A Bric(k)bat needed to reduce emissions

I am working on a paper about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Europe (hopefully there will be a post after Easter), so I suppose that colours the way I see this interesting chart posted by The Economist.

I really think the EU should take emissions-reduction seriously (indeed that is the point of my piece). We need to have the complex global justice debate, distinguish between consumption and production, and all the rest of it.

 

But the simple, undeniable empirical fact is that the rise in the global level of carbon emissions, which is what poses the threat to the planet, is and will be concentrated in what used to be called the newly industrialising countries, and are now often (in many contexts I believe unhelpfully) called the BRICS.

Of course oil consumption is only a rough proxy for emissions, but the figures are stunning, nonetheless. During the 2000s oil consumption declined in North America and Europe. That it rose globally by some 14% was due to rates of increase double that or more in the other global regions. But ultimately what counts for emissions is the absolute increase. In China that was more than 4 million barrels of oil a day between 2000 and 2010, in India somewhere around 1 million barrels. Russia and Brazil (and even tiny Singapore) are not far behind.

Great care needs to be paid to the ethical implications of this finding (historical responsibilities, per capita levels and all the rest). Yet that debate cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that, given their size and stage of development, the global warming problem will be solved in (not necessarily by) the large BRIC countries or it will not be solved at all.

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  • http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/ Sean Sweeney

    Andrew:

    >>>>But the simple, undeniable empirical fact is that the rise in the global level of carbon emissions, which is what poses the threat to the planet, is and will be concentrated in what used to be called the newly industrialising countries, and are now often (in many contexts I believe unhelpfully) called the BRICS.<<<<<

    Important piece, but there are a few other empirical facts that need to be mentioned. Firstly, it's not just the rise in emissions that pose a threat to the planet, but the cumulative emissions that have been released into the atmosphere over the past decades. These emissions — the lion's share — are responsible for the global warming thus far, and in fact future warming because it takes time for the emissions to have an impact on the climate. So this is a case of then a cup overflows, it is the liquid already in the cup that is as responsible as the liquid that spills. Also, emissions reductions from developed countries — which are in per capita terms far higher than the BRIC countries — could make room for some emissions growth from BRICs and LDCs. Either way, BRIC countries can not and should not be asked to "solve the GW problem." That's like saying the icing is responsible for the cake. The solution to the GW program needs to begin with the OECD countries that emit the most per capita and have the means and the responsibility to lead from the front. The US is 5% of the world's population and consumes over 20% of the world's oil production — so let's not lose sigh of that fact. The US negotiators at the UNFCCC are fond of pointing to China, India and Brazil etc and refering to the "growth in future emissions" — all to justify their own inaction. Finally, I would say that the 'model of development' being pursued by the BRICs should not follow the climate-cooking path of the developed world, and measuring emissions in per-capita terms allow the top 20% or so in those countries to carry on polluting while hiding behind the very low emissions generated by the huge number of poor people in those countries who pay the price of pollution and global warming but see few benefits.
    Thanks for your piece. Sean

    • Andrew Watt

      Sean, thanks for your comments. I am aware of these facts and arguments which I very tersely summed up as “complex global justice debate, distinguish between consumption and production, and all the rest of it”. I agree with a lot of what you say. Yet your post illustrates, in my view, the risks of getting locked into a global justice argument that will in the end mean that we do not in the end curb (not to mention reverse) the increase in emissions. Nothing that you have said here contradicts my basic point: “the global warming problem will be solved in (not necessarily by) the large BRIC countries or it will not be solved at all.” (Note that “not necessarily by”). The populations of the EU and the US are relatively small and stagnating; their economies are, at best, growing slowly. In each regard the opposite is true of the BRICs. That is the key fact, and the talk of cups and icing and cakes risks obscuring that.
      I absolutely agree that Europe and the US should take the lead, but we need to be clear that whatever they do themselves, even supposing they could drive emissions down by 80%, will make comparatively little difference to global emissions. What they should be doing is helping (through technology transfer, financial aid etc) newly industrialising countries, which want and need higher living standards, to move to a development model that, as you rightly say does “not follow the climate-cooking path of the developed world”. Regards Andrew

      • http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/ Sean Sweeney

        Points taken Andrew. Let’s keep talking. – Sean

  • http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/ Sean Sweeney

    sorry: I meant to write “the lion’s share having been generated by the OECD countries.” The US is responsible for 30% of the man(sic)-made CO2 presently in the atmosphere, and that does not count the ‘carbon consumption’ factor — the amount of emissions generated by factories and farms around the world in the production of products that get consumed in the US.

  • Tony Brooke

    As long as individual states, (the largest being the worst offenders), take the view that a unilateral attack on carbon emission would be tantamount to political and economic suicide, (which on the face of it seems undeniably true), the argument will always struggle to get beyond the talking stage until we all run out of breath.
    Unfortunately, concluding that the world as we know it is already doomed doesn’t help much either.

  • http://Www.www.inpraiseofchina.com Godfree

    Andrew,
    Until the developed countries wholeheartedly embrace their prior, and much larger, responsibility for this rolling catastrophe it is impolitic, unwise, and even arrogant to reach the (otherwise justified) conclusion that you point to here.
    It’s too easy to point the finger at them when we know that we are the primary villains. I suggest you use what influence you have to guide the developed nations towards setting a good example. You have some influence here, but none there.