Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Too Big for (Environmental) Law to Deal With, Part 3: Global Inequity

This is the third in a series (see the first and second) exploring issues that I perceive as central to the study and practice of environmental law, but in some ways out of its reach or “too big.” This week I’d like to tackle the very big issue of global inequity.  In any discussion of international climate law, global inequity is front and center.  It’s not hard to talk about at a superficial level.  It’s obvious and uncontested.  But as soon as you start thinking about how international law should respond to global inequity, the difficulties begin. 

In my climate change law class, we discussed how to construct a post-Kyoto climate regime.  I asked my students to imagine that all the countries of the world had agreed to a worldwide cap and trade system to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 50% from 2010 emissions by 2050.  So, assuming 2010 worldwide emissions are 30 billion metric tons, the 2050 worldwide cap would be set at 15 billion metric tons. The only question left, I told them, was how to apportion the right to emit.  In other words, how many allowances should each country get? 

From a standpoint of global equity, an appealing apportionment principle is an equal per capita allocation of the right to emit.  In other words, each country’s cap would be based on its population.  Allowances would be tradable, so rich countries could continue to emit at higher per capita levels but they would have to pay poor countries to do so.  Given the strong correlation between GHG emissions and human development, this principle seems to appropriately incorporate the notions of equal opportunity and human rights. 

Interestingly, there wasn’t a student in the class willing to defend the proposition that a global cap and trade system should allocate allowances on a per capita basis.  The numbers, I think, made it very hard for them to imagine.  Assuming a projected population of 9 billion people in 2050, per capita emissions in 2050 would have to be about 1.6 metric tons.  For the sake of comparison, that’s about a tenth of the current per capita GHG emissions in the US, and roughly equal to the current per capita GHG emissions in India. 

Whither global equity?

- Lesley McAllister


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