Who's doing more to reduce emissions, the North or the South?

The “comparability of effort” debate is hotting up, and there’s no cooling on the horizon.

This debate is fundamental to the “blame game.”  Recall, for example, the cold shower that was Copenhagen, and the storms of China-bashing that followed.  The blame for the debacle, you see, belonged to the “emerging economies,” who refused to carry their shares of the global stabilization burden.  Or so it was said by legions of disappointed, overly-certain pundits across the political spectrum.

Someday, it will be easier to make solid judgments about who’s doing their share, and who’s free riding.  Before that fine day dawns, though, two things will have to happen.  First, the national pledges of action that countries – northern and southern, large and small – have committed to deliver to the UN Secretariat, the pledges in which they lay out their emission-reduction action plans, have to get a whole lot easier to read and compare and interpret.  Second, we have to reach at least a rough international consensus on what different countries, at different levels of development, should do, in the light of historically-informed and principle-based comparisons that take, say, wealth and responsibility into account.

In the meanwhile, we’re stuck with overly-simple approaches based on problematic metrics like, say, per-capita emissions, or rates of decrease in carbon intensity.  Or we can just embrace simplicity and compare northern tons to southern tons.  The surprising thing is that even such a simple-minded analysis as this produces interesting results.

Sivan Kartha (full disclosure – Sivan works closely with EcoEquity) has done just that, in a new report with the snappy title of Comparison of Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 pledges under the Cancun Agreements. The report, which is based on a recent analysis conducted for Oxfam International, examines four detailed studies of national mitigation pledges under the Cancun Agreements, and finds an extremely strong agreement on the bottom line:  Developing country pledges add up to larger cuts than developed country pledges.  This broad agreement holds, moreover, despite the diversity of assumptions and methodologies employed in the studies and substantial differences in their approaches towards quantifying pledges.

This result is notable.  After all, despite the sorry state of the climate negotiations – and indeed the whole international system of governance – the wealthy countries unambiguously committed, back in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, to lead the way out of the climate mess.  How could they not, when they led the way into it?  But despite this, and despite their far greater wealth, their efforts are badly lagging.

No surprise, then, that the total mitigation pledged globally leaves us looking forward to a global temperature rise of greater than 2°C, and possibly as much as 5°C.  Which is to say that, if we want to get off the road to hell (which is to say, a global emissions pathway with high probability of ending in true catastrophe), then almost all nations, around the world, will have to raise their emission-reduction ambitions sharply.  And this is just not going to happen unless the developed countries raise their pledges to the levels required by science and equity, and then actually deliver on those pledges.

Note that, while the SEI report concludes that wealthy-world pledges are too low, it absolutely does not imply that developing country pledges are too high.  If the necessary technological cooperation and financial support were put in place, the developing countries could quite legitimately be expected to raise their ambitions, as they must do if we’re too keep the warming below 2°C or 1.5°C.