Personal emissions targets

Jammed into that same AP story is a pretty-much-totally unrelated bit about something German Chancellor Angela Merkel said:

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel called today for an international system of global emissions trading to be adopted as part of an agreement to flight climate change from 2012 onward.

Speaking at a symposium of Nobel laureates and other leading scientists, Merkel insisted that only by establishing limits on carbon dioxide output per individual around the world – suggesting about 2 tons per head – could the fight to stop global warming be effective.

“Our long-term goal can only be the assimilation of worldwide per capita emissions,” Merkel told the conference.

Her suggestion would mean drastic cuts: Germany currently has a carbon dioxide output of some 11 tons per person per year, while the U.S. is at around 20 tons per person.

She’s probably using the old numbers, too, suggesting we have till about 2050 to wrestle our greenhouse-gas emissions under control. If the situation is worse than previously thought, time is shorter. But Merkel’s figures indicate the scale of the problem. Take the emissions we think the planet can handle, divide them by the number of people we’ve got, and you come up with about two tons per person per year. By modern industrialized-world standards, that ain’t much — I emit more than that in my personal life, let alone with what I do professionally, and writing for a living is a pretty low-emitting gig.

It’s a reasonable argument that nobody, at the moment, has more of a claim on emissions space than anybody else does, so setting personal limits and allowing people to trade them is, in principle, a sensible way to distribute emissions room to the people who’ll make best use of them (Canadians, say, in our cold northern land). In practice, it’s hard to imagine a mechanism for allowing trades of quantities that small. We’d be creating a new parallel global currency, in essence.

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9 responses to “Personal emissions targets

  1. “It’s a reasonable argument that nobody, at the moment, has more of a claim on emissions space than anybody else does”

    Really? There are some 300 million people in the USA who have got together, pooled their taxes and built a military machine larger than any other on the planet. They believe this gives them a better claim than anyone else.

    Whether or not you consider this reasonable, as a practical matter, they seem to be correct.

  2. Having the might to enforce your will — or at least to ignore everybody else’s — doesn’t make you correct, “as a practical matter” or otherwise.

    I’m struggling to work out what the right thing is, regardless of who’s got the army.

  3. What is the point? If the right thing, in your opinion, requires a catastrophic loss in living standards ( 20 tons to 2 tons ) from the people who have the army, then it is not going to happen. Why pretend otherwise?

    The Liberals pretended for years that we were going to implement Kyoto. But it was just pretense.

    Chancellor Merkel’s proposal is just another pretense. No matter how clever the trading system, there is nothing the US citizen wishes to trade for his “extra” 18 tons. And you sure can’t force him to give them up.

  4. Well, if we can figure out what the right thing is — or the principles that will define the right thing in a particular set of circumstances — then maybe those of us who believe a catastrophic loss in living standards (also, in actual lives) is coming if we don’t figure out how to stop spewing greenhouse gases to those who currently believe that stopping spewing isn’t necessary.

    There are “why” questions, “what” questions and “how” questions about all this stuff. They’re related, of course, but different. This post addresses a question that can broadly be framed in “What are we going to do?” terms.

    Defeatism about the American consumer’s attitudes is, in this part of the conversation, beside the point.

  5. You appear to be saying that you believe the rightness of your ideas to be so strong that you expect to overwhelm all opposition, so strong and overwhelming that you need not trouble yourself with the “how”. I really doubt this can be what you meant, and the end of your first sentence does seem to be slightly garbled or perhaps missing some key words, so I hope you will correct me.

  6. I’m certainly not saying any such thing, and I’d be amazed embarrassed if you reached that conclusion from regular reading here. The “how” matters very much. But the fact I don’t have the particulars of the “how” doesn’t invalidate the importance of the “what” and the “why.” Anyway, there are plenty of blogs concerned with the minutiae of tactical politics in the United States. Mine isn’t.

    The ending of the first sentence of my last comment isn’t garbled. It’s complete and I’m pretty sure it’s grammatical. It is, however, so poorly constructed as to be incomprehensible.

    The idea I was failing to get across is that people who think we have to do something about climate change will have an easier time making the case if we can offer some constructive and concrete proposals for what we should do.

    I’d rather try to overwhelm all opposition armed with good ideas than bad ones.

  7. That makes sense! Thanks.

  8. Nice, the personal footprint idea. But it will be complicated, of course. They’ll have to take everything into account, also for example the CO2 emitted in China to produce the kid’s toys. And furthermore, a level emission target is not even fair either, as through history the West has been responsible for the mess. Should only be fair that the West just stops emitting or even starts taking the bad stuff they emitted before, out of the air again, while the rest of the world gets some time to do whatever they want.

  9. I have difficulty imagining that a system of personal credits could work on anything but the smallest scales, and to be truly fair it would have to be applied worldwide. Useful concept, to make a point about the scale of the problem, but probably not practical.

    I don’t agree that it’s “only fair” to give the developing world a pass for a bit, though. We’ve been doing wrong, it’s true, but you don’t say to all the people who obey traffic laws that they get a period to go crazy every time somebody whizzes past them at twice the speed limit — the rules, if you’re going to have them, need to apply to everybody.

    Also, if we say it’s OK for Cambodia (to pick a less-developed country at random) to use all the coal power it likes for 20 years, it’ll have a hard time walking back from that at the end. We’d be creating exactly the same problem we’re trying to solve so wrenchingly in our own economies now. You’d hope they’d see the change coming and not go whole-hog into damaging practices that would be difficult to stop, but I’m to cynical to think anyone else would make better decisions than we have, given the choice.

    Finally on that point, getting the developing world on board seems to be crucial to getting the co-operation of the West’s big economies. Even if it is “fair” to let the rest of the world go nuts for a bit (which, as I say, I don’t concede), the practical effect will be that nobody does anything about climate change.

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