What Is Contraction and Convergence

In 1990, a group of activists led by Aubrey Meyer founded the Global Commons Institute (GCI). Its objective is to find a solution to global warming that is fair to all inhabitants of the Earth. A GCI publication, Contraction and Convergence:A Global Solution to a Global Problem, states: "Because everyone—regardless of status—is now increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the rich have little choice but to share the burden of contraction fairly."

The GCI presented its original agenda to the Second World Climate Conference in 1990. Later, at the urging of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it developed a plan that is now known as "Contraction & Convergence" (C&C). The goal of C&C is to reverse the current state of affairs in which industrialized countries account for a growing share of emissions. Developing countries suffer most of the effects of global warming, and the two sides cannot agree on how to solve the problem. The institute observed: "We consider that a failure to face and secure a global commitment of this kind will result in a perpetual stalemate in the international political process to the extent that the agreement and delivery of global abatement targets will become less and less possible."

The "contraction" portion of C&C refers to setting an emissions "budget" that would stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a safe level by 2100. The institute's original target was 450 parts per million (ppm). However, in light of recent scientific research, and the fact that the world is already feeling the effects of global warming at current concentrations, the institute suggests that the target might have to be lowered to 350 ppm—or even 280 ppm, where it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. To get the carbon dioxide concentration to a safe level and keep it there, it will be necessary to reduce emissions substantially below current levels.

The "convergence" portion of C&C deals with how the right to emit carbon is allocated worldwide. At first, the distribution of these rights would be based on how much each country currently emits. Over time, however, the right to emit would converge toward equal amounts per person worldwide. The year when convergence occurs would be negotiated by the world community. The GCI originally suggested 2045, the centennial of the founding of the United Nations, but it concedes that convergence might not occur until 2100. Even after convergence occurs, the amount of allowable emissions would continue to decline.

Source: Global Commons Institute, Contraction and Convergence: A Global Solution to a Global Problem. http://www.gci.org.uk.

Obama, supported some form of cap-and-trade legislation as well as substantial emissions reductions by the middle of this century.

In the meantime, states and cities are taking action against global warming. The most ambitious legislation so far is the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.5 The act orders a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and authorizes cap-and-trade as one way to achieve it. Lawmakers consider it a first step toward meeting the state's commitment to an 80 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by the year 2050. California, which has long been a leader in air-quality legislation, has also moved to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. However, the proposed limits were blocked by the Bush administration. If the next administration allows California to go ahead with those limits, the auto industry will likely challenge them in court. Meanwhile, in the Northeast and the West, some states have created voluntary cap-and-trade programs and have set emissions-reduction goals. In addition, a growing number of states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) programs, which require utilities to generate part of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind power and solar energy. According to the Renewable Energy Policy Product, 16 states now have RPS in place. However, some believe that RPS requirements allow politicians to make business decisions best left to utility company executives.

At the local level, hundreds of cities have taken steps to reduce their emissions. Seattle has been in the forefront of local efforts. Time's Jeffrey Kluger explains:

Mayor Greg Nickels . . . who was incensed after the Senate walked away from the international Kyoto global-warming accords, began what has become a nationwide movement to bring U.S. cities into compliance. As of [March 2007], 431 mayors representing more than 61 million Americans had signed on, imposing higher parking taxes, buying hybrid vehicles for the municipal fleet, helping local businesses audit their energy use and even converting traffic lights from incandescents to LEDs, which are 90% more efficient.6

Businesses, too, have started to address the problem. At the 2000 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, business leaders called climate change the greatest threat facing the world. Since then, a number of corporations have joined forces with environmental groups to find ways to reduce emissions. One such alliance is the U.S. Climate Action Program (USCAP), which favors a regulated economy-wide, market-driven approach to protecting the climate. Many believe that market forces will lead to a solution to global warming, just as they led to oil replacing coal as our principal source of energy. Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, recently said: "Global warming skeptics notwithstanding, fixing global warming won't be a drain on the economy. On the contrary, it will unleash one of the greatest floods of new wealth in history. When Congress finally acts, America's entrepreneurs and inventors will find the capital they need to solve global warming—and a lot of people will make a killing."7 Despite Krupp's optimism, some climate activists fear that alliances like USCAP will put corporate profits ahead of saving the planet.

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