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Who Should ‘Go First’ on Greenhouse Gas Control?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The argument that the developed world should be the first to cut greenhouse gas emissions is illogical when viewing climate change as the long-term challenge it is purported to be.

It is commonly and uncritically stated that the developed countries should be those to act first to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases because they were first to put such gases into the atmosphere. This principle was embedded in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, and it has been a frequent refrain ever since. As the Pew Campaign on Global Warming explains, “Fairness decreed that developed countries—responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions—should have the responsibility for developing the technological solutions needed to reduce them.”

That is still the official position of the United States. Todd Stern, the U.S. negotiator at the recent U.N. climate change talks in Bonn, Germany, drew massive applause when he said, “the United States recognizes our unique responsibility… as the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases.” 

And this is a principle that the Chinese can really get behind. Xinhua News reports that China’s top negotiator in Bonn, Su Wei, said, “during the past two centuries, developed countries have made unbridled emissions of greenhouse gas, a major cause of global climate change, and developing countries are major victims of climate change. Hence, developed countries have the duties and responsibilities to cut emissions and offer help to developing countries.”

Alas, “who goes first” in controlling greenhouse gases (or paying others to do so) was the key issue that torpedoed recent climate negotiations in Bonn, which were part of the process to establish a successor to the Kyoto Protocol by the end of this year. Developing countries wanted the developed countries to pledge to meet specific reduction targets and to make immediate wealth transfers, but they would accept no binding targets themselves, nor would they act in a serious way until they had seen action by the developed world and could see its funds flowing into their coffers.

The developed countries were indeed the first emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) as a by-product of development. And we do indeed have a responsibility to make amends if those emissions caused harm to others. But this other “axiomatic” responsibility—that we must go first in reducing GHGs—does not stand up to scrutiny.

Unlike the developed world, the developing world is polluting with the full knowledge that their emissions can cause environmental damage.

That’s because climate change is, according to the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), not a short-term problem. It is, they tell us, a problem that will run its course over many hundreds of years due to the extremely long persistence of certain GHGs in the atmosphere. Taking the long view seriously damages the “who goes first” argument.

While it is true that the developed countries were first in putting GHGs into the air, the way they did so, the speed they did it with, and the population they pulled through development must be taken into account. Developed countries embraced democratic capitalism and ripped through development in about 100 years, while their populations were comparatively quite small. That difficult choice—erecting democratic-capitalist institutions—led to the rapid development of more efficient technologies and surplus wealth to devote to environmental protection. Indeed, in the last 40 years, developed countries have eliminated most significant environmental threats in their spheres of influence.

Developed countries also went first in another critical way—creating social welfare programs funded by surpluses generated by capitalism, rather than relying on large families as a social safety net. This, in turn, triggered lower population growth in the developed countries.

Great sacrifices were made defending democratic capitalism against fascism and communism. Many died defending democratic capitalism, the only proven institution of rapid development that inherently rewards efficiency. Democratic capitalism also generates wealth surpluses that enable environmental protection to emerge as a social value. Indeed, this is another area where developed countries went first—environmentalism itself is a developed-country concept.

Developing countries, by contrast, were not willing or able to muster the political will to adopt democratic-capitalist institutions. The leaders of developing countries, chose, with the tacit or overt agreement of their populations, communitarian, fascist, dictatorial, or other social institutions that perpetuated a reliance on large, extended families and thus rapid population growth, while retarding economic growth and suppressing people’s desires for environmental protection.

Environmentalism itself is a developed-country concept.

Thus, in the thousand-year scheme of things that is climate change, the developing countries, by deferring development until their populations were vastly larger than those of the developed world, will have a vastly larger impact on the world’s ecology and (if man-made GHGs really have a potent and deleterious ecological influence) the world’s climate.

Looking back 300 years from now, the initial pulse of GHGs from the developed world will pale in comparison to the titanic flux of GHGs (and other conventional and water pollutants) that the developing world will emit as it develops. And, unlike the developed world, which largely completed development before there was even a small understanding of the risk of climate change or air pollution, the developing world is polluting with the full knowledge that their emissions can cause environmental damage, harm existing populations, and burden future generations.

The argument that the developed world should be the first to cut emissions is not only illogical when viewing climate change as the long-term challenge it is purported to be, but it is also a dangerous smokescreen hiding the reality that developing countries will cause vastly more environmental degradation than the developed world has or will. Indeed, what logic there is suggests that the most dramatic actions should start first in the developing world, as, in the fullness of time, that is from where the majority of the damage will come.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Green has written on the Obama administration’s plans for “green jobs” and a trading market for greenhouse gas control. He is also the author of a Q&A on climate change.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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