Why US States Have A Duty To Reduce Their Emissions to Their Fair Share of Safe Global Emissions: The Case of Pennsylvania.

A new report that looks at Pennsylvania examines why US states must reduce their greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although this report focuses on Pennsylvania, the conclusions in this report could be applied to other US states as well as sub-national and regional governments around the world.

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The report concludes that Pennsylvania needs to act to reduce the threat of climate change. The report explains how the latest science on climate change that is being articulated by the most prestigious scientific institutions including the National Academy of Sciences leads to the conclusion that there is an urgent need of governments at all scales to act to reduce the threat of climate change to maintain any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. The report also explains how climate change will likely affect Pennsylvania and hundreds of millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world.  Given this, the report explains why Pennsylvania needs to also plan to adapt to climate change impacts that are now very likely even if governments respond more aggressively to climate change than they have in the past. The report also compares Pennsylvania’s response to climate change to other US states.

The report calls Pennsylvania to adopt an enforceable greenhouse gas target consistent with Pennsylvania’s fair share of safe global emissions because Pennsylvania ghg emissions are contributing to global emissions and there is an urgent need to dramatically reduce global ghg emissions to prevent dangerous warming. Because ghg emissions from Pennsylvania are contributing both to enormous threats to the world and will likely have adverse impacts on human health and ecological systems in Pennsylvania (a matter discussed below), the state should reduce its emissions to Pennsylvania’s fair share of safe global emissions. Pennsylvania must also act to reduce ghg emissions because Pennsylvania controls human activities that produce ghg emissions that are not regulated at the federal level for such activities as some transportation decisions, regulation of electricity generation, building codes, land use, waste disposal, and some aspects of forest protection.

Although a description of Pennsylvania’s exact fair share of safe global emissions was beyond the scope of this report, nonetheless, the report concluded that a strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should limit its emissions to achieve greater percentage of ghg reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because like all US states and most of the developed world nations, ghg emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita ghg emissions.  In other words, if it is determined that the entire world should reduce its emissions by 80 % below 1990 levels to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or sub-national governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions to even greater levels on the basis of equity and fairness.  To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments.  For this reason, almost all the nations of the world, including the United States in 1992 when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed that each nation must reduce its emissions on the basis of “equity” to prevent dangerous climate change. (UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3, Para 1) If all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits ghg at rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of ghg per capita. (World Bank, 2012b) As a result, all nations have agreed that national targets must be based upon fairness or equity although reasonable differences exist about what fairness requires.

An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set ghg emission targets on the basis of equity:

Determining how much individual states or nations should reduce emissions through mid-century requires consideration of allocation equity and reduction effectiveness. The UNFCCC approach to apportioning ghg emission reduction requirements between developed and developing nations considers a broad spectrum of parameters, including population, gross domestic product (GDP), GDP growth, and global emission pathways that lead to climate stabilization.Applying these parameters, the UNFCCC concludes that, to reach the 450 ppm CO2e stabilization target, developed countries need to reduce ghg emissions by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. (New York State, 2009)

And so like New York, Pennsylvania should  recognize that its emissions reduction target must be based upon fairness. However, because reasonable differences exist about what equity requires of nations and states in setting emissions reductions targets, this report makes no specific final recommendations on what an enforceable ghg cap should be except to claim it should be fair.  At the very minimum, however, any State cap should be at least as stringent as emissions reductions levels needed by the entire world to provide reasonable confidence that dangerous climate change will be avoided.  It should also be based on recognition that fairness likely requires Pennsylvania to be more aggressive in reducing its ghg emissions than most of the rest of the world. As the above quoted New York report recognizes, a state like Pennsylvania might set a target to reduce ghg emissions by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

Furthermore, any action plan and interim emissions reductions target should put Pennsylvania on an emissions reductions pathway consistent with the need to limit global emissions to levels that will stabilize atmospheric greenhouse concentrations at levels that provide reasonable confidence of preventing dangerous climate change. This requirement entails the need of any Pennsylvania action plan to consider not only what action steps are necessary to achieve a target at a specific year such as 2020, the target year recognized in an unimplemented 2009 Pennsylvania  action plan, but also to consider actions that will put Pennsylvania on a reduction pathway capable of reducing ghg emissions from Pennsylvania necessary to prevent dangerous climate change in the years ahead. More specifically this means that Pennsylvania’s action plan should consider how it will achieve emissions reductions to achieve any long-term goals such the potential goal of reducing ghg emissions by 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Given all of this the report calls for Pennsylvania to:

  1.  Adopt a legally-binding GHG emissions reduction target consistent with Pennsylvania’s fair share of safe global emissions.
  2.  Work with the Climate Change Advisory Committee  identified in the 2008 Pennsylvania Climate Act supplemented by vigorous public participation to identify strategies to reduce Pennsylvania GHG necessary to achieve the legally-binding GHG emissions reduction target
  3. Adopt any laws or regulations necessary to implement the action plan and achieve the target.
  4. Greatly ramp up Pennsylvania’s commitment to non-fossil energy.
  5. Develop and periodically update a climate change adaptation plan.
  6. Encourage, support, and recognize actions and programs to reduce the threat of climate change by Pennsylvania sub-state level governments, businesses, organizations, and educational and religious institutions.

The full report can be downloaded at http://www.pagreencolleges.org/CapitolEvent


New York State, (2009). Climate Change Issue Brief, New York Energy Plan 2009, www.nysenergyplan.com/final/Climate_Change_IB.pdf


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law