The Fairness Question

The World Leader in Coal Consumption Might Need Our Help.

The most pernicious challenge in reaching a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the question of fairness in allocating access to a limited carbon budget.

If we accept the basic physics, which says that we would be wise to emit only a limited and decreasing amount of carbon pollution into the atmosphere over the next several decades, then the question is how to allocate access to those emissions.

So far, the developed world—led by the United States—has been unwilling to reduce its share of the pie to make way for less developed nations that wish to industrialize and share in our version of the good life.

Developing nations have argued that the industrialized world has enjoyed the benefits of carbon pollution since the Industrial Revolution and, from a climate change perspective at least, it has done so at the expense of the world’s poor. In their view, poor nations have every right to industrialize too.

It’s easy to imagine that if the developed nations refuse to reduce their emissions significantly and share a global carbon budget with their neighbors, then it will be impossible to limit global emissions and global warming.

Sadly, having a good imagination isn’t necessary anymore. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported last week that China increased its coal consumption for the 12th consecutive year in 2011. China now burns 47 percent of the world’s entire consumption.

In other words, China burns almost as much coal as all other nations combined. China’s growth in coal use, which averaged nine percent per year since 2000, overwhelmed a one percent per year growth rate by the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, American coal producers have a vested interest in China’s growth—U.S. coal exports to China more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.

In many ways, China’s conundrum epitomizes our global challenge. As some Chinese enjoy an energy consuming lifestyle, others want it to. But consider the scale of this simple desire. The U.S. has 313 million citizens, as does China, but China also has over 1000 million more.

Herein lies the problem: Americans tend to define fairness as opening access to our current lifestyle to anyone who is willing to work for it. It’s a noble, free-market principle that rewards personal initiative with success.

But under a limited carbon budget, global access to a lifestyle based on fossil fuel burning spells disaster—a disaster that humanity is racing to manifest year by year.

At this unusual moment in history, perhaps the “fair” alternative would be to lead from the front.

Wealthy developed nations, lead by the wealthiest nation of all—the U.S.—have the resources and the capacity to decarbonize as rapidly as the developing world industrializes, even if we lack the political will.

Moreover, we have the capacity to sell or share our innovations with developing nations in order to preserve a global climate that will allow everyone, including ourselves, to thrive.

Those who think such generosity flies in the face of freedom and competitive market economics can look at the Marshall Plan for a successful historical precedent. After the Second World War, the U.S. helped rebuild the industrial economies of Europe and Japan, and America continued to prosper.

What’s the alternative? We cannot possibly prevent developing countries from industrializing, nor can we force them to innovate around the fossil fuels that we continue to rely on. We don’t have that kind of leverage, nor the moral authority to make such demands.

Instead, we can accept and meet the challenge that China, India and other developing nations present to the fundamental physics of the climate threat.

We can accept that our position as leaders carries an obligation to lead. We can accept that we must reexamine our ideas about fairness in this unusual moment.

Demanding that other nations give up on development is as unrealistic as it is insensitive to our most basic ethics. Every major religion has a version of the Golden Rule, which compels us to treat our neighbors as we would treat ourselves.

Would we accept being held back?

America is the most prosperous and technologically advanced nation the world has ever known. If any nation can decarbonize rapidly and export the knowhow to the rest of the world, we are that nation.

Simple math tells us this task is in our best interest. Simple ethics tells us it’s our turn. We’d best get after it.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of LHOON via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.