A new term has entered our lexicon without much fanfare, but that is about to change. When the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets next month in Copenhagen, we will hear a lot more about "carbon debt" and the obligation that developing countries believe the developed world owes them for having used the atmosphere as a sink for CO2 and other gases since the Industrial Revolution. From my perspective, this approach looks counterproductive and risks scuttling the principal process for coordinating the actions of independent nations in addressing the most global of problems. The issues of international and inter-generational environmental equity raised by the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are serious and complex, but framing them in this way will make it much harder to find acceptable middle ground, unless the delegations show restraint and common sense about how far to reach back into history to assess blame for a warming earth.
It was always going to be tricky reconciling the competing interests of the developed and developing worlds sufficiently to craft a new global climate agreement to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol. In addition to large differences in per-capita wealth and income, many of the main players fall into one of two key categories: countries with large historical and current emissions of GHGs that are now moderating or even decreasing, and countries with relatively much smaller historical emissions but large and/or rapidly-growing current emissions. The nature of the cumulative climate impact of these GHGs makes that distinction a crucial one and the source of much rancorous debate. I've been thinking about the resulting issues of equity for some time, but I am extremely concerned by the turn that I see the negotiating process that started in Bali two years ago having taken.
The UNFCC doesn't make it easy to follow what's going on. Of all things it took a visit to a climate change skeptic's website to track down a reasonably current version of the negotiating draft that is being prepared for consideration in Copenhagen. That enabled me to locate the document on the UN site once I had its file name. Having scanned through it for references to carbon debt, I can see why they might have wanted to make it hard to find, since the principles embodied there are bound to strike most Americans as at least counter-intuitive. For starters, the notion of carbon debt is introduced early in the draft as a "guiding principle of the Convention", and described as, "historical responsibilities in greenhouse gas emissions and the related historical ecological debt generated by the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 and the most recent scientific information." That word "debt" crops up many times in the document, with repeated references to the "emissions debt", "historical climate debt" and "adaptation debt" that developed countries "owe" to developing ones.
Lest you think that this is merely intended as an abstraction governing philosophical discussions of equity, the document makes it abundantly clear that this is about money and who shall pay whom. One of several examples in the text puts this in admirably concrete terms:
"Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources and transfer technology to developing country Parties to make full and effective repayment of climate debt, including adaptation debt, taking responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions."
Unfortunately, as I noted in a lengthy posting on this topic a year-and-a-half ago, matters aren't nearly as clear-cut as this wording suggests. While the consequences of many decades' worth of emissions of CO2 and other long-lived GHGs certainly appear to be putting an unfair burden on developing countries, it would be equally unfair to the citizens of developed countries to tax them for emissions that occurred before the scientific consensus on global warming emerged in the last couple of decades. Arrhenius may have worked out that CO2 could warm the planet a century ago, but the relative importance of that effect amidst the many complex factors influencing the climate was anything but obvious then, and it is still not fully understood. It makes no more sense to burden modern Europeans and Americans for the emissions of our parents, grandparents, and great-to-the-nth grandparents going back 10 generations than it does to tax modern Chinese, Indians and Brazilians for the entire edifice of Western technology that has enabled their present and future development.
We are all in this together, and the only emissions we have control over are those that occur from here on out. Having said that, it's clear that without some recognition that developing countries didn't create this problem--no matter how much they might be contributing to it now--there will be no deal in Copenhagen. The only viable middle ground I see, if not from the standpoint of the inter-governmental delegations, then for the citizenry they represent, would be to recognize the disparities in historical emissions but impose an effective statute of limitations on them. No emissions prior to the establishment of the Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Second Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 should be counted for purposes of allocating emission targets or financial assistance. While such a compromise would greatly diminish the imputed carbon debt of the developed world and allocate a bigger portion of it to large developing countries like China and Indonesia--particularly when changes in forestry and land-use are factored in--it would hardly let the rich world off the hook. The countries of the OECD have collectively emitted on the order of 200 billion tons of CO2-equivalent GHGs since then--roughly half the world's total emissions in that interval.
It would be tragic if the Copenhagen climate conference could only arrive at a new global agreement on emissions by relying on a principle that American voters would ultimately find as unacceptable as the allocation of national emission-reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol. It is challenging enough for our elected representatives to attempt to match federal tax revenues to our existing obligations, foreign and domestic. I can't imagine any President or Congress wanting to explain to the electorate--particularly with so many of them already exercised over growing deficits and the current tax burden--why they must pay higher taxes to send carbon-debt payments to some of the same countries that are competing for our jobs and industries, on the basis that previous generations of Americans put more CO2 into the atmosphere than past generations of Chinese, Indians and Brazilians. That sounds like political suicide to me.