International Agreements on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Faced with the prospect that increased CQ2 emissions over the next century could result in a significant increase in global air temperature, with its resultant modifications of climate, some governments and organizations have been debating how future emissions can be minimized while still allowing economic growth to occur.

The first agreement on greenhouse gas emissions was reached at the Rio Environmental Summit meeting in 1992; each developed country was to ensure that its C02 emission rate in 2000 would be no greater than that in 1990. This target was met, in fact, by very few countries; by 2000, most were emitting at levels well above their targets.

The second agreement was reached in negotiations held at Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Thirty-nine industrialized nations agreed to decrease their collective COz-equivalent emissions by 5.2%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2008-2012. The greenhouse gases affected by the Kyoto Accord are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

Under the agreement, the United States was due to cut its emissions to 7% less than its 1990 level, Canada and Japan by 6%, and the European Union collectively by 8% (with wide variations for individual countries within this unit). Some countries, such as Australia, were permitted to increase their emissions beyond 1990 levels. Emissions by developing countries were not controlled by the Kyoto Accord, since they were not significant players in emitting greenhouse gases in the past and therefore did not contribute much to current global warming.

If countries were to achieve their Kyoto agreement levels, the annual per capita CO? emissions in 2010 in developed countries would have decreased from 3.1 tonnes of carbon in 1997 to 2.8 tonnes, whereas, because of economic development, emissions from developing countries would probably have risen from 0.5 to 0.7 tonne. The CO? concentration in air would have been a little over 1 ppm less than would have otherwise resulted. However, the United States and Australia subsequently withdrew from the agreement. As an alternative to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Kyoto treaty, the U.S. government proposed in 2003 to reduce the carbon intensity of the U.S. economy by 18% by 2012. Nevertheless, some U.S. states—California and several of those in New England—have decided on their own to limit greenhouse gas emissions. However, the extent to which most other countries will meet their targets by 2012 is in doubt. Canada, for example, had increased its emissions by 30% in 2006 rather than decreased them compared to 1990 levels.

The existing increase, by one-third, of the atmospheric C02 level, as well as the temperature increase and climate modification that this probably caused, resulted in large part from the industrialization and increased standard of living in developed countries. Without a significant change in the methods by which energy is produced and stored, and/or implementation of carbon sequestration on a massive scale, these same nations will continue to require about the same rate of* C XX emissions in the future in order to maintain their economic growth.

Rather than utilizing a procedure in which countries have COz emission targets that are negotiated at international meetings, schemes have been discussed that are based on allocations that could be traded between countries on the open market. In a manner similar to the way in which S02 emission rights currently are traded in the United States, countries that need to emit more than their collective C02 allocations could purchase unused allocations from countries with an excess. A bonus of this scheme is that it provides an incentive to develop and invest in cleaner technologies, since avoiding C02 emissions could be cheaper than purchasing additional rights—especially in the future, when few nations will have excess emission capacity and the price of emission rights will rise.

The question of how C02 allocations can be made fairly in order to initiate the free-market C02 emission-trading scheme is a perplexing one. In the simplest scheme, each country would be assigned an allocation based strictly upon its (current) population. For example, if it was concluded that the current average annual emission of 1 tonne of carbon as C02 per capita could be sustained indefinitely, then this quantity would be allocated to a country for each of its residents. If it was decided to cut back current global emission levels, e.g., by one-quarter, then only 0.75 tonne per capita per year would be allocated etc.

An immediate consequence of the per capita allocation method would be the annual transfer of substantial funds from all developed countries to developing and undeveloped ones, since, according to the data in Figure 7-4, the former all exceed the 1-tonne average, by factors ranging from 2 to 5. Although this method would provide external funding so that developing countries could establish efficient energy infrastructures, it would likely not prove popular in developed countries, since their energy costs would rise.

One alternative allocation scheme is based on how much energy is required for industrial production by a country and how efficiently it uses energy. Thus a country's carbon dioxide allocation would be directly proportional to its GDP. This allocation method rewards compact, energy-efficient developed countries at the expense of those—both developed and developing—that emit more C02 per unit of GDP. However, such a scheme would permit continued economic growth by developing countries, since their C02 allocations would track their economic growth. The global ratio of allowed carbon dioxide to dollar of GDP would have to decline with time if global emissions are to be controlled, since global GDP rises by several percent per year. Interestingly, the C02/$ GNP ratio is more independent of the level of economic development than is the ratio based upon population; e.g., China emits about 1.0 kg of carbon dioxide for each dollar of production, compared to 0.9 kg for the United States, 0.5 kg for Japan, 1.0 kg for Germany, and 0.7 kg for India.

Some policymakers believe that carbon taxes, i.e., taxes based on the amount of carbon contained in a fuel rather than upon its total mass, should be instituted as a disincentive to use fossil fuels, especially coal, since it generates more C02 per joule of energy produced than does natural gas. In fact, the hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of the average global fuel mix has been continuously increasing over the last century and a half, as we moved from economies whose energy source was dominated by wood (H/C ratio of about 0.1) to coal (1.0 ratio) to oil (about 2.0) and now to natural gas (4.0); this is the same direction as moving to lower C02/energy ratios, as implied above. Carbon taxes could be phased in over a period of decades, starting at a low price that would gradually increase, thereby giving time for low-carbon-emission technologies to be further developed and implemented.

We conclude by commenting on the paradox that faces humanity today concerning the enhancement of the greenhouse effect. On the one hand, there exists the slight possibility that doubling or quadrupling the CQ2 concentration will have no measurable effect on climate and that efforts to prevent such an increase not only would be an economic burden for both the developed and the developing worlds, but would perhaps be unnecessary. On the other hand, if the predictions of scientists who model the Earth's climate turn out to be realistic, but we do nothing to prevent further buildup of the gases, both present and future generations will collectively suffer from rapid and perhaps cataclysmic changes to the Earth's climate.

Continue reading here: Review Questions

Was this article helpful?

0 0