Climate Change Study Singles Out the Rich – All of Them

Green_Karl_Marx.jpg One of the long standing grudge matches in climate talks has been between developed countries, like the US, who believe greenhouse gas emissions should be curbed in every country across the board, and developing countries, like China and India, who argue it’s unfair to make them drastically curb pollution as they grow, something rich countries never did.

A study published Monday
(PDF) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests a work-around: capping the emissions of “high CO2-emitting individuals,” aka the global wealthy, aka the majority of the people reading this blog, wherever they live, Beijing or Buffalo, London or Lagos.

No More than $39,000 a Year, Please
The study relies on a basic rule of thumb: the richer you are, the more you tend to consume, and thus the more CO2 you tend to produce.
In order to cap global CO2 emissions at 30 gigatons by 2030 (approximately 2008 emissions), each individual on the planet can emit no more than 10.8 tons of CO2 a year, according to the study. This translates to about $39,000 a year in income on average, though the actual income threshold would vary by country.
In other words, anyone making more than their national threshold would be a high CO2-emitting individual, and thus subject to caps. In 2030, this would be about 1.1 billion people out of a total population of 8.1 billion.
The advantage of this formula is that, as countries get richer, their CO2 reduction obligation would automatically grow, bringing them into the climate treaty fold gradually.
Taxation Without Representation?
The authors of the study dodge the question of how countries would actually cap the pollution of their rich polluters. But by linking pollution directly to personal income, they indirectly suggest an obvious solution: increased taxes on the high-emitting wealthy, which in the US would be the majority of the population.
Penalizing a country for generating wealthy people could be a tough sell, especially if it’s seen as the sort of “foreign meddling” that opponents of climate treaties fear. And then linking that to higher income taxes, well…
Shoibal Chakravarty of the Princeton Environment Institute, one of the study authors, told Reuters they’re not suggesting increasing taxes on the rich — but they’re not not suggesting it either. “We are not by any means proposing that. If some country finds a way of doing that, it’s great,” he said.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

4 responses

  1. Would it not make more sense to charge more for consuming resources, such as gas or oil and then to tax the greater economy for clean up?

  2. The trouble with just raising the prices of particular commodities is that it can be regressive. “Taxing” the entire society has the benefit (and possible detriment) of allowing the society as a whole to allocate the burden.

  3. This is really intriguing though extremely difficult to imagine implementing or enforcing. However the concept that the individual, defined by income level, becomes responsible–and penalized– for contributing to the environment regardless of where he lives is what interests me. That would not be regressive. But would someone change his lifestyle in order to avoid a steep tax on consumption of energy or might he pay a tax which could be used to fund alternative sources, clean the environment and so forth?

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