While industrialized countries have historically produced most of the carbon dioxide emissions now altering the Earth's climate, the developing countries' share increases every year. Tensions between these two groups continue to be a major obstacle to setting global emission targets, as seen at the G8 summit this week.
But analysts say there are signs of progress. A novel proposal from a private research group offers polluters in both developed and developing worlds a more equitable way to help save the planet.
Assigning blame and responsibility
According to Annie Petsonk of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, "Industrialized countries say, 'Well, we're not going to cap our emissions until major emitting developing countries agree to follow suit,' and developing countries say, 'We're not going to do this, because we didn't cause most of this problem in the first place.'"
Petsonk says this week's G8 summit of the largest industrialized nations managed to bring these high-income countries one step closer to agreement.
"They are committing collectively to reduce industrialized countries' emissions 80 percent by 2050. That's a lot, but 2050 is far away," she said. "Developing countries have said you need to do much more. The G8 said, in addition, 'Well, we all need together to reduce our emissions as a world 50 percent by 2050…' The developing countries have not embraced that yet."
According to most experts, the tremendous economic growth of some of the largest developing countries makes their participation in a new climate pact essential. Petsonk claims, "We're now at a point where if we don't get action from both the industrialized countries and the major developing country emitters, it will not be possible to avert more than 2 degrees of warming, the level that many, many scientists have signified would be dangerous."
An attempt to find a more equitable approach
While government leaders continue to argue about how developing countries should be incorporated into the United Nations' climate treaty, Shoibal Chakravarty of the Princeton Environmental Institute thinks their focus should be on one glaring fact.
"Ten percent of the world actually produces 50 percent of the world's emissions," he says.
Chakravarty and his colleagues have published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that puts the burden for emission curbs on those polluters who emit the most, regardless of where they live. The Princeton researcher explains, "If, for example, in 2030 you want the world's emissions to reduce from 42 to 30 billion tons, that's equivalent to saying that nobody should be emitting more than 10.8 or 11 tons of carbon dioxide per year."
"The method then produces a national target for each country, dependent solely on the number of people in that country who are above this figure of, in this case, 10.8 tons of CO2 per year," Chakravarty says.
In addition to providing a more equitable way of assigning responsibility for emission targets, Chakravarty claims this method could be used to fairly adjust developing nations' responsibilities over time.
"Some developing countries like India, China, Brazil would grow at a much faster rate… so they would have a much larger number of these high emitters 20 years from now," he says. "This provides an automatic mechanism for distributing the work of emissions reductions among countries as they get richer and as they have more of a capacity to handle emissions reductions."
Most current proposals for setting emissions targets are based instead on the average emissions per capita of each country. Chakravarty claims this gives an unfair advantage to those who produce a lot of carbon dioxide but live in poor countries.
"For example, if you take some countries, the average emissions could be very low… but you could still have a significant minority of very high emitters," he maintains.
"In equal per capita, some of these people would get a free pass, because the emissions would be based on just the average emissions of that country."
Concerns about the new approach
Chakravarty's emission-reduction model has its critics. Michel den Elzen of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency points to one issue.
"The main problem I have with this type of approach is…it's more data intensive than the usual approaches," he says.
Highlighting a different concern, Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute says, "It's an attempt to come at it from the political end… not to come at it from the scientific or the logical end."
Meyer suggests that the Princeton researchers' method may not take into account overall accumulation of carbon dioxide in an effective manner.
Short on time
Annie Petsonk argues that whatever the method, something needs to be done quickly.
"The Earth is warming. We're seeing it happen now, in our lifetime," she says. "2009 is our best chance for us, for our children, for their children… If we let this chance slip, it will be very difficult to get as good a chance again."
World leaders will convene for the next round of climate talks this December in Copenhagen.