measuring responsibility and leadership

Lady Justice (c) Tristan Henry-Wilson

Today I received this in my work email inbox: OECD states cut emissions too slowly.

For anyone who watches the news, this is hardly groundbreaking. For those of us working in environmental justice or international development, we’ve seen graphs and diagrams ad nauseam depicting the earth’s trajectory vis-a-vis greenhouse gas emissions based on different scenarios and data. They have the same story: The planet – and, therefore, humanity – is doomed because we’re not doing enough to rein in emissions.

But who, exactly, are ‘we’? Countries? Why is the nation state the unit of action? How are their emissions measured? Who is to blame for the mess we’re in, and who should fix it? Put another way, what does responsibility and leadership mean when it comes to emissions?

I’ve been thinking about this on and off, especially since the UN climate talks in Warsaw last November, when I questioned standard measures of emissions. Per country measures as well as per capita and sometimes even per $ of GDP measures do exist. The standard way climate action/inaction – that is, emissions cuts/increases – is measured in a country is to chronologically compare the decrease/increase as a percentage of the amount in a base year.

The old industrialised players usually use 1990 as their base year while newly industrialising countries like China usually use 2005. Maybe due to data availability. Obviously which year is chosen as the baseline will affect the measurement! Canada, for example, promised a 17% cut by 2020 against 2005 levels. Sounds good… until you do the math and realise this equates to a 3% rise against 1990 levels. Doesn’t sound so good no more – and Canada likely won’t meet even this unambitious target.

I read a book chapter about southern China’s processing of the world’s ‘recycled’ waste and the environmental and health damage it causes while ascribing moral hazard to the countries and consumers who believe they are entitled to consume because they recycle. Have you ever wondered how your milk cartons or tin cans or plastic bags get recycled? It’s not a pretty process. Think toxic chemicals leaking all over the place and junk clogging up riverways. While this junk was originally Made In China, most of it was consumed by people living in the Western world who have a voracious appetite for Stuff.

China manufactures a lot of Stuff. I’m too lazy to look up the actual number, but pick up something near you right now and see if it isn’t made in China. China also emits a lot of greenhouse gases. Estimates of how much of these are produced during the manufacture of export goods range from 15% to 40%. That’s a big percentage. So… China emits 15-40% of what it emits because rich countries want Stuff? Rich countries probably don’t manufacture much. That’s because rich countries generally – though unequally, and not always – have higher labour costs than poor countries, so producers take their manufacturing someplace cheaper. As they outsource their manufacturing they also outsource that manufacturing’s emissions

Are they also outsourcing their environmental responsibility and guilt? Not only are emissions, pollution and consequent health and environmental damage out of sight and out of mind, they get to stand on the moral high ground with their emissions cuts and tell countries like China to clean up their act, literally. Whether or not you find this to be unfair depends on whether you believe in demand-side or supply-side responsibility. The easy answer is that both sides are responsible; China should either switch to cleaner manufacturing or develop other, cleaner sectors, while countries like the US should be less materialistic.

None of this is part of the international climate talks, by the way. What is part of the UN talks is a principle called common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR – the UN loves it some acronyms) which considers both a country’s capability/ease of reducing emissions and its historic responsibility. Any 1st year economics student would give you a thumbs-up and tell you that’s the way to go: if the outcome is the same, take the action that is least costly, or get the person for whom the action is least costly to take said action. A 1st year philosophy student would be able to tell you that this kind of action criterion is called utilitarianism. It would take a 2nd year econ student who’s studied public goods (and maybe environmental econ) to tell you about the perverse incentive this creates. I’m not gonna dive into that because the utilitarian argument is hardly the most pervasive or persuasive in climate negotiations, but if you want to know more just find a 2nd year econ student who is willing to show off. You won’t have to search long!

The reason why the utilitarian argument is not the only pillar of “differentiated responsibility” is because history plays a role. CBDR basically says if you’re a rich country today, you probably got rich by burning lots of fossil fuels during your industrialisation phase, back when climate change was a non-issue. It’s because of your emissions back then (1800s to 1900s) that we have a climate crisis today in the first place, and we’re gonna make you atone for your sins at least a tiny bit by putting more responsibility to reduce emissions on your shoulders. Absolute amounts of historic emissions have hitherto not been calculated, though at last November’s UN climate talks Brazil called for such calculations to be made to spell out how differentiated, exactly, the responsibility is. Countries like the US aren’t keen on differentiated responsibility and instead point to China and say, “I won’t do it if she doesn’t have to!”

The disagreement lies in differing concepts of fairness, which could perhaps be summed up as equality vs. equity. The US believes fairness means everyone is in the same boat and should bear the same burden. Low-income and/or industrialising countries believe fairness to mean every country has an opportunity to develop, and therefore those who have not yet taken that opportunity are exempt from responsibility and cannot be denied (fossil fueled) development. Countries with extremely low emissions due to low levels of industrialisation will find it difficult to cut emissions even lower.

I want to come back to that Climate News Network article. This made me pause:

Luxembourg makes the list only because of its low taxes on fuel, which mean that motorists from neighbouring countries fill up their cars at its petrol pumps and then drive back over the border.

Sounds like the author is giving Luxembourg a free pass! “Hey man, he’s cool, it’s those neighbours that are being nincompoops, blame them.” I could equally say “Canada ranks so highly only because it’s a cold country and spends 5% of its GDP on heating.” Free pass? Not so fast. Whose fault is it that motorists from neighbouring countries are filling up in Luxembourg? Luxembourg.

However, if you recall our earlier conversation – ahem, monologue – about demand-side vs. supply-side responsibility, I suppose we must also say that those neighbouring countries have a responsibility to discourage their residents from driving. The ultimate solution to this and all tragedies of the commons is to take unilateral action. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions because doing so is good for yourself or is the right thing to do, regardless of what others do. That 2nd year econ student is probably taking a class in game theory and can tell you that this kind of unilateral action is called a strictly dominant strategy. There are some countries (eg. Denmark) who see emissions reduction as such a strategy, which is fortunate for all of us because multilateral action enforced by the UN will take so long to be negotiated that humanity will wipe itself out before an agreement is reached.


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