By Donella Meadows
–June 20, 1991–
Next June fifty thousand people will assemble in Brazil for the biggest environmental conference the world has ever seen. About ten thousand of those people will be heads of state from 160 nations and their entourages, there to make official international policy. The rest will be representatives from nearly every environmental group on the planet. They will hold a much more colorful unofficial meeting, lobby, demonstrate, and heckle. The whole thing is called UNCED (pronounced “unsaid”), the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
It will be a circus.
Whether UNCED will produce any changes in the way human beings relate to the earth depends not so much on what will happen during those hectic days in Brazil as on what is happening now.
Meetings “preparatory for UNCED” — governmental and non-governmental, high-level and low-level — are taking place all over the world. There was one at Dartmouth College this week and one in Denmark last April. There will be one in November in Helsinki. Those are just a few I know about. There will probably be an UNCED-prep meeting somewhere on earth every day right up until next June.
These small meetings may or may not influence official statements in Brazil, but they are where future environmental policy is actually being shaped. In these gatherings the real talking takes place, coalitions form, and creative ideas fly around.
The most creative idea I have heard yet came out of the Danish meeting in April. It was floated there as something that would work wonderfully except that no one would ever agree to it. “Outrageous,” I thought when I first heard it. But I haven’t been able to forget it.
It has to do with global warming. The problem is that the human race is putting 5-6 billion tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. The consequences in the form of a crazed climate could be disastrous in ways that would touch everyone, rich or poor, from the poles to the tropics.
There happen to be 5-6 billion people on earth, so one could say that the “average person” contributes one ton of greenhouse pollutants per year to the problem. Of course there is no average person. A typical American throws 4.2 tons of carbon-equivalent heating units into the air per year, mostly by burning oil, coal, and gas. A typical Brazilian may contribute nearly the same amount by burning tropical forest. An energy-efficient Swede contributes 1.7 tons per year. An average Chinese or Indian contributes about 0.3 tons but has high aspirations for economic betterment that would increase that pollution load.
These differences are enough to stop next year’s Brazil meeting in its tracks. The poor countries will tell the rich countries to stop hogging all the energy. The rich countries will tell the poor countries to stop cutting all those trees and having all those babies. Everyone will go home mad, and the warming will continue.
So here’s the outrageous idea. The amount of human-generated carbon emission the planet can take without being climatically deranged is perhaps 1 billion tons per year. That requires an 80 percent cut from present emissions — to about 0.2 tons per person on earth. Now suppose that we allocate to every nation the right to emit 0.2 tons per person in that nation’s 1990 population. (To allow time for adjustment we’d have to scale down over 10 years or so.)
Any nation that wants to burn more fuel or cut more forest than that would have to buy emission rights from a nation that won’t or can’t use up its allowance. The price per ton of emission would be set in an open market. It would undoubtedly be high enough to eliminate any need for foreign aid, to pay off Third World debts, and to settle the problem of economic inequity forever. It would also be a powerful incentive to practice energy efficiency, to develop solar energy, and to preserve and replant forests.
Here’s an important kicker. Since total emission rights would be set at what the planet can EVER tolerate, each nation’s allocation would be fixed forever. If the population of that nation grows, that’s too bad — its emissions per person would then have to shrink. If the population slowly decreases, as some European populations are now doing, then each person’s share would increase.
This idea hits every single nation smack in the nose with its greatest irresponsibilities. It requires the Third World to face up to its population growth and deforestation, the post-Communist world to clean up its gross inefficiencies, and the rich world to tone down its greed and share its wealth. I suppose that’s why I like it. That’s certainly what will prevent it from being taken seriously at UNCED.
In Denmark I watched people discuss this notion — people from all parts of the world. At first they hated it, because they saw what it would mean for their own nations. Then they loved it because they saw what it would require from other nations. It’s fair, they all admitted. It creates a market mechanism to allocate real pollution costs efficiently and effectively. It would solve the problem of global warming and a lot of other problems as well. It would make us all grow up. Of course no one would ever agree to it.
It is, however, an idea that sinks in and works on you.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991