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Ethical considerations in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions

“Acknowledging the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

So states the Preamble to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) http://unfccc.int/essential_background/items/2877.php, the international treaty ratified by 192 countries since its introduction in 1992, which led to the Kyoto Protocol http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php, ratified by 184 countries (but not the United States) since 1997.  The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and the international community is struggling to create a new global agreement to replace it at the December 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in order to give nations time to ratify it before 2012.

The ethical interpretations of the preamble phrase, “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” are central to the current impasse in the global climate change negotiations.

Industrialized countries must drastically reduce their emissions and provide finance and technology to assist reduction of emissions in developing countries.  Developing countries insist that a solution to climate change cannot come at the expense of their development.  Reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in developing nations, primarily in the southern hemisphere, are also necessary, but economic growth and poverty alleviation are inexorably linked to lack of access to energy services – and, consequently, a seemingly inevitable increase in fossil fuel use and thus carbon emissions. 

Several frameworks for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change are under consideration.  Two of the most promising are “Contraction & Convergence” and “Greenhouse Development Rights.”  Both are potentially feasible approaches, and both stress equity, development, mitigation, and adaptation.

Contraction and Convergence

The basic ethical principle of Contraction & Convergence is “equal per capita emission allocation.”  It reduces global greenhouse gas emissions so that atmospheric concentrations become stabilized at an agreed safe level (contraction) and distributes the permissible emissions under the contraction on an equal per capita basis globally for all countries (convergence).

For more information on Contraction & Convergence: http://www.gci.org.uk/

To run or download a presentation on Contraction & Convergence:


Greenhouse Development Rights

The basic ethical principle of Greenhouse Development Rights is “ability to pay.”  It combines the costs of emissions mitigation and development funding and calculates for each nation a “measurement of responsibility and capacity” based on the percentage of its population above a “development threshold,” or minimum per capita income, and excludes emissions that correspond to consumption from those below the threshold.

For more information on Greenhouse Development Rights: http://www.sei.se/web-resources/greenhouse-development-rights-gdrs.html

For a brief executive summary on Greenhouse Development Rights: http://gdrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/gdrs_execsummary.pdf