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A carbon-constrained world

By Chandran Nair - posted Monday, 14 July 2008

Mitigating climate change will be the most daunting challenge of this century. Fortunately, years of effort and calls to action by environmental experts and other specialists are making an impact on popular attitudes. Less fortunately, most of us still grope in the dark trying to find a credible framework to structure an adequate response.

Much faith has been placed in market-based solutions such as carbon-emissions trading. But while such measures may lead to curbing - even reducing - emissions in developed countries, they will almost certainly fall flat in developing countries, especially the fast-growing economies of China and India, where 40 per cent of the global population lives.

The reality of such measures is that the rich nations demand sacrifices of people who are scratching a miserable living. Even in booming China, almost half the population, more than the entire US or European population, still struggles to get by on US$2 or less a day. No government, democratic or otherwise, will adopt complex global trading schemes run by foreign interests and risk dashing their people’s economic aspirations.


But laying blame elsewhere or invoking inequities to defend inaction will not change the fact that relentless consumption - on the march in every corner of the world - can only increase the use of fossil fuels. We must look for other answers.

One such area which has received almost no attention to date is the behaviour of the world’s principal fossil-fuel producers. These can be divided in various ways - between principal crude-oil producers and exporters including Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, plus Russia, Mexico, Canada and Venezuela, and the principal coal producers and exporters, including China, the United States, India, Russia, Australia and Indonesia.

These can also be divided another way - between those with high per-capita carbon-dioxide emissions and those with low emissions.

Unsurprisingly, those with high emissions are also rich - the US, Australia and Canada plus the wealthy states of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait.

Put simply, among the wealthy members of the world’s core group of fossil-fuel producers are the world’s worst carbon-dioxide producers. Other countries may be rich, but tend to use far less fossil fuels and energy per capita: Japan, for example, the world’s second largest economy, ranks 32nd in terms of per-capita emissions, far below the world’s largest economy, while the US, ranks 10th, with the top nine positions dominated by small rich nations.

While the populations of these countries combined amount to less than 10 per cent of the world population, their per-capita carbon-dioxide emissions range from five to 20 times that of the world’s poorer countries, including China and India.


These countries have a responsibility - moral and environmental - to cut emissions. They should commit to reducing per-capita emissions by half as soon as possible and strive for the current global average, given that some leading scientists predict the world already approaches the safety threshold of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

This is not a pipe dream. Japan’s per-capita emissions - 9.8 tons - are half those of the US and Canada’s total of 20 tons, and a quarter of the UAE and Kuwait’s total of 38 tons.

Sadly, we see the opposite behavior, with excesses unfolding in places like the UAE, with extreme urban development embracing indoor ski slopes to underwater hotels.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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