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.
But a simple shift of responsibility to the advanced countries by exempting developing countries from the mitigation process will not work. To be successful, a strategy of fighting climate change must be not only fair, but also effective. If developing countries are allowed to grow, and there is no corresponding mitigation of the growth in their carbon emissions, average per capita CO2 emissions around the world will nearly double in the next 50 years, to roughly four times the safe level, regardless of what advanced countries do.