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The Problem in Poznan

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
December 11, 2008


The annual U.N. climate negotiations, currently under way in Poznan, Poland, have stalled. Here's why: Rich countries want a commitment from poor countries to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions. Poor countries want a commitment from rich countries to pay for those cuts. Those competing claims have long posed a major obstacle for any kind of global climate deal. But the negotiators face another big handicap of their own making: The list of who's rich and who's poor that would be used for any final agreement is hopelessly out of date.

The United Nations first divvied up the developed and developing world for climate talks in 1992, with the goal of using that split to apportion responsibilities for cutting emissions. But distinctions that once made sense are no longer tenable. Ukraine, for example, is considered rich. In 1992, it was reflexively lumped together with the countries that once comprised the powerful Soviet Union; by 2007, its citizens had fallen to 97th richest in the world by GDP per person. (All wealth figures cited here are from The CIA World Factbook.) At the same time, Singapore (now the sixth-richest nation in the world) was designated as poor. Unless the climate regime overhauls its wealth labels, a country like Singapore could reap the benefits of financial aid, while Ukraine would be burdened with emissions caps. Needless to say, that kind of nonsensical setup won't get you very far in international talks.


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