A new framework for reducing carbon emissions takes a crack at the knottiest dilemma confronting a global climate solution: how to divvy cuts between rich and poor nations.
A new study published Monday attempts to sidestep the rancor, finding that virtually every country has a class of individuals—the so-called "high emitters"—enjoying a rich, carbon-intensive lifestyle. If those individuals, no matter their locale, are forced to take responsibility for their emissions, a great swath of countries become participants in the climate effort, the study claims.
"Rich people in poor countries shouldn't be able to hide behind the poor people in those countries," said Robert Socolow, co-director of Princeton's Carbon Mitigation Initiative and a co-author of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The problem has dominated talks leading to December's Copenhagen negotiations on a post-Kyoto accord. Developing nations expect the industrialized world to do the heavy lifting on emissions cuts; industrialized countries, noting that the developing world will account for upwards of 97 percent of future emissions growth, want assurances that such growth will be curbed.
The analysis, "Sharing global CO2 emissions reductions among one billion high emitters," by a group of Princeton University researchers, proposes spreading responsibility for reductions among individuals rather than countries.
Under this framework, the international community would draw a single, global line for carbon emissions. Countries would then be responsible for reducing the carbon footprint of individuals living above that line. Emissions from individuals living below the line do not factor into the accounting.
Overall, the researchers found that the United States and China would have the largest carbon dioxide reduction targets, while Russia, India, the Middle East, South Africa and north Africa would all have sizable targets, due to their energy industries.
The proposal also sets a floor for the 3 billion people predicted by 2030 to be emitting less than one ton of carbon dioxide a year. Those people—the poorest of the poor—should focus solely on bettering their lifestyles, and they should do so via any economical means, the authors say.
They can safely come up to one-ton-a-year emissions target without breaking the global carbon bank.
It is folly, in other words, to light 10 villages via solar power when the same money could equip 100 villages with diesel-powered generators, Socolow said.
"There's no reason people at that level have to meet carbon goals," he said. "It starts with the high emitters."
The plan is being hailed by many climate experts for this inherent fairness: Industrialized countries bear the brunt of the labor, as those nations have the most residents living above any carbon line. But many nations in the developing world would also have to take some action as their citizenry prospers and begins to enjoy a more carbon-intensive lifestyle.
"Developing countries want attention to fairness," Socolow added. "We can talk about fairness in a way that is defensible in the minds of the high per-capita [emitting] countries.
"It's mischievous, but it's meant to be a logjam-breaking concept."
Indeed, perhaps the most striking aspect of the study, said several climate experts familiar with it, is that by 2030 the world's one billion highest emitters will be spread evenly across four major economic regions of the globe: the United States; the industrialized world minus the U.S.; China; and the developing world minus China.