A Right to Development


Peter Singer’s essay in this issue of People and Place is a careful argument for a particular approach to global climate policy – tradeable emissions permits allocated to countries on an equal per capita basis. Although P&P perspectives are not primarily intended as direct responses to the featured articles. I believe it is important to respond to Singer’s argument. There are other credible perspectives on a fair global climate policy, and no reason for readers not to understand what other people believe and why.

In this essay, I will present an alternative to Singer’s equity-based approach. The framework that my colleagues and I have written about is based on a “right to development,” and it is called Greenhouse Development Rights.

How Equitable?

Singer’s “one person, one share” approach depends on two types of arguments: an ethical argument that equal per capita rights is a fair solution to the problem of distributing the costs of climate mitigation, and a practical argument that it is “fair enough” to actually win the assent of the necessary countries for an international agreement.

As a student of both philosophy and climate policy, I have an appreciation for the complexity of the task that Singer sets himself in this essay. He relies on a kind of “meta-ethical” argument, surveying a variety of ethical frameworks and concluding that they each would imply that rich countries should “take the lead” in paying for emissions reductions.

Singer then picks one particular framework – egalitarianism, which says that (all other things being equal) goods should be distributed equally. And he translates this principle into a policy proposal – equal per capita allocation of rights to pollute in the current year, allocated to countries and tradable between countries. Singer explicitly states the pragmatism of endorsing equal per capita rights, “both because of its simplicity, and hence its suitability as a political compromise, and because it seems likely to increase global welfare.”

However, after close involvement with climate negotiations for the last eight years, I have concluded that it is not likely to be true that equal per capita rights is simple enough to form the basis of a political compromise. And while an equal per capita rights approach would indeed likely be “welfare improving,” there could well be other approaches that improved welfare even more. The most obvious flaw with the per capita approach is that while everyone gets the same allocation, whether rich or poor, not everyone needs it as much.

Under an equal per capita allocation of emissions rights,  Chileans, with 1.1 tons of carbon emissions per capita in 2005 and a per capita income of US$12,248 would get the same emissions rights as Chinese, who also emitted 1.1 tons of carbon per capita in 2005, but had a per capita income US$4, 008.

Similar logic would apply to France (per capita emissions 1.9 tC in 2005, per capita income $20, 591) and the Ukraine (per capita emissions 1.9 tC in 2005, per capita income $5, 583), as well as to the United Kingdom (per capita emissions 2.5 tc in 2005, per capita income $31,371) and South Africa (per capita emissions 2.5 tC in 2005, per capita income $8,478). Equal per capita is, quite literally, too simple, and equal is not necessarily fair.

Relative wealth, measured by per capita income, is not the only reason why an equal allocation of emissions rights might not be fair. A country with a large source of wind power or solar power does not need the same amount of emissions to produce the same amount of energy as a country with large fossil resources, and thus may have more permits to sell to others.

A Development-Based Alternative
A few years back, my colleagues and I tried to derive a system of modifications to equal per capita allocations that would take account of varying national circumstances, such as differences in income or differences in natural resource endowments. However, we concluded in the end that all such efforts to create a system that was premised on the ‘right to emit’ were missing the forest for the trees.

Emissions after all are a means, not an end; the end is what we have come to call “development,” and it is the right to attain a dignified state of human development without being burdened unfairly by climate-related costs that we believe must be the underlying premise of a fair climate regime.

For this reason, my colleagues and I have designed an approach that we call Greenhouse Development Rights. To implement an individual’s “right to development,” we start by exempting from obligations all persons under a “development threshold” of $7500 per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity.

We then divide obligations to pay for climate change mitigation and adapation in proportion to capacity, i.e. income over the development threshold, and  to responsibility, i.e. contributions to climate change that are above the threshold.

Furthermore, we base our calculations on the distribution of income within countries as well as between countries, so that even poor countries have small but positive obligations that are proportional to the fraction of their population that is over the threshold.

This framework has several appealing properties.

First, while it cannot mandate how a country would allocate its obligations internally, it nonetheless highlights the fact that all individuals of similar wealth have similar obligations, independent of the country in which they live.

Second it provides a basis for allocating obligations other than emissions limits, e.g., adaptation to climate damages that are unavoidable.

Third, because it allows for the possibility that wealthy and high emitting countries may have negative allocations of emissions rights, it preserves “environmental space” for developing countries that equal per capita approaches cannot guarantee, even under steep emissions limits.

A Climate for Change
The climate crisis is fundamentally a crisis of justice – on this point I agree with Peter Singer. My colleagues and I are actively promoting the Greenhouse Development Rights framework to international audiences of climate negotiators and policy-makers, and my co-authorTom Athanasiou recently filed a report on Grist about the climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany.

It would be ideal if a comprehensive and equitable global burden sharing framework, whether based on equal per capita allocations, the right to development, or another comparable principle, were on the table today in the ongoing climate negotiations towards Copenhagen this December.

Instead, given the continuing impasse between North and South and the late arrival of the US to the negotiations, a more reasonable expectation is for another incremental agreement, based primarily on the Kyoto protocol and its very simplistic and problematic division between Annex I (industrialized) and Non Annex I (developing)countries.

We believe that quantifying capacity and responsibility can help bring fairness even to an extended Kyoto-style regime – especially by highlighting the options for equitable allocation among the industrialized nations of their obligations to support mitigation and adaptation in the developing countries.

In this way, even without full implementation of a “beyond-the-Annexes” treaty, an equity framework can help lay the groundwork for the truly global climate treaty necessary to support the urgent economic, technological and political response to climate change.