Fixing responsibility

Print edition : July 30, 2010

A team of researchers in India has developed a carbon budget model that offers a better perspective for climate change negotiations.

EQUITY is one of the core principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as reflected in the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. But putting this into operation taking into account the historical emissions by industrialised nations and the consequences for developing nations has proved to be a difficult proposition in climate negotiations.

In his statement at the seventh Major Economies Forum (MEF) on Energy and Climate held in Rome during June 29-30, Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, made a strong call to bring the vexing issue of equity back to centre stage. [I want] to, he said, bring the issue of equity, equitable access to the carbon space/equitable burden sharing, which seems to be sliding out of the negotiations discourse, back into the mainstream.

A POWER PLANT near Grevenbroich, Germany, a 2007 picture. The town boasts 27 lignite boilers at three plants within a few miles of its limits, which are responsible for the biggest concentration of greenhouse gases in Europe. The crucial point made by developing countries in climate negotiations has been that developed countries have occupied a highly disproportionate share of the atmosphere.-WOLFGANG VON BRAUCHITSCH/BLOOMBERG NEWS

After the inconsistent statements made by the Minister and the shifting negotiating position in the run-up to the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UNFCCC at Copenhagen, the dubious stance that India adopted there and the Indian assent to the controversial Copenhagen Accord ( Frontline , January 29), this is a much needed change. That there was a change in stance was already evident at the UNFCCC negotiations in April and June in Bonn. The Minister's statement is certainly reaffirming and reassuring.

Indeed, Jairam Ramesh made explicit mention of the serious objections of developing countries to the Chair's negotiating text of June 10 at the Bonn talks ( Frontline , July 16). The Bonn talks were meant to take forward the text agreed to by consensus at Copenhagen under the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) track of the UNFCCC negotiations. (The other track corresponds to negotiations on the commitments for the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol. The Copenhagen Accord basically seeks to collapse the two tracks into one with no legally binding commitments a la Kyoto Protocol but with unilateral pledges for emission reductions and an international review mechanism.)

Significantly, the critical word equitable was dropped from the LCA text in its enunciation of the core principle of equitable access to global atmospheric resources. This is unacceptable, the Minister said. Any discussion on a global goal, he added, is incomplete, meaningless and impossible in the absence of such a paradigm. There is no substitute for the equitable access paradigm. Unilateral pledges, for example, do not and cannot substitute for this paradigm (emphasis original). As he pointed out, equitable access had been an integral part of previous negotiating texts of LCA. It was in the LCA Chair's text at Copenhagen and it was also in the Chair's facilitating text of May 17 after the April round of Bonn talks. He called for the phrase to be restored in relevant places in the June 10 text.

More importantly, the Minister stressed the need to operationalise the principle so that the equity paradigm in sharing atmospheric space is spelt out in practical terms. It is critical, Jairam Ramesh said, that we arrive at an operational set of formulae on equity based primarily on cumulative per capita emissions. He also pointed out that the carbon budget approach provided a useful basis for conceptualising and operationalising equity and called for bringing it to mainstream climate change discussions and negotiations.

If only lip service continues to be paid to equity and if we pay obeisance to it only in words and we think we have addressed the issue, I am afraid no international agreement will be possible, he said.

Several climate analysis groups EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute (which have come out with the Greenhouse Development Rights framework), the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) and the South Centre, Geneva have in recent times evolved frameworks based on a carbon budget for burden-sharing in climate change mitigation. More recently, there have been efforts by research groups in India, China, Brazil and Bolivia. A combine comprising the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Delhi Science Forum (TISS-DSF), led by T. Jayaraman of the TISS, has come out with a carbon budget model based on a sound analytical framework, which is particularly noteworthy for its new and logically better perspective.

It is also significant that this model has caught the attention of climate policymakers, Jairam Ramesh in particular. The Ministry of Environment and Forests' recent sponsorship of an international meet to discuss the ramifications of the carbon budget approach, in particular the work of the TISS-DSF, indicates that. Indeed, the detailed quantitative analysis of the model seems to have given the Minister the arguments and the confidence to make equity the main thrust of India's post-Copenhagen position and the cornerstone of ongoing international negotiations in the run-up to COP16 in Cancun in December.

Historical responsibility

To avoid unacceptable global warming and the consequent impacts on human well-being, one has to limit emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), carbon dioxide in particular. The crucial unresolved issue in climate negotiations so far has been that of the historical responsibility, or the emissions debt, of developed countries, which, by virtue of their early industrialisation around the late 1800s, have, for their share of population, occupied a highly disproportionate share of the atmosphere (Table 1). The CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, the stock, cannot be easily scrubbed off, a point that is usually not well appreciated. Therefore, equitable sharing of the available carbon space that ensures that developing nations, the latecomers, can come close to achieving their fair share becomes difficult.

Arguments of equity in climate negotiations have, therefore, generally skirted the issue of historical responsibility, and the equity aspect has been dealt with in terms of per capita flows. The convergence of per capita flows of all nations at some distant point is seen as achieving equity in the long run. Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's formulation of this, the Singh Convergence Principle, is highly restrictive and does not give developing nations their rightful carbon space for development and economic growth ( Frontline , November 20, 2009).

The British economist Nicholas Stern has quantified this climate debt in monetary terms. If the allocations of right to emit in any given year, says Stern in his book The Global Deal, took greater account of both history and of equity in stocks rather than flows, then rich countries would have rights to emit lower than 2 tonnes per capita (possibly even negative). The negotiations of such rights involve substantial financial allocations: at $40 per tonne CO2e a total world allocation of rights of, say, 30 Gt (roughly the required flows in 2030) would be worth $1.2 trillion per annum.

Jayaraman points out: While per capita flow is a justified and useful measure, historical responsibility, being an integrated measure, goes further. Per capita only provides a weaker argument to quantify developed country emission cuts and, more importantly, does not provide a route to simultaneously address the issue of global environmental constraint of achieving equitable access while keeping global warming in check. The budget approach, on the other hand, explicitly accounts for and sharpens the burden of historical responsibility.

The premise of the carbon budget approach is thus based on (1) recognition of the physical constraint on CO2 emissions to avoid an unacceptable temperature rise the generally accepted temperature guard rail that cannot be breached is 2 Celsius; and (2) the fact that the atmosphere is a global commons that must be equitably shared on the basis of equal per capita emission entitlements.

Different approach

While the TISS-DSF approach is rooted in the per capita principle of equity, it takes into account both accumulated stock of emissions and current flow to arrive at equitable sharing of the carbon space (stock + flow) that ensures adequate carbon space for the development needs of developing countries. A key perspective that feeds into the TISS-DSF approach is the recognition of the dual character of CO2 emissions it is both a pollutant and a necessity for development. So the model does not prescribe a priori when the emissions of developing countries will peak and how much they will cut.

Pathways are determined by the top-down approach of demanding that equitable access to the carbon space and the temperature guard rail be realised. The degree of emission cuts or allowed growth arises naturally from the model on the basis of global constraint and whether a country's emissions are above or below its fair share of the carbon space. The model optimises the various parameters given these constraints. Significantly, it takes into account the (non-linear) dynamic nature of the carbon space that becomes available to developing countries over time as developed countries vacate their carbon space through emission cuts from current rates.

In this respect, it differs significantly from the German approach, which uses only the current flow of emissions to arrive at an equitable allocation of the available carbon space for current and future emissions. Historical responsibilities are treated as a measure for financial transfers from developed to developing countries.

The TISS-DSF framework also differs crucially in that it provides emission pathways for all countries to nearly attain their fair share of the carbon space (as determined by the per capita principle) at the end of a time span starting from a given base year. Unlike other approaches that start from the emission reductions to be achieved by specific milestone years, such as 2020 and 2050, as given parameters, the TISS-DSF model is a non-linear one and is able to determine dynamically the emission allocations for all countries for all years up to 2100, including the milestone years, until each country achieves its fair share of the carbon space.

There is a qualitative point of concurrence between the two approaches, however. That is the recognition of the over-occupation of the atmospheric commons by developed countries and the consequent need for sharp reductions in their emissions, virtually down to zero. But in terms of actual carbon budget allocations, the two are significantly different, with the German proposal placing tighter restrictions on countries with high per capita emissions.

One of the arguments of developed nations with regard to the issue of historical responsibility has been that when industrialisation began the harmful effects of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere were not known and thus they cannot be blamed for it.

To remove this contentious issue from discussion, the TISS-DSF model shifts the base year for calculating the total atmospheric stick of CO2 from 1850, the year when industrialisation can be said to have begun, to 1970. The rationale is that in 1968, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recognised the problem of global warming caused by CO2 emissions. Also, the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm recognised the need for full monitoring of global CO2 emissions. Interestingly, it is around 1970 that the emissions of developed countries began to show a sharp increase (see Graph 1).

The existing CO2 in the atmosphere, points out the TISS-DSF paper, cannot be removed and hence does not substantially add to the physically usable carbon space that the developing countries could lay claim to. On the other hand, the relatively unchanged figures for the current shares of various regions and countries [Table 1] with the new base year suggest that their claim for sufficient carbon space to undertake their development will not be seriously compromised.

The paper, however, notes the fact that the shift does result in a loss of some carbon space for China and other emerging economies as it increases their share of the occupied carbon space even though a few of them, including India, are significantly below their fair share. These countries, says the paper, can nevertheless attain their fair share of carbon space by 2050.

To fix the carbon budget, the model uses the following data of historical emissions provided by the Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Accounting only for emissions not related to land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) as there are no universally accepted measures for historical LULUCF emissions yet and since non-LULUCF emissions account for 84 per cent of total CO2 emissions the total gross CO2 stock for the period 1850-2009 is about 332 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon of which only 109 Gt were emitted in the first 120 years, that is, 1850 to 1970. (To convert the figures into corresponding CO2 tonnage, multiply by 3.67.)

Thus, the 1970-2009 period accounts for 223 Gt of carbon, or over 67 per cent of gross CO2 emissions. This, the TISS-DSF approach considers as adequate carbon space to enable all nations to attain their fair share by 2050. All nations, developed or developing, will have to undertake absolute reductions in emissions until they achieve per capita equity close to the end of the century. Before they achieve their fair share, developing countries are allowed to increase their emissions but with a gradual drop in their rates of growth.

Developed countries, on the other hand, since they have already occupied the carbon space beyond their entitlements, should begin emission reductions in absolute terms from 2010 onwards.

For the global carbon budget for the period 2009-2050, the model uses the analysis of Malte Meinshausen and others ( Frontline , November 20, 2009). According to this analysis, a budget of 1,000 Gt of CO2 for this period implies a probability of 10-42 per cent for overshooting the 2C limit. A budget of 1,440 Gt of CO2 gives a 29-70 per cent probability of exceeding the 2C warming limit. Between 2000 and 2009, however, the world had already used up 341 Gt of CO2 (including estimated LULUCF emissions).

Therefore, it would seem that the budget constraint of 1,000 Gt can be satisfied by the world, that is, the risk of 2C being breached is high. The TISS-DSF model, therefore, uses 1,440 Gt of CO2 as the available budget for 2009-2050. The authors, of course, now plan to repeat the analysis for a 1,000 Gt carbon budget scenario.

Linear combination

The model sets up a suitable function to be optimised, which is actually a linear combination of the following three components with appropriate weights: A) Difference between the sum of cumulative emissions of each country and the global budget; B) the difference between the actual share of total stock and fair share of total stock for each country; and C) the difference between actual per capita emissions and acceptable per capita emissions for each country. What needs to be minimised for equity purposes are these differences in tandem. Equivalently, optimisation of the composite function that has been set up will yield the outcome.

During optimisation, constraints B and C will determine the emission trajectories for each country, which will then determine its contribution to the total of cumulative emissions in A. That is, these constraints will basically determine which countries have to reduce their emissions and which will be allowed to increase their emissions. This in turn will depend on how removed each country is from its fair share of stock and how removed it is from acceptable levels of annual per capita emissions, subject to the overall constraint of the global carbon budget. For the purpose of C, the model specifies three time periods 2009-2020, 2020-2040 and beyond 2040 and corresponding threshold per capita emissions of 7 t CO2/year, 4 t CO2/yr and 2 t CO2/yr. The model imposes a penalty on countries whose per capita emissions cross the threshold in each of the four periods.

The optimisation then generates the emission trajectories or the annual quantum of CO2 emissions for every year up to 2100 for different scenarios within the overall carbon budget. The notion of equity and equitable access to atmospheric commons is, of course, explicitly built into the model. Adding the emissions from 2010 to 2050 yields a given country's share of the total carbon budget (up to 2050).

An expected but important result, of course, is that, even within the 1,440 Gt CO2 budget, developing nations will obtain little carbon space, let alone equity, if they, particularly the United States, which occupies 30 per cent of the stock, make immediate and drastic cuts in their emissions. As mentioned earlier, another significant result is that each developing country will need to drop its growth rate and, once it is close to attaining its fair share, effect absolute reductions in emissions. The shifting of the base year to 1970 also achieves what could be a politically significant result. That is, India and the bulk of developing countries do indeed reach close to their fair share of the carbon space by 2050.

This, points out the paper, is in sharp contrast to earlier considerations with 1850 as the base year, for example, where it appeared that the share of carbon space of India and these other nations would hardly improve even by mid-century. The 1970 base year benefits the late-starter developing countries relative to developing countries that have had steep growth trajectories over the last 30-40 years [such as China] while ensuring that the latter do indeed achieve their fair share of the carbon space by 2050. However, some developing nations with currently very low rates of emissions growth will not reach their fair share even by 2050 but may improve their share post-2050.

However, the paper remarks that the base year of 1850 could still perhaps be used for the consideration of financial and technological transfers by developed nations.

Of course, as the paper emphasises, the model outcomes for individual countries are only indicative of the strategies for emission trajectories and mitigation actions that they could adopt. Once the share of these countries in the global carbon budget is established, they can, say the authors, reshape their emission trajectories according to their national circumstances and capacities, provided they stay within their share of the global carbon space by 2050. Though the carbon budget does impose a restriction on developing countries, it affords greater flexibility compared with scenarios that specify reductions in milestone years or specify reductions from current rates of growth or specify peaking years.

The paper, however, hastens to add that the considerations of the paper are not intended to provide an explicit position for current climate negotiations, though they may help evaluate concrete elements of alternative strategies. It is in this context that Jairam Ramesh's keenness to operationalise the equity paradigm based on the TISS-DSF premise, perhaps through evolving suitable benchmarks that could serve as negotiating instruments, assumes significance.

From a domestic perspective, one also needs to study the implications of the emission trajectory for India's energy production, usage and consumption patterns. Rough calculations suggest that on the basis of current emissions and efficiency of energy use, India's emissions in 2030 are likely to correspond to a per capita energy consumption that is comparable to mid-level developed countries, such as Portugal, that have a relatively low per capita energy usage.

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