Commentary Type

Forget Emissions, Focus on Research

Nancy Birdsall (Center for Global Development) and Arvind Subramanian (PIIE)

Op-ed in the Financial Times


President Barack Obama reflected the consensus view this week when he acknowledged that no agreement on climate change-at least not with specific commitments-would be reached at next month's Copenhagen summit.

Environmentalists and policymakers in many countries are dismayed and discouraged. But now they have an opportunity to fix the problem that has stymied successful cooperation on climate change.

International negotiations to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases driving climate change are gridlocked in part because of a fundamental misunderstanding about what is fair. The focus has been on greenhouse gas emissions, and on who bears responsibility for cutting them, by how much and when.

Americans focus on total emissions and see China and India as large emitters and co-offenders. In a recent Financial Times-Harris poll, 60 percent of Americans thought that China should reduce emissions the most.

The United States and other rich countries ... should affirm that people in developing countries have the same rights to energy-based services as those in rich ones, and then offer to help them obtain those at the lowest possible cost in the greenest possible way.

China and India focus on America's high per capita emissions (20 tons compared with five and two, respectively), finding it unfair they should be asked to cut emissions at all.

They are bewildered that the United States could contemplate trade sanctions to induce such cuts. And succumbing to the rhetoric of recrimination they accuse the rich of creating the global "bad" of polluting the atmosphere and demand reparations for past harm.

The rich in return ask developing countries to take responsibility for their large populations and to take account of all the global "goods" they have created such as technology.

Rarely in history have we seen constructive solutions coming out of blame games such as this.

But emissions are not the primary issue. People do not consume emissions, they consume basic energy services. In the developing world, billions of people are now cooking over health-harming wood fires in shantytowns (rather than receiving piped gas and electricity), doing backbreaking hoe farming (not operating tractors) and walking or cycling to work (not driving small cars, let alone gas-guzzlers). Cutting emissions would push them from just above subsistence back, literally, to the dark ages.

We need to redefine what is fair. Our research suggests the focus should not be emissions-not even per capita-but access for people everywhere to basic energy-related services such as safe and convenient meal preparation at home, pleasant ambient temperatures indoors, and convenient transportation.

The goal should be that developing countries' access to such energy services is comparable to that achieved by rich countries at their corresponding stage of development, while exploiting the latest available clean technologies to provide these services.

Our key finding is that improvements in technology (or reductions in the emissions-intensity of energy produced and used) at historical rates provide little hope of meeting the broadly agreed global target for emissions to be 50 percent lower in 2050 than they were in 1990. That is true even for the most carbon-efficient economies among major emitters, and true even taking into account the current modest gains in conservation of energy use by rich consumers.

Any prospect of meeting the aggregate global emissions target consistent with developing countries not sacrificing their energy needs will require revolutionary improvements in the technology. There is a low-carbon path out of the climate change problem or there is no path at all.

The world needs to go on a war footing to bring about such technological change. What does this mean for international cooperation?

It requires abandoning, or at least postponing, the primacy accorded to emissions reduction targets-a primacy that has been at the heart of the problem in the current negotiations.

The United States and other rich countries should drop their demand that developing countries commit to emissions cuts. They should affirm that people in developing countries have the same rights to energy-based services as those in rich ones, and then offer to help them obtain those at the lowest possible cost in the greenest possible way.

In return, China, India, and other developing countries should adopt, and be encouraged to adopt, national targets for emissions-intensity. China has already moved in this direction and India too is considering such a move. All countries should be open to international verification of these emissions-intensity targets, which could also be the basis for technology and other transfers from industrial to developing countries.

Finally, the major emitters-developed and developing countries-should put public funds into green energy research. This could go into creating advance market commitments (as now exist for new vaccines, where donors guarantee a price for a product currently in development) and other ways of generating new green technologies.

And they should focus on the tough challenge of an agreed global intellectual property regime for clean energy that balances the need to preserve incentives for technology creation while allowing rapid dissemination. But we should decide on a new starting point for negotiations: Countries should prioritize eliminating the vast inequities in energy opportunities.

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