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Paul Baer
Ph.D. Student
Barbara Haya
M.S. student
Antonia Herzog
Postdoctoral Fellow
Nathan Hultman
Ph.D. student
Leigh Raymond*
Energy and Resources Group
University of California, Berkeley

*Environmental Studies Program
University of Chicago

Equal per capita emission rights: The key to a viable climate change policy


Disagreement over principles for the inclusion of developing countries in future global greenhouse gas caps remains an obstacle to the ratification and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. We argue that a transition from allocations based on past emissions (grandfathering), such as the Kyoto Protocol embodies for the industrialized nations, to allocations a new regime based on equal per capita emissions rights, is a necessary and fair solution that can lead to a an effective global reduction regime. Such an allocation is consistent with numerous ethical principles and legal precedents, could facilitate trading in emissions permits, and can be implemented through a transitional period that accommodates the different situations and emissions levels of various countries.

Our goal is to bring issues of equity into the general discussion surrounding climate change mitigation and particularly into the negotiations prior to and during COP6 where the issues of developing country participation in the reduction of global carbon emissions are currently being discussed. Our ideas were recently published in the Policy Forum section of the September 29, 2000 issue of Science where we defend our arguments on scientific, economic and ethical grounds.

RAEL faculty and students have also been participating in public awareness and political campaigns to analyze and promote ideas for North-South cooperation and agreement on strategies to manage global greenhouse emissions, and have been signatories on letters in The Guardian and The Independent.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) codified an international consensus that control of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is necessary to prevent "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" (Article 2). The wisdom of this consensus is supported by an extensive body of scientific research, and most recently by evidence from terrestrial temperature surveys (1), ocean warming measurements (2), a decrease in Northern Hemisphere sea ice (3) and climate models (4). Each of these studies are independently consistent with theoretical predictions of human-induced changes in climate.

Parties to the UNFCCC subsequently negotiated binding commitments for industrialized nations under the Kyoto Protocol. These commitments apply to developed nations only, in consideration of their disproportionate share of current and past GHG emissions and the greater resources available to them to reduce emissions. This decision reflected the UNFCCC consensus that industrialized countries should take the lead in mitigating climate change and that participation by developing countries should not impair their ability to develop.

Meaningful Participation: by and for each nation

Despite the UNFCCC mandate, the U.S. government has conditioned ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on "meaningful participation" by developing nations. By imposing this requirement without offering a solution to the concerns of developing countries for an equitable allocation of emissions, the U.S. may effectively block the implementation of the Protocol or the negotiation of future global mitigation policies. Developing countries will not, and cannot reasonably be expected to, restrict their emissions if their long-term interests are not addressed. Furthermore, in the long run, an international agreement is unlikely to be stable if perceived to be unfair by some of its signatories (5, 6). Given that global emissions must eventually be limited to rates well below current levels, we argue that any long-term allocation of emissions should be based on the principle of equal per capita rights to the atmospheric commons (7).

Today, global per capita carbon emissions average about one ton per year (8, 9). U.S. per capita emissions exceed 5 tC/year while Western Europe and Japan emit 2 - 5 tC/year per capita. In comparison, average per capita emissions are about 0.6 tC/year in the developing world, and more than 50 developing countries have emissions under 0.2 tC/year (10). Yet, in order to prevent atmospheric GHG levels from exceeding twice pre-industrial levels average worldwide emissions must be stabilized at levels below 3 GtC/year, or 0.3 tC/year per capita for a future world population anticipated to stabilize near 10 billion people (11).

The Kyoto Protocol assigned emissions caps to the Annex I countries based on their 1990 emissions levels (an allocation often called "grandfathering). It successfully arbitrated the diverse interests of its signers into one agreement (12), and has consequently prompted the development of global and national mechanisms for measuring and reducing emissions, which are important first steps for future, more significant reductions. However, by basing future emissions caps on past levels, the Protocol rewards historically high emitters and penalizes low emitters. Developing countries recognize that the industrialized nations have based their own development on unrestricted fossil fuel use, so they see restrictions on their own emissions to per capita levels below those of industrialized countries as perpetuating global inequality (13, 14). A fair long-term agreement involving all countries will require a transition from an allocation method based on grandfathering past emissions to one based on equal per capita emissions limits (15).

A per capita allocation is attractive and can work because it is simple and a priori. Most of the alternatives under consideration blend historic emissions with a posteriori, or outcome-based, information. The latter presumes that the consequences of climate change for different nations and the abilities of different nations to ameliorate or adapt to climate change can be understood and agreed upon in advance. While empirical evidence increasingly complements the scientific predictions of global climate change, scientists have also become aware that the ways in which climate change will manifest itself in specific regions, especially the timing of particularly disruptive climate events, is much more difficult to predict. Debate could continue endlessly over whether rich countries heavily invested in hydrocarbon-based energy infrastructure can reduce their emissions more easily than poor countries just starting down the hydrocarbon path. These many regional and temporal uncertainties of climate change argue pragmatically for a simpler a priori approach to the allocation of emission rights. Per capita allocations of greenhouse gas rights and responsibilities provides that framework.

Furthermore, a long-term agreement that allocates emission rights unequally would allow higher emitters to impose damages caused by their emissions onto other countries, in violation of the widely accepted "polluter pays" principle. As CO2 content in the atmosphere is well mixed, climate change and the local damages it causes are a function of total emissions, regardless of where the emissions originate. Ironically, the nations that have contributed the least to climate change will likely be the least able to adapt to its negative impacts, having the fewest available resources and being generally the most dependent on the land and existing climate patterns for day-to-day subsistence.

This disparity between the largest polluters and those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of the pollution directly contravenes international environmental law. Principle 21 of the Declaration of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, cited in Article 1 of the UNFCCC, states that the exercise of nations' "sovereign right to exploit their own resources" must not cause environmental damage to other states or to areas beyond that state's national jurisdiction. The U.S. and other industrialized countries accordingly have a legal as well as ethical obligation not to harm more vulnerable nations through their disproportionate use of the atmospheric commons.

The Precedent for Equity

From an ethical perspective, it is difficult to maintain that some people are entitled to a larger claim or right to the global atmospheric commons than others. That all people have equal rights is a fundamental principle of most modern ethical and legal codes. The idea is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is a fundamental principle of democracy. It is especially relevant to the use and distribution of common pool resources such as the atmosphere that exist outside the legal control of individuals or nation-states.

Existing international agreements regarding such common pool resources contain precedents for egalitarian allocation policies. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, requires common ownership of deep-sea resources for the benefit of all humanity (16, 17). Similar provisions in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (in Article 7) prevent appropriation of any portion of the region's mineral wealth by any individual nation (18). While these treaties do not create explicit per capita allocations, they clearly recognize the equal rights and responsibilities of all persons with respect to global common resources.

Perhaps more importantly, governments have adopted egalitarian principles in allocating resource rights even in cases where there were large pre-existing claims. The United States has on several occasions used egalitarian principles to modify entitlements based on historic use. The Public Trust Doctrine is a powerful part of Anglo-American common law ensuring access to inland water resources on egalitarian principles (19). Air pollution rights have also been subject to such principles; for example, under the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, allowances to emit SO2 were not simply grandfathered but rather granted on a significantly egalitarian basis with decreasing consideration granted over time to historic emission levels (20). The long-term per-capita allocation of CO2 emission rights would build on these established egalitarian precedents.

Critics of a per capita allocation focus on two objections; first, that it is not politically realistic as it implies substantial transfers of resources from current high to low emitters, and second, that it would encourage population growth. The latter concern is easily addressed, for example, by choosing a fixed base-year population or by determining a population baseline incorporating reasonable declines in population growth rates (5, 21). As to the former objection, we have already argued to the contrary that agreements grandfathering unequal emissions levels are not realistic, since developing countries are unlikely to accept permanent restrictions on per capita emissions levels lower than those of industrialized nations. A long-term agreement based on equal per capita emissions already represents a compromise limiting the liability of the industrialized nations for their historical emissions, while refusing to permanently grandfather those emissions. Moreover, as we have demonstrated, there is substantial ethical and legal justification for the position of the developing countries. Thus if the primary goal of the UNFCCC is to be met, it is necessary to combine the principle of equal per capita allocations with a phase-in period recognizing the diverse situations and emission levels of different countries.

By enabling the negotiation of a global emissions cap, a commitment to an equal per capita allocation also strengthens any proposed carbon trading mechanism, reducing the overall cost of compliance. Supporters of global trading in emissions recognize the advantages of a complete allocation of emission rights among market participants (22). Without a global cap on emissions, trading between developed and developing nations, as contemplated for example under the Clean Development Mechanism, will risk permitting greater emissions for developed nations without reducing total emissions in the developing world (23).

The Way Forward

The upcoming sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) to the UNFCCC in The Hague offers a critical opportunity to resolve the existing deadlock. Two of the primary goals of this meeting are to provide a political deadline to trigger the ratification of the treaty by the industrialized nations and to motivate significant action by developing countries to enhance their contributions to the achievement of the Convention's objectives. Adoption of a long-term principle of equal per capita emission rights could resolve the objections of both developed and developing country parties that stand in the way of these goals and allow climate negotiations to move forward. We urge the U.S. to recognize the fairness and practicality of this approach, and make this central to its proposal for implementing and moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol (24).

References and Notes

  1. S. Huang, P.-Y. Shen, H. N. Pollack, Nature 403, 756 (2000).

  2. S. Levitus, et al., Science 287, 2225 (2000).

  3. Vinnikov et al., Science, 286, 1934 (1999).

  4. T. L. Delwort and T. R. Knudson, Science 287, 2246 (2000).

  5. A. Rose, Energy Policy 18, 927-935 (1990).

  6. M. Grubb, J. K. Sebenius, Participation, Allocation, and Adaptability in International Tradeable Emission Permit Systems for Greenhouse Gas Control, in Climate Change: Designing a Tradeable Permit System. Paris: OECD, 1992.

  7. We discuss allocations in the context of caps assigned to countries (as in the Kyoto Protocol), but the principle of equal per capita rights could be applied to other ways of establishing limits, such as through taxes on GHG emissions.

  8. Marland, G., T.A. Boden, R. J. Andres, A. L. Brenkert, and C. A. Johnston, Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions. In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. (1999).

  9. Based on calculated 1996 carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacturing only (See reference 8).

  10. There are of course substantial disparities within individual industrialized and developing countries as well.

  11. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Climate Change 1995: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ed. J. P. Bruce, H. Lee, E. F. Haites. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

  12. B. Bolin, Science 279, 330 (1998).

  13. A. Agarwal, S. Narain, Global Warming in an Unequal World: A case of Environmental Colonialism. New Delhi: Center for Science and Environment: 1991.

  14. M. Kandlikar and A. Sagar, Global Environmental Change 9, 119 (1999).

  15. One widely supported proposal which addresses the importance of per capita allocations is the "Contraction and Convergence" formulation advanced by the Global Commons Institute and supported by increasing numbers of individuals, organizations and national delegations, (see http://www.gci.org.uk). Kinzig and Kammen (1998) also address the transition to per capita allocations (see reference 21).

  16. "Desiring by this Convention to develop the principles embodied in resolution 2749 (XXV) of 17 December l970 in which the General Assembly of the United Nations solemnly declared inter alia that the area of the sea-bed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as its resources, are the common heritage of mankind, the exploration and exploitation of which shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole, irrespective of the geographical location of States."

  17. Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). 1998. Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators (ENTRI) [online]. Palisades, NY: CIESIN.

  18. Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). 1998. Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators (ENTRI) [online]. Palisades, NY: CIESIN.

  19. J. Sax, Michigan Law Review 68, 471 (1970).

  20. L. Raymond, Private Rights in Public Resource: The Role of Equity in Market-Based Environmental Policies. Ph.D. Dissertation, U.C. Berkeley, 2000.

  21. A. P. Kinzig, and D. M. Kammen, Global Environmental Change 8, 183 (1998).

  22. D. Dudek and J. Goffman, Emissions Budgets: Building an Effective International Greenhouse Gas Control System. New York: Environmental Defense Fund, 1997.

  23. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), established under Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, allows developed countries to receive offsets against their caps by investing in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries. In the absence of developing country emissions caps, the reductions from a project must be calculated against a baseline, which is both difficult to calculate, and provides incentives for both the host and investor countries to overstate the baseline and the reductions. This in turn increases the complexity and cost of monitoring and enforcement.

  24. There are other important aspects of equity which we have not addressed, including intergenerational equity, the complexities raised by comparing different greenhouse gases, or the issue of compensation for unequal distribution of damages. These issues and many others require extensive consideration among scholars, policy-makers, and the public.

Last updated 10/14/2000

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