Privatising the atmosphere: A solution or dangerous con? – Mike Childs

In 1833 William Forster Lloyd wrote a pamphlet (Lloyd, 1833), which described what has later become known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (see Hardin, 1968). It described how self-interested subsistence farmers would destroy common land by over- stocking it with cattle. If you are struggling to feed your family then short-term self- interest is understandable, although there are numerous examples of how communities across the globe have worked collectively to sustain their local environments for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Climate change is often described as the new tragedy of the commons as self-interest prevents countries from living within their fair share of the planet’s atmospheric carbon carrying capacity. Carbon trading is promoted, largely by wealthy countries, as the silver bullet to solve this age old problem. Divide the atmospheric carbon space and allow countries and corporations to buy and sell it (much like some economists responded to Lloyd’s argument by stating that assigning property rights to the commons would solve the problem). Is this a great idea or dangerous con? This note examines this question and concludes that the answer is the latter.

The first question that should be asked in devising an international climate strategy, including setting up a global carbon trading scheme, is how much atmospheric carbon space is left? The next question is how should it be shared out? On the face of it, these appear to be simple questions, but, of course, in practice they are devilishly complex.

Two uncertainties make the maths difficult:

  • What impacts will result from different global average temperature increases and what impacts are acceptable.
  • Scientific uncertainty on how sensitive the climate is to carbon pollution.

    But the greatest difficulty of all is how to share the remaining atmospheric carbon carrying capacity between countries.

The recent Durban UNFCCC negotiations and the almost 20 years of negotiations before them have centred on this last difficulty, which is in essence a political and ethical choice and not a scientific one. It is true that debates on climate sensitivity and what a ‘safe’ level of global average temperature increase consists in have occupied a lot of time and space, but nothing compared to the question of how much pollution rich countries should be able to emit and how much poor countries should be able to.

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