a Clean Development Mechanism evaporates. So does most incentive for high-emitting industries to move to countries where their emissions won’t matter, since emissions savings will have the same value in all countries. It is the fairest and most practical way to reduce emissions in wealthy and poor countries alike, while stimulating economic development and social well-being and reducing extremes of wealth and income. All nations, no matter how high their current per-capita emissions and irrespective of their emissions history, have an equally valued incentive to reduce per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet none are forced to do this. Over-emitting nations are free to continue over-emitting, but to do so they will have to allow significant amounts of their wealth to be redistributed among under-emitting nations.

Practical experience trying to make this regime work would stimulate development of new thinking and new institutions for global cooperation, poverty reduction, and environmental restoration. It can be replicated within countries and at any level of community (subject to accurate quantification), facilitating similar equitable development and further emissions reductions on these scales. It could be initiated at any time voluntarily to build international public understanding. Initially this could take the form of a purely informational or pedagogical construction without financial obligation, perhaps managed by a coalition of NGOs. In a second phase, modest fund transfers could begin, but on a voluntary and even a private or philanthropic basis. These early efforts would set the stage for the entry of government or comparable actors and significant sums of money as climate change evolves and becomes more dangerous. The need for transparency for such a system could actually stimulate the development of democratic economic instruments and social equity and justice. The need for accurate data collection and verification could stimulate an explosion of educational efforts and generate jobs for young people in every nation.

The initial value for a CO2e tonne could be set negligibly low, to illustrate how the system would work without unduly shocking over-emitters. Countries would be free to constrain greenhouse-gas emissions internally however they saw fit—or not to constrain them at all, if they could afford to pay other nations for these emissions. And that money will itself work through national economic self-interest to constrain emissions elsewhere in the world.

Moreover, there is no need for the system to be the sole or even major vehicle for emissions reductions until the world is ready. It can operate as a non-binding and illustrative “shadow regime” while conventional national commitments are made and perhaps acted on, until such time as publics in all nations become convinced a per-capita trading regime deserves to become the primary approach to driving down global emissions. Other efforts to drive down emissions can help the per-capita trading approach work better and require less transfer of money whenever it eventually is called into play as a binding system. All parties are advantaged rather than penalised for emissions reductions made before the system is put into place. Its existence even as a shadow scheme that may someday be implemented will encourage all countries to drive down greenhouse-gas emissions in anticipation of future implementation—a further argument for beginning to discuss the concept now.

This idea is obviously far from politically feasible today. But it deserves discussion, elaboration, and—very soon—the development of a “shadow climate regime” that could be administered and publicised by an international consortium of civil society organizations. The Worldwatch Institute and I stand ready to begin to work with others on moving this idea forward among the community of nations.

Robert Engelman is president of the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, DC

Homepage image from Oxfam International