Exploring the Options on Climate Change

How much carbon a given economy produces isn’t the only measure that matters in the climate change debate. How much economic bang an economy gets for its energy buck is also important.
By: /
April 4, 2014

With the release of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” it behooves us to investigate the numbers behind the data to better grasp the challenge of combating climate change. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that the costs of reducing carbon emissions has been deemed too high by a number of states who would rather see others bear the burden of reducing their emissions than bearing the costs of reducing their emissions alone.

The debate surrounding carbon emissions, its effect upon the environment, and who ought to bear the costs for transitioning to a carbon neutral economy has been a long one. Broadly speaking, there are two camps. The first blames climate change on rapidly developing countries, with their dramatic increases in carbon emissions over the past two decades. The second camp believes that states deemed as already “developed” have a responsibility to assume the costs of that development.

Indeed, developed countries recognize the latter contention with their admission of a “common but differentiated responsibility” for climate change and the UNFCCC process does place states in different orders depending on whether they are judged to have industrialized, undergoing development, or neither.

A well-understood example of the disagreement between the two sides is represented in the long-running dispute between the United States and China with regard to how to measure carbon emissions and go about reducing them. The United States tends to view total carbon emissions as the variable that should be reduced—to 1990 levels, if possible. China views an increase in its carbon emissions as inevitable as it undergoes the continuous (and hitherto never ending) process of development. As a result, Beijing proposes that the UNFCCC use a different standard to assess each state’s contribution toward reducing carbon emissions—energy intensity.

Energy intensity, simply put, is a measure of how efficient an economy is with regard to producing GDP from a unit of carbon. Unsurprisingly, states that are “industrialized” are generally more efficient in their use of carbon. Thus, the United Kingdom is higher on the scale in the graphic below than South Africa or China and other developing states. This intensity, however, is also related to the types of economic activity occurring within each state. Resource extraction, in particular, is carbon heavy and difficult to make efficient. Subsequently, both Canada and the United States have middling measures of energy intensity in terms of their overall level of development.

Instead of setting a goal to reduce a given economy’s carbon emissions to a specific amount, Beijing proposes that states should make their economies more energy efficient. Such an approach would result in a dramatic departure from the previous climate change agreements—including the Kyoto Protocol that the United States refused to sign.

Just because it is different, however, does not mean that such a program is unworkable. Indeed, industrialized states have already agreed to fund various funds for adaptation efforts, including the creation of the Clean Technology Center and Network and the Green Climate Fund. Both endeavours promote the use increasingly efficient technology in the hope that developing states will be able to “develop” more cleanly by “leapfrogging” stages of development that are the most carbon intensive or by using alternatives to coal and oil.

In the coming months, the UNFCCC will meet in Bonn before the 20th Conference of Parties in Lima, Peru in December, 2014. Discussions over how to measure and implement standards for carbon emissions will no doubt continue unabated.