U.S. Climate Fair Share: 82 Percent Emissions Cut by 2030?

Plus $810 billion in climate debt payments annually to poor countries?


Climate Fair Share
Fair Shares

Lima, Peru – "We are people who want to tell the truth about the climate crisis, and the truth is that we are on track to a climate disaster," asserted Alex Rafalowicz at a Friends of the Earth (FOE) press conference at the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP-20) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Monday. So how does FOE think the world gets off the track? By demanding that rich countries fork over their "climate fair shares." What's fair? It's only fair that by 2030 the rich countries cut their carbon dioxide emissions around 80 percent and pay poor countries more than $1 trillion annually to cut theirs.

How was this level of climate fairness worked out? The FOE press conference featured a statement from activist groups from the "global South," basically developing countries, that demands that rich countries adopt an international treaty with the goal of keeping future man-made warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. "All countries will have to have lower emissions than now by 2025," declared Rafalowicz. Essentially global emissions of carbon dioxide would have to peak this year, with rich countries making steep cuts in their emissions and providing vast outlays of cash to poor countries to help them reduce their emissions.

Rafalowicz explained that keeping future average global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius entails a strict global "carbon budget" in which only about 700 gigatons (billion tons) more of carbon dioxide can be emitted. Given that humanity emitted in 2013 about 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the budget would be used up in just a couple of decades. The Southern Demands statement at the press conference asserts that the budget "has already been largely consumed, mostly by elites, corporations, and the 'developed' countries in the North." The scare quotes around "developed" are a nice, dismissive touch.

So now rich countries must bear and pay for their historical responsibility for using up so much of the planet's carbon budget since 1850 as they industrialized. However, even if the United States were to entirely eliminate its carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow climate model projections suggest that that would not be anywhere near enough to put the planet on a path towards keeping rises in average temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. So what to do? Given their accumulated "climate debt" the rich countries must shoulder their "fair share" of the global effort to stay within the strict carbon dioxide emissions budget by helping poor countries to reduce their future emissions. How much are we talking about?

The Friends of the Earth (FOE) has devised a handy calculator at Climate Fair Shares that allocates emissions cuts and climate debt payments in line with countries historical responsibilities. According to those calculations, the United States must cut its emissions by 67 percent by 2025 (roughly 6,000 million tons of carbon dioxide down to 2,000 million tons) and pay out annually $635 billion to poor countries to help them cut their emissions by around 10,000 million tons. By 2030, the U.S. would be required to cut its emissions by 82 percent below the 2013 levels and supply $810 billion annually in climate debt payments.

As a reference point, the last time annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions amounted to 2,000 million tons was sometime between 1940 and 1950, when the U.S. population was 150 million and real GDP was $2.3 trillion ($16 trillion now). It bears noting, however, that economic growth and growth in carbon dioxide emissions has been somewhat decoupled. Since 2005 U.S. annual carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 10 percent to about the same level as in 1995 when real U.S. GDP was just over $10 trillion.

At the press conference, a journalist from Bangladesh asked what his country's fair share would be under the FOE scheme? After a bit of fumbling by a geographically challenged minion, Bangladesh was eventually located on the Fair Shares map and the results were illustrated on a large screen for the audience. Given how little carbon dioxide the impoverished folk of Bangladesh have emitted in the past, the FOE calculator would sanction Bangladesh's emissions to increase by 80 percent over current levels by 2025. On the other hand, if Bangladesh were to receive $10 billion annually in climate change debt payments, it would be able to reduce its annual emissions by almost 20 percent by then.

Interestingly, the FOE calculator finds that if China received no climate debt compensation, availing itself of its fair share would allow the Middle Kingdom to increase its emissions by nearly 50 percent by 2025. If, however, China were receiving about $500 billion annually in climate debt payments in 2025 from rich countries, then it could lower its emissions by 37 percent below their current levels. In general, FOE calculates that in order to be climatically fair, rich countries should be required to cut their emissions by around two-thirds of their current levels and be paying out about $1.1 trillion in climate debt payments annually by 2525. By 2030, rich country emissions cuts rise to more than 80 percent along with commensurate increases in climate fairness transfers. Keep in mind that total official development assistance from all rich countries to all poor countries in 2013 amounted to $135 billion.

According to the activists, climate debt payments by themselves do not discharge the full climate obligations of rich countries. Those billions are only to help poor countries cut their emissions so that the world can aim to keep average global temperature increases below a modeled 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. Rich countries are still very much on the hook to help poor countries adapt to whatever climate change comes and for the loss and damage that climate change is now and will supposedly be inflicting on them in the future.

Recall that the rich countries have already promised to "mobilize" $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor countries adapt to climate change. That won't be nearly enough, advises the United Nations Environment Program's Adaptation Gap Report released on Monday.  By 2050, the report suggests the costs for adaptation will "plausibly" be four to five times higher than that. Having now reported on ten of these conferences, climate change negotiations always turn into a big fight over some vast top-down scheme that aims to redistribute tens (now hundreds) of billions in cash from rich country governments to poor country governments.  

My next dispatch will explore how President Obama plans to avoid having to submit next year's Paris climate agreement to the U.S. Senate to obtain its advice and consent prior to having it going into force.