Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 July 2010

Climate deal needs equity in carbon space

The atmosphere has little space left to absorb more carbon dioxide, and developing countries are now claiming their fair share to what remains


A global deal on climate change must put fairness and equity at the centre of its design, taking account that much of the carbon dioxide and other dangerous gases in the atmosphere has been placed there by the developed countries.

The deal must ensure that developing countries be given the “carbon space” and “development space” to survive as well as to achieve their development goals.

Without such a design, the developing countries will suffer from both a climate and a development crisis, while developed countries will continue to occupy most of the “carbon space.”

This was the general conclusion of an interesting workshop that I attended in Mumbai (India) on 28-29 June. It was organised by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The “carbon equity” principle was most prominently stressed by the Indian Environment Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh. 

He said that any agreement on climate was not acceptable to developing countries if it was not anchored in equity and an equitable sharing of atmospheric space among all countries which should not remain as mere words but must be given operational effect.

He supported the concept of  “carbon budgeting”, which was the workshop's main theme.  This refers to determining how much various countries contributed through the years to the carbon in the atmosphere, how much more carbon can the atmosphere absorb before there are disastrous consequences to the Earth, and how this remaining “carbon space” should be allocated among various countries.

Ramesh indicated that India will take the lead in the UN climate negotiations in using the carbon budget to develop the paradigm of equitable access to atmospheric space and how this is to be operationalised.

In the same opening session, I also supported the need to develop a methodology on carbon budgeting. Between 1850 and today, developed countries had over-used their fair share of the carbon space by many hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, while developing countries had contributed far below their proportionate share. 

For the future, there is a need to allocate the carbon rights and obligations of countries, and in particular determine what is the fair share for developed and developing countries between 2010 and 2050. 

If the developed countries could not perform according to what they should objectively do, this could be one basis for their contribution to a fund to assist developing countries to undertake their climate actions.

The concept that developed and developing countries should reach the same level of for example 1 or 2 tonnes per capita by 2050 is a good starting point for discussion but not good enough. 

This is because developed countries had the infrastructure, technology, finance and human capacity to cut their emissions drastically while maintaining their high income levels if there is the political will, but developing countries do not have the capacity and economic level to do this.

The developed countries can come down to 2 tonnes per capita while maintaining their high GNP per capita income levels but developing countries would be locked into low per capita incomes, unless there is a massive transfer of finance and technology and capacity to help them to develop along a different growth path.

Hence, equity has two meanings – environmental equity and development equity. The developing countries must have the equitable space to atmospheric resources so that with the very little “carbon space” left to them, they can still achieve adequate economic growth and development, and move towards the development level of the developed countries. 


Facts and figures on the role of various countries in placing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were given in the workshop's main paper, authored by a team of Indian scientists led by T. Jayaraman and Tejal Kanitkar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The team developed a model on the carbon budget approach, which can point to the historical contribution of various countries and propose how much emissions each of them should be allowed from now to 2050.   After 2050, there should be very little emissions.

The scientists estimate that about 1,200 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents have been emitted from 1850 to 2009, of which about 400 Gton was emitted in 1850-1970 and 800 Gton in 1970-2009.  To have a half-chance of limiting the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, only another 1,000 Gtons can be emitted in 2010-50.

The United States with 5% of the world's population in 2009 has contributed 29% of the increase in carbon in the atmosphere in 1850-2009, thus exceeding its fair share of carbon space by 24%, according to the paper's data. Other developed countries with 14% of world population contributed 45%. 

The developing countries overall had 81% of world population and its fair share of the total emissions of 1850-2009 is thus also 81% but in fact their share of actual emissions was only 26%.  They have thus under-used their share by 55%.

Almost all the developing countries have “under-used” what would have been their share of the carbon space.  India with 17% of world population has a 3% contribution to total emissions of 1850-2009, and China (so often blamed by the West) has 20% of world population and a 10% share of total historical emissions.

The Indian scientific team is now working on details of how the remaining “atmospheric space” of 1,000 Gtons should be allocated, especially between developed and developing countries, in the 40 years between now and 2050.

The fear is that there will be very little carbon space left for developing countries to use in future, especially if the total emissions that should be allowed are 750 Gtons, which gives a 75% chance of the temperature rise being below 2 degrees.   If a 1.5 degree target is taken instead (as many scientists and countries are demanding) then the amount of future carbon space is even much less.

This is why it is so important for the developing countries to be supported by finance and technology transfer.  Without sufficient amounts of these, they will not be able to grow their economies in a low carbon way.