Katie Nelson
Katie Nelson's picture
Joined: 11/23/2011
Not all carbon is created equal

Through the Durban Climate Change Negotiations story I’ve referred to countries’ rank in current global carbon emissions.   (e.g. China recently surpassing the U.S. to be the world’s largest carbon emitter).  However, I recently came across an article in the Guardian that paints the carbon picture with a bit more flair and precision.  Rather than comparing national carbon emission responsibility by totaling up current carbon output per country, the article uses several different types of criteria to rank the biggest carbon emitters.  These include comparisons by totaling historical carbon output, totaling carbon output along with other greenhouse gas emissions, and on a per capita basis.  Under each category the results end up falling out quite differently--some of the usual suspects frequently earn top honors (China and the U.S. for instance), but there are more than a few surprises.   Luxembourg claims the top spot for historical carbon emissions per capita.  Australia wins the first place for current emissions per capita.  These surprises shed light on the frustrations of some of the developing countries who earn top spots in comparisons of national carbon emissions but show up much lower on the per capita and historical emissions lists.

In the last days of the negotiations, India was one such country holding a hard line against a legally binding agreement.  Currently the country holds the third place position for its total carbon emissions (right behind the U.S.).  Yet throughout the weekend India’s representatives argued that its large population shifts the country’s per capita carbon output to well below the global average.  As a developing country that has little historical responsibility for global carbon output, India contends that it shouldn’t be punished for its large population.  However other large emitters, like the United States, have argued that for any climate change initiative to work, it must require a commitment from all major carbon producers. 

An effort to accommodate India’s position while meeting the conditions set forth by the United States gave rise to a curious agreement on the nature of a future climate change protocol.  All countries would have to be bound by it.  However the future protocol would not be quite “legally binding.”  Instead it would constitute an “agreement with legal force.”  (See the previous blog for a discussion of the difference between these two terms).

As one might guess, the context behind climate change statistics and facts are often more complex than they first appear.  This complexity highlights the need for frank and honest discussions about each party's circumstances as well as the necessity for parties to be open to shifting their initial perceptions.  In a negotiations of this size (with almost 200 participating nations), it is difficult to have all the negotiators on the same page.  There are often several negotiators per country making it difficult to develop meaningful relationships among so many diverse people in such a short timeframe.  Many of the negotiators lack formal conflict resolution training. As such, the negotiators often adpoted techniques used in an open air market--aim high and prioritize personal interest over a cooperative agreement.  Although by the weekend-extension countries began to erode barriers and make progress, the two prior weeks of disengagement indicate the incredible challenges for a successful negotiations at this scale.   


M.S. Candidate

Environmental Studies

University of Montana