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Dickinson to Durban » Climate Change, Key COP17 Issues » This won’t be easy, folks.

This won’t be easy, folks.

Chapter 5 of A Climate of Injustice by J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley Parks illustrates a set of approaches for allocating greenhouse gas targets. One of the four approaches stood out to me. The strategy in question was proposed by India, China and the Group of 77 and has been endorsed by France, Switzerland and the European Union; it is called the “Per-capita” strategy by Roberts and Parks. This approach is embodied in the emissions management model called “Contraction and Convergence” developed by the Global Commons Institute and it was introduced by the Indian government in 1995.

The concept is very simple. First, a maximum acceptable atmospheric CO2 concentration is calculated. Then, it is divided by the number of the people in the world. So each person has an allocated amount of emissions, so each country is responsible to stay below the allocated amount of their entire population. Seems fair, right? I thought so. It made perfect sense to me, each person gets an equal share of the pie and no one can complain.

However, some nations don’t see it as reasonable as I do, especially the rich countries… namely the US. See, the US views this as an attack. If the world’s pollution limits were divvied out evenly they would have to decrease their output significantly. Other countries, mainly those pushing for this, can stand to benefit from this because their people have a ways to go to reach that limit, meaning they would be able to actually increase their CO2 output.

Personally, I think this seems fair. For one, the US and other developed countries have been responsible for a lot of the climate change problem, even if they weren’t aware of it. For another, the US doesn’t really have a right to tell developing countries that they are not allowed to follow in our footsteps to a better life, that’s just rude.

Graph of C&C Strategy

But then I started wondering what the implications of the C&C model would be for me personally. I started wondering exactly what it would mean to live at this threshold of “one metric ton of carbon equivalent per capita” that Roberts and Parks say is necessary. If the average American really dumps nine times as much C02 into the air as the average Chinese and ninety times as much as the average Bangladeshian then how much would we have to decrease our consumption to reach an average level for the entire planet?

So I checked out the Nature Conservancy CO2 calculator to see if I could calculate a rough estimate of my current share of this “per capita” output. The results I found were very unsettling. (First I did some conversions and found that 1 metric ton is equal to 1.1 US tons, which is the unit the Nature Conservancy used).

My per capita emissions (based on the fact that I have a 5 person family in one normal house) are roughly around 13 US tons which is actually 52% that of the average American, a whopping 27 US tons. The world average? 5.5 tons. So this means that the entire world has to reduce their CO2 output to 1/5 what it currently is, and I have to somehow decrease it to 1/13. Puts things into perspective, right?

So I tried again to see if I could manipulate the calculator to form a situation where I was below 1.1 US tons. I put my 5 person family in a huge apartment with only 3 bedrooms. I heated and cooled and lit my house efficiently wherever possible, used all ENERGY STAR appliances, used no hot water, drove no vehicle, went vegetarian on all organic food, composted everything and recycled everything else. My results? Still 3 US tons! There was no possible way to get the calculator below 1.1 US tons.

This puzzle made the depth of our situation clear to me. This won’t be easy. In order to reduce emissions to the stability level that Roberts and Parks want we would all have to rid ourselves of pretty much every comfort that we take for granted. We need to be prepared to give up a lot, because even improved technology isn’t going to be the solution (though it could definitely improve the situation). We need to radically rethink the structure of our societies and what we truly believe is important to us. If the Nature Conservancy is right, and I can’t live under one metric ton of CO2 doing every little thing I can, then Michael Maniates is right, and we need to start thinking big.


Works Cited:

1. Roberts & Parks, 2007. “Fueling Injustice: Emissions, Development Paths, and Responsibility.”  In Roberts & Parks, A Climate of Injustice, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 133-184.

2. Nature Conservancy “Free Carbon Footprint Calculator,”

3. “Contraction and Convergence.”


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7 Responses to "This won’t be easy, folks."

  1. Christine Burns says:

    Wow Emily, I totally thought the same thing when I was reading that article, but I never appreciated just how difficult it would be! Then I got to thinking about it more and I realized that one aspect that the per capita method doesn’t account for is industry. If each person has 1 metric ton, then what do school and hospitals get. They need emissions allocated to them as well. This would require each individual person’s emissions to be reduced even further past 1 thereby making our goal even more difficult to achieve!

    1. damont says:

      Very well done. As for schools/hospitals, I would clarify by suggesting that these would not have their own allocations of GHG emissions per se, but that a share their emissions would count against the budget of every individual who used them.

      Want to use that science lab? That will be x.xx MTeCO2, please. Oh, you’d like an x-ray for that arm? That will be x.xx MTeCO2, please. Medicine, did you say? That will be…you get the idea. You can see how education and healthcare could very quickly add up, and even exceed one’s personal limit. And they are both such basic expectations, not luxuries (or at least I doubt we want them to become such).

      And you are correct; we need a complete restructuring of society. Now, how to go about that…

      1. Emily Bowie says:

        You’re right Tim, and Christine. There are a lot of complications with the model if you look at it simply as a “per capita” model, but I think what they are implying is that each country would have to stay below the limit of what their “population x per capita” (I know there is a word for it but I can’t think of it right now) would be. That would make it easier to handle. But in that case I start to wonder what the implications for population growth are…

        1. damont says:

          Oh yes, it would definitely have to be done on the country allocation level; zooming in any more than that would make it impossible to manage. My examples were following your (very sobering) personalization of what the per capita approach would look like.

          If your science lab and hospital can operate entirely from renewable energy, they will not count so badly against people; but if you really need a treatment or medication for which production requires petrol-chemicals, then that might be a big problem for you.

          Once again, thanks for an insightful (if unsettling) post.

  2. A Meyer says:

    Dear Emily – this is a thoughtful and helpful statement.

    You may find useful that there are like-minded folk near you in Maine at: –



    1. Emily Bowie says:

      Oh Wow! Thank you very much Mr. Meyer, I enjoyed reading that post. It is comforting to know people in my state are like-minded!

  3. A Meyer says:

    Here is a way of linking the C&C campaign to the 350 campaign: –

    Earth and Venus really do ‘Dance the Tango’ round the Sun – looking [and who knows ‘sounding’] like this . . . . .

    One of these ‘cycles’ is 8 Earth-Years with 13 Venus-Years and 5 Venus:Earth ‘kisses’ . . . .

    5 of these cycles for C&C [equal 40 Earth-Years] at 350 ppmv/GTC

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