(E)mission Impossible?

Blogs, Web sites provide climate policy analysis lacking elsewhere

After the recent Group 8 meeting in Italy, news outlets released a flood of reports about certain developing countries—led by China and India—that refuse to accept specific, binding targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Negotiators from those nations argue that doing so would curb their economic growth and prevent their citizens from achieving the same living standards that the developed world has enjoyed for decades.

Unfortunately, most of the ensuing coverage focused on conflict rather than compromise. Sure, two weeks after the G-8 meeting, plenty of outlets quoted Hillary Clinton telling the Indian environment minister that she believes “there is a way to eradicate poverty and develop sustainability that will lower significantly the carbon footprint.” But what is that way?

Missing from most of the lead stories about the emissions dispute was a deeper analysis of strategies that developed countries like the United States employ—or, more importantly, could employ—in order to come up with reduction targets that the developing world could accept. In fact, two days before the meeting began, researchers at Princeton University suggested a new way to calculate national emissions caps that might be more acceptable to developing nations. However, it was only in blog posts and online-only reports—at The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, CNN, and FOX News, for example—that major outlets paid it any heed.

The vision behind the Princeton proposal, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is to “treat equally those with the same emissions, wherever they live.” The researchers suggest that, instead of assigning a target based on a country’s overall emissions, negotiators should assign one based on the number of “high-emitters” living there who exceed a universal individual emission cap. The upshot is that because China and India have fewer higher emitters than the U.S. and Europe, it would be easier for them to meet short-term targets; more stringent reductions would become necessary only as their populations become more affluent.

According to the authors of the Princeton proposal, “the universal emissions cap achieves equity and fairness … in the sense that: (i) countries with a larger proportion of high emitters do more, and (ii) countries with similar emission profiles have similar commitments.” In other words, the plan puts countries with high total emissions, but low per-capita emissions, on the path toward reduction in a way that allows continued economic growth. To sweeten the deal for developing countries, the researchers also suggest creating an “emissions floor” ensuring that “the world’s lowest emitters would not be thwarted from obtaining diesel engines to produce their first electricity for lighting, television, and the charging of batteries; gasoline fuel for their first motorized transport; and liquid petroleum gas for their first modern cooking fuel—where these technologies are the lowest-cost options.”

Reporters who covered the Princeton proposal online did a fine job breaking down its mechanics for readers, interviewing the authors, and seeking outside appraisal. For instance, at his Dot Earth blog, The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin posted insightful remarks from lead author Robert Socolow, asking what he would say to climate negotiators from the U.S. and China if they were in an elevator in a tall building. Here’s an excerpt of what Socolow says:

You both can go on disagreeing forever… Take a look at the numbers. There are big demands on both of you… Might there be a pair of targets here, found from this formulation or some modest modification of it, that the two of you could agree upon?

That’s exactly the kind of commentary and questioning that was missing from news outlets’ lead stories following the emissions dispute at the G-8 summit in Italy. Other blogs did nearly as well. A week after Revkin’s post, his colleague Jon Lorinc, at the Times’s Green, Inc. blog went into even more depth on the Princeton researchers’ “multi-stage formula” and mentioned a similar proposal for a “global deal” (pdf) recently released by economist Nicholas Stern in the United Kingdom. Robert Frank of The Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report—the only non-environmental blog to pick up the study—angled his post around the researchers’ comments that most of the world’s emissions come from a minority of wealthy citizens in both developing and developed nations. The Christian Science Monitor, Nature, Reuters, Daily Climate, and Environmental Leader also had posts.

Whether or not the Princeton proposal—and the researchers’ claim that “addressing climate change mitigation and meeting the basic energy needs of the global poor are nearly decouple objectives”—holds water is, of course, up for debate. But that is exactly why it begs for more scrutiny.

While blogs and online articles deserve credit for highlighting this report, the press should seek out other suggestions (there are many) for calculating national emissions targets, and provide a more comprehensive analysis of how they might influence international negotiations. Are these proposals making it out of academia and onto Capitol Hill? Has Todd Stern, the U.S. climate envoy, read any of them, or considered weaving them into the arguments he will present in Copenhagen? Has Jairam Ramesh, India’s reluctant environment minister, considered the Princeton researchers’ suggestion that, under their plan, India could agree to an international accord (obviating fears that the U.S. will impose a “carbon tax” on its exports if it doesn’t) and “mostly get a free pass” on reducing its emissions?

There are only four-and-a-half months until Copenhagen. It is time that reporters start digging deeper into this story.

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.