Science & Technology

After Kyoto

Are personal carbon permits next?


Milan —Yesterday, activists from the World Wildlife Fund held a short demonstration in the main hallway of the UN climate change conference (COP9) here urging Russia to hurry up and ratify the Kyoto Protocol so that it will come into force. But even if the Russians do eventually sign onto Kyoto that will not be the end of climate change negotiations and programs. As the Climate Change Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acknowledges, "The Kyoto Protocol was never expected to solve the problem of climate change in the first commitment period, the 5 years between 2008-2012. It is just the first step. Negotiations as to what should be done next will have to start soon." So whether Kyoto is dead or alive, climate change negotiations are here to stay.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, rich industrialized nations were supposed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide by an average of 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. Even if such a reduction could be achieved, it would spare the planet an inconsequential 0.07 degrees centigrade of warming by 2050. So, whether or not Kyoto comes into force, the UNFCCC will launch new negotiations seeking new commitments from signatories like the United States to further reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the model for those negotiations is unlikely to be the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol has produced a rat's nest of complicated mechanisms and proposals that are constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted. My personal favorite for irrelevancy at the COP9 is a discussion in the UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice on whether or not genetically modified trees should be allowed as a way to absorb and sequester carbon.

Wandering the hallways of the Milan Convention Center, one encounters stacks of publications devoted to explaining elaborate and convoluted schemes to trade carbon or offset carbon emissions through development projects in poor countries. To cut through these multiplying complications of the Protocol, a simple idea is taking hold among activists and some climate negotiators—contraction and convergence (C&C).

The core of the idea is to set an appropriate level to which greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be allowed to rise and then allocate globally the right to emit carbon on a per capita basis. The UNFCCC commits signatories, including the United States, to the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." "Dangerous" has never been defined, but the proponents of contraction and convergence suggest that levels of greenhouse gases be stabilized at 450 parts per million (ppm) to 550 ppm. In order stop at those levels it is estimated that global carbon emissions will have to be cut by between 40 and 60 percent—the contraction part of the scheme. Under a C&C regime, each country would initially be allocated a portion of an overall declining carbon budget based on its share of the global distribution of income. Over time, to achieve convergence, each year's ration of the global carbon emissions budget for each country progressively converges to the same allocation per person until they become equal by an agreed upon date. This will allow poor countries relatively greater freedom to use carbon energy sources to fuel their further economic development.

The C&C concept has been endorsed by a variety of environmental groups. For example, Legambiente and Forum Ambientalista in Italy want to establish in principle an emissions limit of the equivalent of one ton of oil per person by 2005. They note that the average European currently emits 3 tons annually and each American emits 8 tons annually. The Global Commons Institute in London, longtime proponents of the contraction and convergence approach, suggest that eventually each person on earth would be allowed to emit 0.3 tons of carbon annually. Presumably, under a C&C regime, the carbon dioxide produced while breathing would not be counted against one's overall carbon allocation. The idea is that contracting carbon allocations will encourage the development of non-carbon based energy sources.

Under a C&C regime, high per capita emitting countries could purchase unused allocations from low per capita emitting countries. Proponents point out that buying such allocations from poor low emission countries could fund their economic development. One cautionary note: the Hamburg Institute of International Economics in Germany observes that the immediate introduction of such a C&C scheme "would lead to very high North-South transfers that would be politically difficult to achieve."

Still, with few new ideas on the table, it's good bet that the environmental movement and the international climate change bureaucracies will be pushing contraction and convergence proposals in post-Kyoto negotiations. Let's hope that it doesn't come down to needing to buy a carbon permit each time you want to barbecue a steak.