Countries across the world have been meeting since 1992 for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to discuss the looming threat caused by anthropogenic climate change. In 1997, UNFCCC launched the Kyoto Protocol to set legally binding limits on the carbon emissions of member countries. Since 2008, these countries have worked toward meeting their goals for the Kyoto Protocol, the first phase of which officially ends this year. Currently, UNFCCC discussions are taking place at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the appropriate course of action moving forward.The goal of the conference is to establish a limit on future carbon emissions that will prevent a rise in global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius, the level regarded as the tipping point for a climate induced catastrophe. However, a recent report from the Nature Climate Change Journal presented disturbing evidence to the UNCCC. According to this report, to prevent a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures by 2050, it will be necessary to reduce global emissions by 3% every year. Given the current agreements on emissions levels, any attempt to achieve this goal will be virtually impossible.
Global emission demographics can be analyzed in various ways. In 2011, the biggest contributors to the rise in emissions were China, accounting for 28% of global emissions, the US at 16%, the European Union at 11%, and India at 7% of global emissions. Though China was responsible for a significant majority of carbon emissions, it would perhaps make more sense to look at carbon emissions per person before pointing fingers. On this basis, emissions per person in China were 6.6 tonnes in 2011, compared with 1.8 tonnes per person in India, 7.3 tonnes per person in the European Union, and an astounding 17.2 tonnes per person in the United States.
The numbers can be further adjusted to shed new light on the issue. While the average person in the United States emits more than twice as much carbon dioxide as her counterpart in the second-in-line European Union, the United States and the European Union actually decreased their carbon emissions in 2011 by 1.8% and 2.8% respectively. Conversely, emissions in India and China grew by 7.5% and 9.9% respectively.
If nothing else, the numbers illustrate the complexities that underlie the UNFCCC and the challenge of reaching global emissions agreements. On the one hand the staggering growth rates of carbon emissions in China and India represent a significant barrier to the target 3% annual reduction in global emissions. Mandates to curb this growth would seem rational.
On the other hand, telling two of the world’s fastest growing economies that their impressive strides toward economic development must be stifled for the sake of everyone else brings about issues of fairness. After all, the United States and members of the EU have been reaping the benefits of pollution for decades and have become economic powerhouses as a result. Now that China, India, and the rest of the developing world have the chance to catch up, does any developed country really have the right to pull their plugs?
Furthermore, despite their rapid increase in carbon emissions, India, for instance, still only emits about 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, far below the global rate of around 5 tonnes per person.[i] Even China, which accounted for almost one third of global carbon emissions, emits only 6.6 tonnes per person, compared with the United States at 17.2 tonnes per person. Thus, if we apply the fairness argument to individuals rather than nations, then despite the US and the EU beginning to reduce their carbon emissions on a year over year basis, they should still be held to far stricter regulations than even India and China.
The numbers do not reveal any hidden solutions, but looking at carbon emissions on a per person basis does have significant implications by forcing each individual to consider his or her own contribution to the problem. Given the gravity of the looming climate crisis and the aforementioned difficulty of reaching a consensus on a country-by-country basis, the emphasis on the individual becomes increasingly important. The difficult truth that we will all be forced to come to terms with in the coming years is that relying on governments and political leaders to solve the problem we are faced with is simply not enough. It requires a far more radical adjustment that must occur at the top, middle, and bottom levels of society simultaneously. Appeals to fairness have become irrelevant; instead it is necessary for each country, and more importantly for each individual, to forgive others for the mistakes of the past and to compensate for its own. Only then will we be able to assume personal accountability and achieve the sort of cooperation necessary to combat this international threat.
Narrowing the challenge down to the individual has perhaps even greater implications for business owners. Entrepreneurs, for instance, sit in a unique position to create a tangible solution to the challenge, one with the potential to create a wide scale and sustainable impact, even to solve the problem altogether. In fact, it is unlikely that the problem will be solved at all if we do not continue to redefine the way we do business and create solutions that are both innovative and profitable. Entrepreneurs are already working towards this by creating and disseminating localized clean energy, developing solar and electric vehicles, designing zero-impact buildings, recycling and composting, even planting trees. The question that remains is whether every emerging and budding entrepreneur will consider the impact his or her business or idea has on the growing threat of climate change, and whether they will assume the responsibility to do something about it.
Talks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha are scheduled to continue until December 7. Progress on reaching agreements that would effectively combat the 2 degree increase in global temperatures are yet to emerge.