A Few Questions for the Twenty-First Century

 See: “How to Slice A Global Carbon Pie” by Justin Gillis; The New York Times

Earlier this month in Stockholm, Dr. Reto Knutti of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ultimately won a lengthy debate with diplomats and other scientists over proposing a global carbon cap to be implemented in 2015 in the IPCC’s latest report. The idea generated a great deal of controversy because many emerging industrial powers such as Brazil and China consider a near-future cap on carbon emissions to be a death sentence for their economic growth. Disagreements also arose over the way countries should divide the budget of carbon -- 1 trillion tons globally -- to avoid temperature increases over 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If it would be proportional to population, the United States could expect to reach its share of the budget within 15 years.  Also, it would be nearly impossible politically for the fossil fuel industry to effectively shut down in such a short time. If the budget were proportional to current emissions, emerging market economies like China would be severely impacted as their appetite for fossil fuels increases. Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil exporter, also opposes mandatory caps for emissions.

When countries such as China and India, whose fossil fuel use is rapidly increasing, assume as a given that they must emit greenhouse gases to become prosperous, they may be limiting their own opportunities. If all of China and India emitted carbon at the same per capita rates as those in high emitting countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia, the runaway consequences of global warming would be so dire that it is difficult to imagine such worst-case scenarios. Many people, such as myself, who have studied development in countries like China have noted that while China sees itself as playing industrial catch-up, they also have the opportunity to build a clean energy economy from the ground up, and the Chinese Communist party has even begun to implement ambitious alternative energy plans. Nevertheless, these plans are implemented inconsistently or under a system of crony capitalism which leaves a lot of leeway for polluters to avoid the new requirements.

The IPCC is not considering capping carbon emissions to prevent global warming; it is capping them to limit its effects. These effects can already be felt. Thus, sustainable thinking, innovation, and creative solutions may be the best way to ensure a prosperous life for those in the developing world while also ensuring a livable planet that can sustain human life indefinitely.

Here are some questions that frequently come up in debates such as this, along with some of my personal answers after each one:

-Is it fair that industrializing countries should also shoulder responsibility for limiting carbon emissions while countries in Europe and North America were able to attain massive wealth with no such limits? Should countries like the United States be held disproportionately more responsible since they have been emitting more carbon for longer? I think these are moral and political questions that have no “correct” answers for a variety of reasons. Like many ‘big picture’ issues, the question of how emerging economic and industrial powers adapt or don’t adapt to climate issues is extremely complex and nuanced, with sociopolitical, economic, moral, and scientific factors at play. That being said, I would argue that wealthier countries such as the United States should be held more responsible for their part in increasing global warming. This doesn’t have to be a hard sell either, as climate change adaptation and innovation are likely to form a large sector of the 21st century economy in the industrialized world.

-Is it really a certainty that greater economic development necessitates higher carbon emissions? I think not.  Many emerging industrial economies use the ‘dirty’ industrialization models of European countries and the US as an example for developing their own industries. However, new technologies now exist that make it possible to attain high standards of living with fewer carbon emissions per capita. Research  and development, as well as more efficient sustainable development, present an economic opportunity that is easier to implement in countries lacking established ‘dirty industry’ development. Think of how China seized the opportunity to build a large share of the world’s solar panels, or South Africa’s offshore wind power development.

-Is indefinite economic growth realistically feasible? In my mind, not when economic growth necessarily includes increased consumption of resources, decreased natural habitats, and overpopulation. Current realities of macroeconomics require constant GDP growth to remain sustainable-- an economic recession is when growth may slow to 2% or less, and a contraction in a country’s GDP is a serious catastrophe. With continuous human population growth straining resources ranging from water and arable land to oil and rare earth metals, I have my doubts that ‘business as usual’ economic growth is possible for an indefinite period.  It stands to reason that on a finite planet, growth would also be finite, unless serious, systemic changes are made to how we utilize energy, build and consume goods and services, and manage land and natural resources.


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