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Equity In the Air

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 Global warming is unlikely to yield to politics-as-usual. So what will work? Start with the fact that “we” are not one, but rather a world divided. No environmental strategy that fails to take into account the rich/poor divide can hope to succeed.

Kyoto is a treaty by which the South can never honestly abide, and for the best of reasons: Kyoto promises the North continued access to a vastly disproportionate share of the global greenhouse-gas budget, even as that budget shrinks, as the science says it must. Kyoto thus threatens to leave the “developing world” without any atmospheric space to develop into. A number of countries, including China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have already concluded that the Kyoto agreement threatens them with emission limits that would unfairly impede their development, and, in truth, they are right.

Then there's the national level. In America, the US Senate has unanimously voted to reject any climate deal that doesn't demand the “substantial participation” of the developing world. And here, as in Europe, the bulk of the labor movement is terrified by the prospect of a transition to a climate-friendly economy.

All this seems to spell deadlock unless equity gets factored into greenhouse politics as more than pretty rhetoric. Fortunately there are good ideas around for doing just that.

At the global level, the best place to start is with the “Contract and Converge” model first articulated in the early 1990s by Anil Argawal and Sunita Narain of the New Delhi Centre for Science and the Environment.

This approach has since picked up steam, and now that the negotiations are turning to the terms of the South's participation, it promises to become a real factor.

The idea, in a nutshell, is that the atmosphere is an ecological commons into which all, rich or poor, have the same equal right to emit greenhouse gases, and that it's only within such a rights-based framework that there's any realistic way forward. Contract and Converge goes beyond generalities; its advocates have taken pains to explore and model pathways in which we'd converge to per-capita rights at the same time as total global emissions were contracted to sustainable levels – one such scenario is represented in the graph below.

Domestically, the “Sky Trust” is similarly based on the notion of practical ways to assure equal rights to the atmosphere. (See “Who Shall Inherit the Sky?” YES! Summer 1999.) This approach would protect the US share of the global carbon budget from becoming a free giveaway to those who have to date produced the most emissions – corporations. Instead, the total US share of CO2 emissions would be auctioned off to the highest bidders. This would tend to increase the price of carbon, thus moving us closer to an economy in which energy prices included the real cost to the environment. The resulting profits would be distributed on an equal basis to all citizens. The Sky Trust would also provide the cash for a “just transition” fund that will help those – like coal miners – who could lose jobs or experience special hardships as a result of a changeover to a climate-friendly economy.

If anything is certain, it's that we're all in this together. Unless climate policy becomes an expression of this primal fact of public life, we haven't got a chance.


Tom Athanasiouis the author of Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor (Little, Brown & Co. 1996). Contacts: The Global Commons Institute, Tel. +44 181 451 0778; Web: www.gci.org.uk; for information on the Sky Trust: the Common Assets Project (202) 408-9788.

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