Development in a finite world

Tackling climate change can also mean fighting inequality – not only between nations, but also within a country’s borders. Yu Jie explains.

After Bali, we find ourselves living in a world constrained by its climate. Our right to development must take the climate into consideration. Like any other resource, greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere will become a bottleneck and limit our growth. Those who can find low-carbon ways to grow will have more room to develop. 

The concept of Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs) has recently been proposed as a way of dealing with climate change. It is a framework with a focus that is not only limited to inequality between nations, but also extending to inequity within a country’s borders. GDRs do not only protect a nation’s right to development, but also take into consideration the right of its people to reach the living standards of the “global middle class”.  

The proponents of this model believe that development justice no longer means equality of emissions. However, the design and implementation of a global low-carbon framework needs to incorporate poor countries’ right to develop. Until such a regime is on the agenda, we cannot expect developing countries to comply with the reasoning of the west on this issue. Indeed, the reverse will be the case.  

The framework sets a “development threshold”: a living standard higher than our basic survival needs, but not at a level of excessive consumption. People below this threshold have less responsibility for climate change and little ability to promote its solution. Therefore they are not expected to cover the costs of emissions reductions or adaptation to climate change. The rich above the threshold, however, will have a duty not only to ensure others achieve a better standard of living, but also to bear the costs of emissions reductions and adaptation – regardless of whether they live in the global north or the south. They not only should change the way they consume, but also pay for the poor to reach the threshold through low-carbon development.  

Establishing that threshold is no easy task. Income only reflects economic aspects of life; it ignores welfare, health and environmental security. However, the proposal uses income levels to determine its threshold, because these to a large extent represent living standards, consumption levels and one’s own ability to cut emissions.  

The development threshold is proposed at an income level of US$9,000 per year (adjusted in terms of purchasing power parity). The average income in developing nations is US$3,500; the global average is US$8,500. Average incomes here do not refer to national per capita averages, but average individual incomes. There are evident problems, however, since incomes are often very unequal within a nation. GDRs therefore present a challenge to the traditional north-south view of the world with a crucial part of the system, known as the responsibility and capacity indicator (RCI). 

Capacity, in this system, correlates with wealth, and is used to allocate responsibility on cutting emissions within a nation. Let’s suppose climate change were tackled with a global carbon tax. This type of tax could not be based on a nation’s GDP, but would be levied on those above the threshold: the further above the threshold you were, the more you would be taxed. In this system, inequality within nations – the so-called “north within the south” – will be seen as no different to inequality between countries. In fact, nations with wide income gaps may be seen, under this system, to have more capacity than those with smaller income gaps.  

The responsibility indicator refers to the principle of “the polluter pays”, but also takes into account the nature of the emissions. Greenhouse-gas emissions caused by cooking and heating are not equivalent to those incurred through the consumption of luxury products. “Survival emissions” should not incur any responsibility; non-essential emissions should. This takes into account the individual’s right to development, but means the rich in poor countries have their duties too.  

Scientists believe that to prevent dangerous, long-term climate change, we must limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This figure allows us to calculate the global emissions reductions necessary, and parcel out reductions in accordance with the responsibilities and abilities defined in this proposal. The global emissions budget can then be divided within each individual country.  

Under this proposed framework, the responsibilities of rich countries will go far beyond their own low-carbon projects. Seven percent of the population in low-income countries and 40% of the population in middle-income countries will also be above the threshold, and bear responsibility for emissions reductions. Together, these populations account for 26% of the global population.  

Developed countries will have to do far more than cutting their emissions by 90% by 2050. Some rich countries will have to reach zero emissions and fund low-carbon growth in developing nations. For instance, the UK would reach zero emissions by 2019. 

China’s development would continue, the model estimates, until 2025. China’s greenhouse-gas emissions would grow by 40% between 2010 and 2025, but this is less than the 70% increase in a business-as-usual scenario.  

As a rapidly developing nation, China is positioned between rich and poor countries. China and India are unlikely to side with the EU in accepting a two-degree target, not because they do not understand the science or the risks, but because they fear current frameworks will deny them development. Western countries have not been sincere in their commitments, and existing models will see poor countries lose more than they gain.  

Of all the proposed climate frameworks under discussion, this presents the largest challenge to developing nations in terms of responsibility. It proposes a system of emissions reductions for developing countries and a complete graduation mechanism.  

Currently, developing nations have been unable to accept any system with a graduation mechanism, since it represents a limit on development. But climate change itself will limit development, and developing countries already talk of battling “climate poverty”. Poor nations, after all, tend to be more vulnerable to extreme weather than developed countries.  

Even before a consensus is reached on this framework, it is valuable to consider its emphasis on the responsibilities of rich and poor people, regardless of where they live. If emissions quotas become a scarce public commodity, the value of this proposal should become clear. Within any one country, the rich should allow the poor to increase their standard of living, while covering the costs of emissions reductions. This can be implemented at a national level before an international framework is adopted, and will be of benefit to domestic sustainable development policies.  

Some will say that this proposed framework steals from the rich to give to the poor. But it is unarguable that the rich cause more emissions, and as a result use more public resources. New taxation policies can ethically address the need for a climate mechanism that changes consumption patterns on an individual and societal level. In the end, in everything from industry to daily life, climate security will become a mainstream social issue.    

Dr. Yu Jie is China Program Advisor for the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beijing. Yu holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Nanjing University; her work focuses on Chinese climate change and energy conservation policy.

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