John Prescott still doesn’t get it

He didn’t get it at Kyoto – and he doesn’t get it now.

John Prescott – former British Deputy PM, and its lead negotiator at the 1997 Kyoto climate summit – is making headlines this morning with his call for “equalising greenhouse gas emissions per head in each country”.  But what he’s getting wrong (again – sigh) is the point that what we need to equalise for a fair global deal isn’t emissions per capita – it’s emission entitlements per capita.

This is not hair-splitting. Equalising emissions per capita is just what obviously and inevitably happens if we’re solving climate change: given that total global emissions will have to fall by at least 80% by 2050, and almost certainly by close to 100% at some stage, then obviously it follows that we’ll all be equalising our emissions – at roundabout zero.

The real question is what happens between now and that point – and in particular, how global emissions permits get shared out.  We always think of emissions targets as burdens, but they’re also tradable assets, of course.  They’re worth quite a lot: global emissions trading markets were worth $64bn in 2008.  That’s already more than half the size of total global aid flows ($120bn in 2008).

So the $64bn question – literally – is what share of these assets low income countries get.  If they get an equal per capita entitlement within a global emissions budget, then the fact that their per capita emissions are so low means they get to sell their surplus permits via emissions trading markets – and a major new finance for development flow is created, at the same time as the climate is being stabilised.

If, on the other hand, all they get is John Prescott’s implied assurance that we’ll all end up at zero emissions in a hundred years or so, then that’s not really the same thing at all, is it?