As the world community gears up for another round of climate-change talks—and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Delhi on Sunday for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—a central issue will be how to bring developing countries into a climate-change pact.
Developing countries such as India do not want to pledge to reduce their emissions until industrial countries have first demonstrated not just pledges but actual emissions cuts. Industrial countries, for their part, generally recognize that they should act first. But they want some assurance that their reductions won't be meaningless in the face of rapidly rising emissions in China and India.
India's Mr. Singh has become the spokesperson for "equity" in emissions reductions. Mr. Singh has acknowledged that climate change is a problem and has said that India will do its part. Like all developing country leaders, however, he points to the fact that industrial countries have contributed a century's worth of emissions to the global atmosphere while developing countries have only started to use, in his phrase, their "share of the global atmosphere." He has pledged that India will never exceed the per capita emissions of industrialized nations. He also said that India will only consider signing on to a climate pact when a common global per capita emissions target has been established.
When it comes to saving the planet, there are strong reasons to consider per capita emissions as part of a burden sharing formula. However, we should be cautious about making this the magic bullet that resolves the dispute between industrial and developing countries. Indeed, the Indians themselves should be cautious. It undermines a core part of their argument.
At some level, Mr. Singh is right. India has not contributed historically to the problem. U.S. per capita emissions are probably 12 times those of India's. If the U.S. meets the ambitious goal of cutting emissions 83% by 2050—as stipulated in the recent energy bill passed by the House of Representatives—U.S per capita emissions would drop from 20 tons to three or four tons per person annually.
That per capita standard would still be double India's current level of two tons per person. Because emissions linger in the atmosphere for 50 years, scientists tell us that all countries must cut their emissions over the next four decades to protect the planet. So if the U.S., the EU, and Japan slash emissions, but China, India and other developing countries continue to emit greenhouse gases unabated, by 2050 the overall global emissions might decrease, but not by enough.
But that's not the only reason to be concerned about the per capita standard.
First, a per capita emissions standard does not consider population growth. It only looks at the quantity of greenhouse gases each person emits. That standard accepts, in essence, that unmitigated population growth is fine. This undermines a careful consensus developed over a decade ago, with India's support, at the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development. After a century of inaction, the world community agreed that population growth needed to be managed. Even under that mandate, China and India together may add almost a billion more people to the world's population by 2050.
Second, countries like India are using a double standard when they talk about history. In essence, developing nations are arguing that the U.S., the EU and Japan need to act first on climate change. They need to make up for their history of using fossil fuels, even though these nations did not know at the time that they were threatening the climate.
Yet there is also a population-growth history that can't be ignored. During at least the last half of the 20th century, population growth exploded in developing nations. From 1950 to 2000, world population grew 2.5 billion to six billion—an increase of about 140%. Over that period, India went from 350 million people to over a billion—up 182%, outpacing even China's increase. By comparison, the U.S. grew from 157 million to 287 million—a rate of increase that is well below the world average.
If developed nations are held responsible for emissions that they historically contributed, oblivious to their impact on climate change, why shouldn't developing nations take responsibility for producing generations of people who will generate emissions into the future? Put another way, it is unclear whether we should use the population figures of 1950, 2000 or 2050 in judging per capita contributions to climate change.
Fighting climate change is a complex and dynamic undertaking. As with most metrics, the per capita standard is too simple. It doesn't fully acknowledge the emissions of previous and future generations. When Mrs. Clinton meets with Mr. Singh, she should make it clear that a static per capita metric alone cannot solve the problem of climate change.
Mr. Antholis, who served on the National Security Council during the Kyoto negotiations, is managing director of the Brookings Institution.