The Copenhagen climate summit got off to a rocky start, with the leaking of the “Danish text", a document that apparently suggested that developed countries’ 2050 targets for emissions be double those of developing countries, as well as seeming to tilt the process of negotiation towards the rich. Meanwhile, the US delegation came in to the city with a similar approach. US lead negotiator Todd Stern said, “The core part of this negotiation is significant action by the major developing countries, there’s no question." He blamed those developing nations that have resisted binding reductions.

The rhetoric and back-room dealing seemed more in line with the bad old days of imperialism, rather than a genuine attempt to achieve transparency and fairness in tackling global warming. Goals of fairness have been obscured by fuzzy thinking. For example, focusing on total emissions by countries ignores population size differences, while using emissions per capita as a benchmark ignores levels of income. Both have been used by developed countries to put pressure on China and India, ignoring the industrialized world’s overwhelming contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Surjit Bhalla (http://business-standard. com/general/pdf/120509_01.pdf) has provided a clear and sensible analysis of comparative emission reductions. By focusing on emission intensities, he avoids the obvious inequities that come from using total or per capita emissions. He calculates carbon dioxide, or CO2, emission intensities (the ratio of kilogram of CO2 to gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 dollars at purchasing power parity) for 2005, and uses projections based on trends to estimate where emission intensities would be in 2020, without any specific mitigation actions. By his measures, China’s current promise of emission intensity reduction is only a 10% improvement over trend. The US and European Union’s promises are better, but less in percentage terms than those of several other developed and developing countries.

According to Bhalla’s calculations, Norway’s trend emission intensity in 2020 would be 15, while its announced reduction target implies an intensity of 6, or a 59% marginal reduction. The US trend number is 31, while its target is 26, implying a marginal intensity reduction of 18%. If the US were to match Norway’s target reduction, its 2020 emission intensity would go down to 13, and its reduction in total emissions would be triple of what it is proposing. Seen in this light, pointing the finger at developing countries seems patently unfair.

The unfairness of the US position is heightened when one considers cumulative emissions. At annual rates, China now slightly exceeds the US in total CO2 emissions (though this translates into less than one-fourth of the US rate in per capita terms). However, the US’ cumulative emissions from 1990 to 2002 were almost quadruple those of China. But US negotiator Stern does not care for this history, saying, “We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere, up there, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that." This position is illogical, morally indefensible, and destroys incentives. If history does not matter, then every country has an incentive to postpone emission reduction, because then its failure to act will be history, and no longer to be counted. That would be an absurd and tragic outcome.

Justice suggests that history should matter in determining shares of emission reduction. Prospects of future growth should matter too, so that emission reductions do not choke off the growth of the poor. Using emission intensity as a benchmark avoids penalizing the poor. Real fairness would probably imply that the industrialized countries shoulder almost the entire burden of emission reduction, based on their cumulative contribution to the problem and their current standards of living. This is in the absence of transfer payments, however.

Efficiency with fairness would imply that developed nations pay for emission reduction by developing countries, either directly or through subsidizing technology transfer. The “Danish text" reportedly mentioned a figure of $10 billion per year for this purpose. That amount is one or two orders of magnitude too low: the necessary amount may be more like $800 billion annually. That is 2-3% of the developed countries’ GDP. Since aid has never reached anything like that amount, we are not likely to see a serious transfer from governments, though the small northern European nations will continue to provide a moral example that the US will continue to ignore.

The best bet for India, China and other emerging economies is to press for access to clean technologies from northern Europe, and to invest themselves in greening their economies. That investment can contribute to growth, rather than reducing it. What they will need is knowledge transfer in areas relevant to emission reduction. This has to come from concerted government actions, not just private innovation. A new and different kind of green revolution will finesse the petty politics brought to Copenhagen by the US negotiators.

Nirvikar Singh is a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at