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We're Headed for the Greatest Resource-Sharing Problem of All Time

For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

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On that same note, the effectiveness of the 350 campaign is another Copenhagen achievement. By the end of the two-week melee-cum-jamboree, 112 countries had endorsed the demand to stabilize carbon dioxide levels at 350 parts per million (it’s now at 387 ppm, and rising.) The 350 ppm target, which once seemed so obscure, had by the end of the talks become an expression of plain speech. And, at least among the activists, it had almost entirely supplanted the 2°C temperature target as the measure of climate stabilization. This happened thanks to the determined efforts of thousands of citizen-activists across the globe who had made the number the cornerstone of their campaigns.

As a goal, 350 ppm is hard to explain without recourse to charts and other technical idioms. Suffice it to say that in Copenhagen 350 emerged as the alternative to reduction targets that would condemn low-lying and island states and other “most vulnerable” areas to near-certain apocalypse. The “official” target, as agreed by the G8 and many others, is commonly expressed in terms of a global emissions reduction to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a target that is often said, especially by politicians, to be “2°C compliant.” But that’s stretching the arithmetic. More precisely, the G8 supports a slack and politically expedient emissions pathway that the vulnerable countries and their allies are determined to cast aside. The vulnerable nations didn’t settle for a “more honest” 2°C target, but instead counterattacked with the slogan “1.5 to Survive.” This was a call for a 350 ppm target, which has perhaps a 50-50 chance of holding the warming below 1.5°C, and something like an 85 percent chance of keeping it below 2°C.

The Copenhagen Accord (.pdf), of course, did not open the road to 350. What it does is provide a process by which governments can step forward to publish reduction pledges. This will be a very big deal, but evaluating these pledges will be complicated. What, after all, should a national emissions pledge be compared to? A projection of business-as-usual emissions? If so, which one? A measure of per-capita “emissions rights?” If so, what to do about the fact that the “atmospheric space” is already exhausted? Should historical responsibility come into play? If so, starting when? How should the obligations of rich countries be compared to those of poor? And what about the rich people within poor countries? Or for that matter the poor people within rich ones?

These questions are not easy. They are further confused by the matter of domestic vs. international obligation. Should the United States – which tops the charts in measures of capacity, responsibility, and per-capita emissions – be able to do its fair share within its own borders? Or does it have obligations to more vulnerable countries around the world?

Then there’s the problem of loopholes. These are critical, because the United States and other wealthy countries have built plenty of them into their emissions reductions projections. The critical loopholes are surplus allowed emissions (so-called “hot air” from the collapse of the Soviet economy in 1990), forestry and agricultural credits (calculated from bogus baselines), and of course “non-additional offsets” (which represent reductions that would have happened anyway). If they’re allowed to stand, then the wealthy countries will have to do almost nothing at all.

The bottom line is that the fundamental impasse over North-South “burden sharing” – who does what, when, and where, and, most importantly, who pays – is still unresolved. The crux of the problem is that we in the wealthy world are simply not carrying our own weight. Consider just a simple comparison between the United States and China. Since 1850, the United States has emitted some 350 gigatons of CO2, according to the US Department of Energy; during that same time, China has emitted about 125 gigatons. Now take the two countries’ pledged emissions reductions by 2020. China is promising to cut 2.5 gigatons of CO2, , or a 40 percent improvement in energy intensity; the United States, for its part, has committed to cutting only 1.25 gigatons. In short, our historical responsibility for climate change is greater, yet the Chinese are the ones undertaking the larger obligation.

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