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Emissions Reduction by the Numbers

CAMBRIDGE – Discussions in Beijing between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping – the leaders of the world’s two largest carbon-emitting countries – produced an unexpected, groundbreaking bilateral agreement on greenhouse-gas emissions. Under the new deal, the US is to reduce its emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels within 20 years, and China’s emissions are to peak by 2030. In the absence of a binding global agreement, such unilateral or bilateral commitments by countries to rein in their contribution to global warming represent the most realistic hope for addressing climate change.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol marked a major step forward in efforts to head off the most disastrous consequences of climate change, establishing a precedent for legally binding limits on emissions. But it lacked commitments by large developing countries, such as China and India, and, largely for that reason, the United States never ratified the treaty.

A loose system of individual commitments, in which each country unilaterally sets emissions targets, can help build trust and momentum for a more inclusive successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which many hope will be forged at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. But if such a system is to work, general agreement would need to exist about what constitutes a fair target for each country. Then advocacy groups and researchers could compile scorecards that would show which countries are meeting the standard – and shame those that are not.

At first blush, there would seem to be no agreement on what fair cuts would look like. India point outs that an average American emits ten times as much as an average Indian, and argues that emissions allowances should therefore be allocated according to population. The US insists that it would be unfair to burden its companies if energy-intensive industries could simply relocate to developing countries that had not yet constrained their emissions. Both sides have a point.