Global deal – the developing country ask

by | Oct 19, 2008

Imagine you’re advising China or India – or perhaps a poorer developing country such as Ghana – on their preparations for the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. What sort of deal should these countries be prepared to accept? What would seem fair?

Nick Stern sidles up to these questions in his paper – Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change. His starting point is that global emissions need to drop to around 20 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (and then further to around 10GT CO2e in the decades that follow) – that’s around 2 tonnes of CO2e in 2050 for each of the world’s 9 billion people or so.

Stern believes that there is no choice but for countries to converge on this per capita average:

This target for per capita emissions by mid-century is so low that there is little scope for any major country to depart significantly above or below it. If one or two large countries were to manage only to reduce emissions to, say, 3T or 4T per capita, then it would be difficult to see which other major grouping of countries would be able to get emissions close to zero: and the global target would be unlikely to be reached.

So…let’s imagine the Americans have accepted this logic (suspend belief for a moment) and have a proposal for reducing their emissions from over 20T today to Stern’s 2T by 2050. They enter the negotiating room expecting other countries to do the same.

How would you advise China, India or Ghana to respond? They start from a very different point – around 5T per Chinese citizen, 2T for an Indian, and maybe around 1/2 tonne for a Ghanaian.

Now, as Stern admits, for them, simple convergence would be a pretty rough deal.

All major groups getting to 2T/capita is a pragmatic approach and not a strongly equitable one. It takes little account of the greater per capita contributions of the developed countries to the historical and future contributions to the stock of GHG emissions.

My instinct would be to urge the Chinese, Indians and Ghanaian to forgo what might be a fun, but ultimately unproductive, squabble about historical emissions. Be magnanimous about the past, I’d suggest. Instead focus on what really matters – who’s going to be allowed to emit what over the next forty years.

Because however far Chinese, Indian or Ghanaian emissions are allowed to increase before they start to drop towards 2T – its absolutely certain that their total emissions between now and 2050 (on a per capita basis) will be significantly lower than America’s.

In other words, there’s no trajectory that can be drawn that gives these countries a fair share of the next generation emissions ‘cake’.

So what deal would you advise them to strike?


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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