The United States has it right on climate change - in theory

Aubrey Meyer
27 April 2005

Don’t miss other articles in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change

To avoid conferring chaos on our descendents we must solve the problem of climate change faster than we create it. The analogy of the atmosphere as a bathtub that we have to stop from overflowing used in a previous article in this debate (“Why wait-and-see won't do”) captures the situation perfectly. Our descendants are the ones on the floor below, to be flooded if we carry on as we are. They have a message for us: turn off the tap, fast.

Climate change is a global problem and requires a global solution. From the outset – and certainly since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 – the United States government has acknowledged this.

It is misleading to suggest that the US or any other sensible party is opposed to a sound policy to prevent global warming. It is my consistent impression throughout fifteen years of direct involvement in this process, that the US has only opposed – and rightly opposed – ineffectual policies.

Contraction and convergence

In 1990, my London-based organisation, the Global Commons Institute (GCI), proposed what is now widely known and supported as “contraction and convergence”.

C&C, as it is often referred to, is a science and rights-based proposal: carbon democracy subject to the laws of physics. It is a global calculus that enables us all to create a global emissions agreement that can solve the problem faster than we create it, and to be seen to do so in a way that is equitable.

Emissions have to come down and new technology will definitely help that but we need C&C by definition. In the metaphor, C&C shows how we can cooperate to ensure that the tap is turned off in time, rather than traded in for a gold one.


Contraction & Convergence

The graph shows contraction and convergence in practice. This shows a global rate of emissions contraction that limits atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases by a given amount by a given date – in this case to 70% above the pre-industrial level by 2030 – with a rate of global convergence that delivers equal per capita emissions in that time frame. Rates of change may be variable and negotiable, but the framework is constant and constitutional.

This briefing also highlights the structural context of the climate policy debate and contains links to information about the genesis of and the growing support for C&C. An annotated, animated graphic C&C demonstration can be found here.

In the same boat

The first assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), presented at the second World Climate Conference in 1990, showed that the increased concentration – or accumulation – of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere was the result of burning fossil fuels over the previous two centuries.

The report also explained how this is the mechanism raising the global temperature. It observed that cuts of 60-80% in emissions would be required immediately, if concentrations were to be stabilised at the then current values of 25% above pre-industrial levels.

The United States always accepted the science. John Knaess, the leader of the American delegation, used the US press conference to affirm that increased global warming as the result of raised levels of atmospheric greenhouse was “simple sophomore physics”; the only questions were “how much warming and how soon?”

Since then, US policy statements have consistently and correctly made this point: if dangerous climate change is to be averted, a global response – involving all nations is required to limit and reduce future emissions from all human and other sources that will accelerate the warming already occurring.

To this end, the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed in June 1992 to stabilise the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous rates of climate change. George Bush senior signed the convention for the United States, and the US government’s stated position has never contradicted this objective.

The US, including George W Bush, has upheld this objective and affirmed the unavoidable truth that no one can be exempted from limits on greenhouse gas emissions if uncontrollable rates of global warming are to be avoided.

In 1990, a rational formulation for emissions control was suggested at the climate conference: that all countries would agree to reduce their emissions by 1-2% per year. Thus began an argument that by June 1992 had led to the clause in the UNFCCC calling for “common but differentiated responsibilities”. The clause meant all countries would control their emissions but at different rates and starting at different points in time, and not at a globally uniform rate in a globally uniform timeframe.

This was an inevitable and necessary reformulation. After two centuries, emissions remain a close proxy for income. Common but differentiated responsibilities recognised that, just as the accumulated amounts of emissions in the atmosphere from each country since 1800 were very different in amount, so too were the associated levels of wealth and power.

As a “developed” country, the US alone had emitted 33% of total emissions with wealth levels to match. “Developing” countries with insignificant equivalent emissions and oceans of poverty to overcome, understandably said, “when is it our turn?” and won the point in the clause.

As can be seen from the year 2000 in the graphic shown here, US per capita emissions were around ten times greater than in the developing regions like India and Africa, reflecting the difference in the accumulated totals shown. Assuming global contraction happens, convergence towards similar per capita emissions will happen by definition.

The Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC was first negotiated between April 1995 and December 1997. US legislators objected – rightly in my view – to the partial and guesswork nature of the limits envisaged under the protocol. Having already introduced and advocated the benefits of the international tradability of the “permits” created in any programme of emissions control, they tabled a “global solution” known as the Byrd-Hagel Resolution. This received unanimous backing of the US Senate.

The Byrd-Hagel Resolution points the way forward. It accepts the need for “differentiated responsibilities” for all countries in the UNFCCC. It proposes that whilst retaining the same timeframes, the developed countries would accept emissions reduction commitments alongside the developing countries who would accept merely emissions limitation commitments.

This means that, with permit “tradability”, there would be negative growth in the entitlements of developed countries alongside the controlled positive growth in the entitlements of developing countries. The structural result: the rich would be financing the clean development of the poor to save the planet.

GCI clearly pointed out that this, by definition, was “contraction and convergence”, as there was simply no other conceivable way to organise this global scale solution. Led by the Africa group of nations at Kyoto in December 1997 and supported by India and China, this trade-equity swap in C&C was accepted by the US. In the heat of the negotiations for a global solution, the US accepted that the equitable pre-distribution of emissions permits created by C&C framework was the necessary reward demanded by the developing countries for global emissions trading.

The Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, is widely – and rightly – regarded as inadequate. It omits the US and rewards the problem (by delaying contraction) more than it rewards the solution (which is to accelerate convergence). It will confer conceptual chaos and its consequences on our children. If like this, we continue to argue over how to fumble the tap to our warm bath, they will be flooded and scalded. They won’t thank us. They will curse us.

Climate change – election pledge

The Global Commons Institute is circulating this text to all prospective parliamentary candidates in the UK general election on 5 May 2005:

Dear Prospective Parliamentary Candidate,

Please will you consider supporting this pledge on the climate change policy-framework known as Contraction and Convergence[C&C] in your candidacy in the forthcoming UK election.

“I agree with the House of Commons All-Party Environmental Audit Committee [EAC] who have strongly urged the UK Government to provide leadership on climate change this year by committing itself to Contraction and Convergence [C&C] as the framework within which future international agreements to tackle climate change are negotiated.

I will advocate this C&C position during and beyond the forthcoming general election and urge the next government to seek support for this position during 2005 in advance of the next Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).”

Yours sincerely

Aubrey Meyer,

Director, Global Commons Institute [GCI]

Contraction and Convergence has been endorsed by the following:

This article appears as part of openDemocracy’s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative - a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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