Warsaw paves the way for apportioning the carbon budget based on use and distribution, not scarcity

Since all Parties are now going make “nationally determined contributions” towards mitigating climate change they will do so under Article 4.1 of the Convention, and the issue to be decided, by the ADP, will be what will be provided, and even more important, how these will be treated under Article 10 of the Convention - their assessment and review.

The common understanding so far is that “applicable to all” refers to these “contributions” and the separate treatment of developing and developed countries with respect to the national actions will continue. No one has suggested in these negotiations that developing countries cap their emissions in 2020. All the developed countries have already agreed in the Convention to the aim of returning their emissions to 1990 levels. So, the reporting – or communication of information – will be different.

The unresolved issue really is whether there will be an agreement to modify longer term trends (again, this is what developed countries agreed to do under the Convention in Art 4.2.a) and develop a global vision for ‘sharing responsibility and prosperity’.

A promising approach is provided in ‘The World Social Science Report 2013’, produced by the United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), prepared jointly with the International Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which was released during the Warsaw meeting, represents a wide spectrum of opinion and concludes that “the social sciences must help to fundamentally reframe climate and global environmental change from a physical into a social problem”.

Framing the issue

With the global middle class expected to triple by 2050, the central global issue is dealing with a crisis that is caused by the distribution and use of available resources rather than by the scarcity of natural resources. We are faced with three inter-related global limits – carbon budget, consumption by the rich and comparable standards of living for the poor. How these limits are approached will depend on what is regarded as essential for human wellbeing.

The forces unleashed by the industrial revolution, in the form of its economic model and urbanization, leads to population moving to cities and  shifts the drivers of natural resource use from production to consumption, resulting in a new relationship between society and nature. As in the case of the Montreal Protocol, the focus on production and consumption alone enables sustainability to become a part of business strategy, and goes a long way towards solving the problem at its roots.

The nature of industrialized societies – urbanization - is the major driving force for increasing demands for material and energy. Cities concentrate and integrate investment and employment opportunities, supporting rapid economic growth and access to electricity, goods, services and public facilities, with economies now being driven by the urban services sector and not just by industrialization.

Already cities produce three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are directly related to household consumption – shelter, mobility and food.

Urbanization involves two transitions – the establishment of infrastructure, or consumption of material resources, as a necessary part of the process of economic development, and later higher incomes support changes in consumption patterns, that are largely non material goods and services based on specific lifestyles. Both are direct inputs to human wellbeing, and each is responsible for roughly a doubling of the rate at which resources are used. While most of the first is essential and some of the second is discretionary, and can vary by a factor of three for countries at similar levels of income and wellbeing.

The scale of the urban transition accounts for the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.  By 1950 industrialized countries had reached 100% energy access and carbon dioxide emissions doubled in the period between 1920 – 1950, they again doubled in the period 1950-1970 as urbanization was completed in the industrialized countries, and again doubled between 1970- 1990, because of the consumption patterns of the population that moved into the middle class, and from 2000 they have began to stabilize.

The use of natural resources in the urbanization process is largely determined initially by the density of the urban structures and subsequently on a continuing and increasing basis by the level of human wellbeing or income. Urban design and related consumption patterns also explain the different levels of natural resource use, even for countries at similar levels of well-being. For example, Japan and many European countries use half the resources, about 13 tons/ capita, as compared with Finland, the USA, Australia and Finland, even though levels of income and wellbeing are not very different. Trends in developing countries are similar, with countries such as China and India using resources at the rate of about 5 tons/capita in the year 2000, compared to Brazil and South Africa, where the resource use is almost two times that level.

Seeking a global consensus

The real global challenge is the increasing consumer demand. Globally, urban households are more energy intensive, even as family size is becoming smaller, with a converging standard of living worldwide. The increased affluence of  the urban middle-income population, or middle class population, with higher average incomes than in rural areas lead to lifestyles reflecting energy and natural resource-intensive consumption patterns that are produced by energy intensive industries, and during their lifecycle produce growing amounts of waste, both solid waste and carbon dioxide. Poor public transport planning despite growing demands for transportation encourages car ownership; transport emissions continue to grow in the European Union, despite the strong concern for the environment.

As the bulk of global urban growth is now expected to take place in Asia. China is expected to overtake the USA by 2025 to become the world's biggest consumer market, with India as the third largest. These markets will define their own lifestyles and spending patterns, with significant impacts on global market developments and trends. Policy changes currently being adopted in China suggests that, for example, motorized personal vehicle ownership rates are not expected to increase significantly. The concentrated structure and efficiencies of scale in cities offer major opportunities to reduce energy demand and minimize pressures on natural resources, and surrounding lands, even though we do not have one single, functioning, low-carbon model city.

Recent analysis is focusing on consumption patterns in cities as the driver of global emissions, and the intellectually challenging question is why it is generally assumed that all countries aspire to adopt the lifestyle of the most profligate. A new dimension to the forty year old debate, since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, is emerging as China plans to shift 250 million from rural areas to dense urban clusters on the lines of New York City, where emissions are one-third of the average in the United States. China has built 40, 000 kilometers of high speed rail equal to the length inter-state high ways in the United States; rail travel emits twelve times fewer emissions per capita. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita from transportation in the US are 12 times higher than in China, constituting one-third and one tenth of total emissions respectively, and China has begun to limit vehicle ownership in major cities.

Similarly, while global livestock production was responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon intensity is highest for beef contributing half of those emissions, half of which the United States wastes, which the Indians do not eat at all and is not a key part of the diet in China.

An assessment of patterns, trends and drivers of the activities that led to the utilization of the global carbon budget over the previous 200 years shows that the most important trend to be modified worldwide is urban design and the resulting consumption shaped by urban lifestyles. As it is closely linked to current economic models, real change will only occur in the long term, and could well take as long as 50 years. For example, lower consumption immediately can stabilize the rate of impact on all parameters of environmental degradation by 2030, while high density cities and a modal shift to rail transport will modify longer term trends in levels of use of energy, food and transportation later by 2050. A genuine commitment is needed to global goals make the pie bigger rather than enable some to seize a larger slice.

Therefore, in their ‘contributions’ developing countries must assure the global community that their electrification, urbanization and middle class levels of wellbeing will be attained using a lesser per capita share of the global carbon than what the developed countries did; the peer review should focus on consumption patterns and set global standards for high emissions areas where emissions continue to rise in developed countries; and, reference to annual emissions reductions will apply to developing countries when they achieve stabilization levels of wellbeing, as has happened in developed countries. As the United Nations had now stressed, climate change is a societal not a physical problem.