The Paris Climate Change Agreement: Beginning of “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”?

Edward B. Barbier

Edward B. Barbier is the John S. Bugas Professor of Economics at the University of Wyoming

Fifty years ago, in March 1966, Kenneth Boulding presented his landmark essay, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” at a workshop in Washington, D.C.  With its vision of the “spaceship earth,” this short treatise has had a profound influence on thinking about the global economy and sustainability over the past half century.

In the most famous passage, Boulding describes the open economy of the past with its seemingly unlimited resources and contrasted it with the closed economy of the future.  He wrote:

“I am tempted to call the open economy the ‘cowboy economy,’ the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the ‘spaceman’ economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.”

The essay was influential for two reasons.

First, as Boulding emphasized in his opening sentence, creating a more sustainable economy requires humankind rethinking its relationship with nature: “We are now in the middle of a long process of transition in the nature of the image which man has of himself and his environment.”  Boulding recognized that this change in worldview would be difficult, as “the image of the frontier is probably one of the oldest images of mankind, and it is not surprising that we find it hard to get rid of.”

Second, as an economist, Boulding recognized that the main impetus for change must occur in the basic production and consumption relationships of modern economies: “The closed earth of the future requires economic principles which are somewhat different from those of the open earth of the past.”

These central messages of Boulding’s essay are still relevant to contemporary debates over how best to reconcile global economic development with environmental sustainability.

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What to Expect in 2016?

Martin Khor

It is the time again to bid farewell to the old year and to welcome the new one.

Last year was very eventful on the environmental and economic fronts, and 2016 promises to be the same, if not more so.

For those passionate about the fate of the planet, 2015 closed with a bang, following the adoption of a global deal on climate change in December, but not before a nail-biting last day when the fate of the Paris conference hung uncertainly.

Finally, a deal was put together, generally satisfying both developing and developed countries.

The developing countries, led by the G77 and China, and also the like-minded developing countries (LMDCs), managed to stand firm on their demands and secured acceptance of most of their points, though diluted through compromise.

Malaysia played a crucial role on behalf of the developing countries, being both spokesperson for the LMDCs as well as a coordinator for the G77 and China.

The US and its allies also got their way.

The result is a weak agreement that depends on each country to determine what it can do on mitigation (reducing or slowing down emissions) and with no official compliance mechanism to discipline those countries that do not perform even according to their own expectations.

From a purely environmental perspective, the Paris deal was thus nothing to shout about.

Some may even consider it a failure.

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On the Rocky Road to Paris

Martin Khor

One of the biggest global events this year is the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in December.

A new agreement to tackle climate change is expected, but there are many hurdles to overcome first.

Negotiations for the Paris agreement are now taking place in Bonn. Old unresolved issues have re-surfaced, with sharp divisions between developed countries (the North) and developing countries (the South).

It’s hard to see how they can be settled in the remaining three meetings, including the Paris conference.” But a deal in Paris is a political necessity, so somehow the differences have to be bridged, or else papered over.

There are two requisites for a good climate deal. It has to be environmentally ambitious, meaning that it leads the world to reduce emissions so that the average global temperature does not increase by more than 2°C (or 1.5°C, according to some) above the pre-industrial period.

That present temperature has now exceeded by 0.8°C. With global emissions increasing by about 50 billion tonnes a year, the remaining “space” in the atmosphere to absorb more emissions (before the 2°C limit is reached) will be exhausted in three decades or so.

The deal also has to be fair and equitable. The North, having been mainly responsible for the historical emissions and being more economically advanced, has to take the lead in cutting emissions as well as transferring funds and technology to the South to help it switch to low-carbon sustainable development pathways.

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Spotlight Durban: Durban, Another Failure

Fander Falconí

In Durban, South Africa, world officials and diplomats decided to do nothing about climate change. Although China produces per capita emissions that are four times lower than those of the United States,  it should not ignore the fact that these emissions are already above the world average. Meanwhile, the US blames China for the rise in its aggregate emissions and refuses to make any commitments to reduce its own emissions. In Durban, rich countries pledged money, but also more carbon dioxide. Latin American countries took a variety of positions.

The Seventeenth International Climate Change Summit (Conference of Parties (COP-17)), which ended last month in Durban, should have forged a strong international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

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Spotlight Durban: Equity: the next frontier in climate talks

This week Triple Crisis is giving its regular contributors a week off and featuring some great re-posts of their recent columns and commentaries. Original content will return in 2012.

Sunita Narain

In 1992, when the world met to discuss an agreement on climate change, equity was a simple concept: sharing the global commons—the atmosphere in this case—equally among all. It did not provoke much anxiety, for there were no real claimants. However, this does not mean the concept was readily accepted. A small group of industrialised countries had burnt fossil fuels for 100 years and built up enormous wealth. This club had to decide what to do to cut emissions, and it claimed all countries were equally responsible for the problem. In 1991, just as the climate convention was being finalised, a report, released by an influential Washington think tank, broke the news that its analysis showed India, China and other developing countries were equally responsible for greenhouse gases. Anil Agarwal and I rebutted this and brought in the issue of equitable access to the global commons. We also showed, beyond doubt, that the industrialised countries were singularly responsible for the increased greenhouse gases.

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Spotlight Durban: Durban’s climate Zombie tripped by dying carbon markets

Patrick Bond

Looking back now that the dust has settled, South Africa’s COP17 presidency appears disastrous. This was confirmed not only by Durban’s delayed, diplomatically-decrepit denouement, but by plummeting carbon markets in the days immediately following the conference’s ignoble end last Sunday.

Of course it is tempting to ignore the stench of failure and declare Durban “an outstanding success,” as did South African environment minister Edna Molewa. “We have significantly strengthened the international adaptation agenda,” she explained about the near-empty Green Climate Fund. “The design of the fund includes innovative mechanisms for bringing private sector and market mechanisms into play to increase the potential flow of funding into climate change responses.”

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Spotlight Durban: Durban Resource List

Following the conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference of COP 17 & CMP 7 in Durban, South Africa, and as part of our Spotlight Durban series, Triple Crisis recommends the following analyses on the package of decisions adopted at Durban and what they mean for the Kyoto Protocol and the 2020 successor agreement.

Triple Crisis bloggers

Martin Khor, New talks launched at Durban , The Fight at the Heart of the Durban Climate Talks, and Gloomy Outlook in Durban
Sunita Narain, Choice is between a rock and a hard place and Durban’s final hours
Patrick Bond, A dirty deal coming down in Durban and Occupy Durban
Frank Ackerman, Climate stalemate in Durban: What can be done?
Elizabeth Stanton, Climate change gets personal and Taking Development and Emission Reduction Seriously
Edward Barbier, A REDD and green paradox

Other Commentaries
Robert Stavins, Assessing the Climate Talks — Did Durban Succeed?
Fiona Harvey and John Vidal, Durban Deal will not avert catastrophic climate change
John Broder, Climate Talks in Durban Yield Limited Agreement
Oxfam,  Climate deal fails poor people
Durban Climate Deal: The verdict , a compilation of reactions from world leaders at The Guardian
Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, Climate Justice
Jagdish Bhagwati, Deadlock in Durban

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Spotlight Durban: Durban’s final hours

Sunita Narain

Durban, December 9: The halls outside are full of people who are now waiting for some action. But strangely enough, there is no sense of anticipation or excitement. Strange in a world, which is increasingly seeing the pain of climate change impacts, and which knows that time is running out.

So what was the agenda for this conference, and what is the expected outcome?

To the climate uninitiated, Durban has been portrayed as a fight between the ‘good’ – namely, the European Union (EU) – and the ‘bad’ – in this case, India in specific and China in general. The EU wants to move the world, and urgently; it has set a target for the completion of a new agreement by 2015 at the latest. It expects that this agreement will be legally binding and will include all countries to take commitments to reduce emissions in the future. This is necessary because the existing agreement, Kyoto Protocol, only sets emission reduction targets for the industrialised countries. Now with the world changing – China’s annual emissions have overtaken the US and India’s are growing as well – the new agreement must have all these countries on board. This is all good and necessary. The world indeed needs urgent action and the emerging world’s emissions have increased: therefore, new kinds of agreements are necessary.

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Spotlight Durban: New talks launched at Durban

Martin Khor

United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban ended on Sunday morning with the launch of negotiations for a new global climate deal to be completed in 2015.

The new deal aims to ensure “the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties”, meaning that the countries should undertake deep Greenhouse Gas emissions cuts, or lower the growth rates of their emissions.

It will take the form of either “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”.

In a night of high drama, the European Union tried to pressurize India and China to agree to commit to a legally binding treaty such as a protocol, and to agree to cancel the term “legal outcome” from the list of three possible results, as they said this was too weak an option.

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