You wouldn’t know it from the happy spin emanating from the Oval Office, but a Third World revolt in Bonn, Germany, this week almost derailed the Paris climate change negotiations in November. Although peace has been restored for now, it only happened by papering over this fundamental conundrum: The world can either avert climate catastrophe or seek “climate justice,” not both.
The revolt was triggered when 130 developing nations including India and China noticed that the draft action plan that is supposed to serve as the blueprint for the Paris negotiations had omitted their most important conditions about the “fairness and financing” of the final deal — in other words, who is going to take responsibility for the warming and who should pay to reduce it? The South African delegation condemned the omission as”apartheid” that would penalize poor countries for the sins of the rich.
It has a point.
The Paris negotiations are supposed to be the mother of all climate negotiations. It was convened to impose binding emission reductions on all countries — not just the West, as was the case with the 1995 Kyoto protocol — to hold global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels. To this end, each country has been asked to submit its own good faith reduction plan that includes both how much it will cut emissions and its plan for getting there. Once finalized after a review in Paris, the plans will be legally binding — although how precisely they will be enforced is anyone’s guess.
Setting that aside, negotiations will boil down to an essential question: How much should each country cut and therefore whose idea of “climate justice,” as Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has termed it, should prevail?
All issues that require collective action, especially on a global scale, are difficult to resolve because they suffer from the free-rider problem, i.e. some parties seek to benefit from the “common good” without springing for it. But as Oren Cass, a Manhattan Institute analyst, notes, fighting climate change is a particularly vexing problem because the individual cost to each country, especially Third World ones, will be immediate and huge — and the benefits distant and uncertain. The notion that emission cuts can pay for themselves through increased energy efficiency is at best fanciful and, at worst, a lie.
There are no low-carbon energy technologies available today that can sustain the economic growth rates these countries need to lift their people out of abject poverty, let alone offer Western living standards at anything resembling an affordable cost. Over 300 million Indians still live below the poverty line, earning less than $1 per day. India’s per capita energy consumption is 15 times less than the United States’. India has to keep boosting its energy use — and therefore carbon emissions — for at least another two decades to eliminate dire poverty, which is why its reduction plan only commits to slashing “emission intensity” — its emission rate as a percentage of its GPD — not emissions themselves.