Escaping the Fossil Fuel Trap

The world’s major challenge in combating climate change is to devise a strategy that encourages growth in the developing world, but on a path that approaches safe global carbon-emission levels by mid-century. The way to achieve this is to decouple the question of who pays for most mitigation efforts from the question of where, geographically, these efforts take place.

MILAN – There are many problems with fossil fuels. They are expensive and a source of political and supply volatility. As consumption rises globally, the costs associated with them will probably rise sharply. Worst of all, they carry large and unsustainable costs in terms of carbon emissions. Indeed, their contribution to rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere is beginning to overshadow the other problems.

But use of fossil fuels, and hence higher CO2 emissions, seems to go hand in hand with growth. This is the central problem confronting the world as it seeks to forge a framework to combat climate change. Compared to the advanced countries, the developing world now has both low per capita incomes and low per capita levels of carbon emissions. Imposing severe restrictions on the growth of their emissions growth would impede their GDP growth and severely curtail their ability to climb out of poverty.

The developing world also has a serious fairness objection to paying for climate-change mitigation. The advanced countries are collectively responsible for much of the current stock of carbon in the atmosphere, as well as for a significant (though declining) share of the world’s annual emissions. As a consequence, the developing world’s representatives argue, the advanced countries should take responsibility for the problem.

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