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Posted on on February 18th, 2008
by Pincas Jawetz (

Imagine Everyone Was Equal, in Emissions.
By Andrew C. Revkin, on, February 15, 2008.

In a three-day summit at the United Nations on global warming this week, a parade of representatives from developing countries expressed growing discontent with the lack of action by rich ones to start curbing emissions of greenhouse gases that, in the long run, are likely to exact the most harm in the world’s poorest places.

India, China, and other poorer countries with fast-growing economies said they were ready to limit their own emissions, keeping them lower, on a per person basis, than those in the already-industrialized North. This Associated Press story conveyed their stance:

Chinese envoy Yu Qingtai told The Associated Press that China would try to keep a lid on its growing gas emissions when compared to U.S. per capita emissions.

“I cannot accept the argument that I, as a Chinese, am only entitled legally to one quarter of what you are entitled to,” he told AP. But, he added, “being equal to an American when it comes to per capita emissions would be a nightmare for the Chinese.”

So that keeps the ball in the court of the industrial powers. One of the grand challenges in the climate debate remains clarifying the different responsibilities of countries that have already built their prosperity and quality of life on coal (and to a smaller extent oil) and those on the verge of doing so.

* * *

On a per-person basis, responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions is no contest. The rich dominate. Right now, the average United States citizen generates about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year through the use of electricity, heating and cooling, vehicles, manufacturing and the other energy-intensive facets of modern daily life. For various reasons, Japan and Europe have far lower emissions, with Japan and Britain, for example, just under 10 tons per person per year. In China, the number is about 3.8 tons. In India, it’s 1.2 tons per person.

* * *

This gets back to a central question here on Dot Earth — how much is too much?

Some libertarian critics have implied I’m supporting a Draconian push back to sweaters and bicycles (see Ron Bailey’s recent critique of my “Unnecessary Things” post). [UPDATE: Draconian by some of their standards, not mine.] Some environmentalists say I’m too gloomy about the chances that humanity will resolve to share responsibility for limiting climate risks.

In the end, my goal is to be an equal-opportunity explorer of ideas as various as the need for more global governance to protect the commons, and the free-market mantra, that all will be well if people are left to pursue prosperity and comfort by whatever means they can afford.

But getting back to that baseline question, if everyone gets to emulate the established emitters, what will the atmosphere be like?

* * *

I did a brief thought experiment last night. Where would carbon dioxide emissions be if everyone on Earth was using fossil fuels at the same pace, per capita, as the United States is now? Or let’s take, say Britain, as a kind of middle case, presuming that the United States will find ways to trim its emissions (a 50-percent cut taking us to Europe’s level).
It’s simple multiplication. Right now, the sum of global emissions of carbon dioxide by a world population of 6.6 billion, very-unequal humans, is about 29 billion tons a year.

If everyone was emitting at the British level, it’d be 66 billion tons a year.

Okay, let’s try the United States. That’d be 132 billion tons of carbon dioxide at the US level – released into the atmosphere each year, if everyone on Earth had an equal carbon footing.

So clearly something has to give, presuming the countries of the world are serious about accepting the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which they all did, ostensibly, last year).

Vaclav Smil, a reality-based energy expert at the University of Manitoba who has studied this issue long and hard, said the following in an email when I was working on my 2006 story on declining research on new energy options:
“We have the know-how to consume, in rich countries, only half as much [energy] as we do without lowering our REAL quality of life (REAL does not include unlimited SUVs, 15,000 sq. ft. custom-built houses etc, etc), and to provide everybody, even in the most desperate parts of Africa with enough for a decent life. But we prefer to waste enormously, and Africans prefer endless bouts of civil wars. This is not primarily a technical problem…. This is primarily an ethical, moral problem (i.e., we have only one biosphere).”

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