04/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Job Opening for UN Climate Boss: Must Like Equity Framework

Looking for a job? I know one that just opened up. It's stressful but rewarding - you get to actually save the world. The UN's top climate diplomat Yvo De Boer resigned from one of the toughest jobs in the world last week. De Boer's job was to try to reach an international agreement to stop global warming. It wasn't easy, and by most accounts he failed. But look at what he had to deal with: Bush and Cheney (an international diplomacy nightmare in general, but especially for the climate), and a global economic system that "externalizes" the costs of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The list of obstacles to an international treaty goes on and on, but one of the most important is the lack of an international framework to guide the UN's 192 countries.

Before discussing what a framework for an international climate treaty could look like, let's summarize what we have right now. Up until now, the UN worked under the rubric of "common but differentiated responsibilities," meaning that the high-emitting countries should act first, and once they have leveled off their emissions growth, the low-emitting countries can join in. But in practice, high-emitting countries want to keep highly emitting, low-emitting countries want to be rich, which for centuries has meant increasing their emissions, and the only common ground is that everyone wants someone else to do the heavy lifting.

The bargaining that led to the Kyoto Protocol focused on targets and timetables. One country, say Germany, would volunteer to reduce its emissions by 9 percent below 1990 levels (the target) by 2012 (the timetable). Then the UK would say 8 percent, the U.S. would agree to 5 percent (and later renege), while Russia held out for zero percent. Some countries (I'm looking at you, Australia) were even allowed to increase their emissions by 8 percent above 1990 levels. There was no incentive for a country to volunteer to reduce more than anyone else. After three years of this, Yvo de Boer is moving on to a cushy desk job at KPMG, and leaving the task of negotiating the next climate treaty to his successor.

Many jurisdictions have adopted long term targets of 50-90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, which was interpreted to mean a global temperature change of 2 Celsius. In the past year, Bill McKibben and his team at have done an excellent job educating the world about the global target of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, which is below our current level of 387.

Targets are important. Targets say what must happen. But a framework is an agreed-upon understanding of who is going to do the work. So what kind of framework would help the countries of the world negotiate an agreement to prevent Gaia from catching a cold and running a temperature that could end civilization? The North needs to cut its emissions, and the South needs to pull its population out of poverty. How about an equity framework?

Contraction & Convergence (C&C) is an example of a simple equity framework. It was devised by Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute in the UK. C&C starts with a target (say 350 ppm), then says that wealthy countries must reduce emissions (contraction), and then move towards equity in emissions (converge). The first model for C&C focused on countries. Say the average human emits around 5 tons of GHGs per year. Americans emit 20 tons per capita of GHGs each year, but Ethiopians and Haitians emit 1 ton or less per capita. The C&C agreement would set a date in the future when all countries would have equal per capita emissions, and would set up a tradable permit system to implement this transition. Voila! An equity framework.

Other policy experts began tinkering with C&C, and substituted individuals in place of countries. The Ireland and UK-based FEASTA touted a Cap & Share system, where permits or "shares" are allocated directly to each person in the world, and people sell them to upstream fossil fuel companies via banks or post offices. The companies are required to buy the permits in order to emit greenhouse gases. A portion of the permit revenues could be retained by the government and used for adaptation or economic transition towards green technologies, but the majority would go back to people and help preserve their incomes while the economy decarbonizes.

This may sound far off and pie-in-the-sky, but the U.S. Senate is considering a similar system called Cap & Dividend. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are co-sponsoring the Carbon Limits for America's Renewal (CLEAR) Act. The bill would auction permits to companies, return 75% of revenues to people on an equal basis, and use the remaining 25% for investments. When you put the emission reductions under the cap of the CLEAR Act next to the equal per capita dividends representing each person's "share" of total emissions, you have the beginnings of an equity framework for an international climate treaty.

Yvo de Boer has moved on, but maybe he burned out just as things were starting to look up. The key to success for Yvo's replacement will be in finding common ground for both low-emitting and high-emitting countries, and the key to that is an equity framework such as Cap & Share or Cap & Dividend, which would get a boost from U.S. passage of the CLEAR Act. OK, Senators, let's make it happen.