Nov. 29 – Dec. 10: the Hot Action You Want in Cancun? Plus observations about Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Korea.

A U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico… how could any headline writer resist coming up with a pun?  To answer my own question: no, it does not appear likely that we’ll get the action on global hotness / climate change that we’re craving in Cancun.  While an effective international agreement would be great, in the meantime, it’s interesting to note that there seems to be more action occurring in other contexts.  These include cities, other political subdivisions of countries, in bilateral relations between nations, within the European Union (EU), and in the private sector.

To cite some examples: 138 mayors committed to measuring and publicly reporting progress-to-goals with regard to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on November 21, 2010.  Considering over 50% of the almost 6.9 billion people on the planet now live in cities, multi-billion dollar investments of megacities such as Mexico City are a cause for optimism.  In the U.S., home to 5% of people in the world yet accountable for over  25% of the world’s GHG emissions, 1044 mayors representing almost 88 million citizens have committed to taking action, including New York City, which has set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30% below 2005 levels. 

At the regional level, cap-and-trade mechanisms and other efforts to boost clean energy adoption have been implemented between states in the U.S., including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and Western Governors’ Association’s Initiative on Climate Change and Adaptation

In the arena of bilateral relations, we’ve seen some action lately on the part of Norway, which pledged $1 billion in exchange for Indonesia’s cessation of rainforest destruction, though this type of offer is not without controversy.

The EU’s stated goal is to reduce its GHG output by 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and has organized 9 billion Euros in investments to help achieve that goal.

Finally, some businesses have made potential mandated GHG reductions look downright silly with their achievements: in 13 years, Interface has reduced GHG in absolute terms by 44%, or 94% if offsets are included, even as net sales grew 27% during this period.

Turning our attention back to the U.N. Climate Change Conference, a few facts from our recent research is worth noting.  There persists a debate about balancing commitments and perceived burdens between more developed, wealthier countries and emerging economies whose GHG footprints are rapidly growing.  There is also a pervasive theory of an environmental Kuznets curve, which holds that as countries develop, their environmental conditions and/or impacts will improve.  The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) often come to mind as countries that present growth opportunities for business and investment but also growing or potentially huge environmental footprints.  Some would argue that these countries’ development should continue unimpeded by any restrictions, and that this economic growth alone will lead to these countries becoming more green.  South Korea also seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind these days because of the simmering tensions on the penninsula, so I’ll also note some findings about South Korea (data on North Korea was unavailable).  Here we go: the main conclusion of our paper, Oil Users, Air Polluters, and Forest Abusers: Macro-Level Segmentation of 121 Countries Based on Resource Usage Efficiency Per Capita, co-authored with my colleague, D. Steven White, used 3-D cluster analysis to find groups of statistically similar countries based on their energy consumption, carbon emissions, and paper and paper-based product consumption.  The results are clusters of countries that cannot be entirely explained by geography, demographics or economic specializations, but most definitely challenged the notion of an environmental Kuznets curve.  More developed economies (generally) have massively greater environmental impacts per person.  The statistics alone lend some weight to the argument that the more developed countries have already contributed disproportionately to our current climate change problems, and therefore should assume more of the perceived-or-actual burdens of reducing humanity’s impacts.  Consider the following: the average resident of a country in the cluster containing Brazil or China consumes 14% of the energy of an average resident of a country in the most energy-voracious cluster, produces 17% of the carbon emissions of an average resident of a country in the most carbon-emitting cluster, and consumes 22% of the paper of an average resident of this energy- and carbon emissions-intensive cluster.  The average Indian’s impacts are even smaller: 6% of the energy, 4% of the emissions, and 7% of the paper consumed by the average resident of the most energy- and carbon emissions-intensive cluster.  Russia and South Korea both belong to the same cluster – one of two clusters containing countries that are moderate in per capita energy consumption and carbon emissions, but comparatively avaricious in paper consumption.  The average resident of the cluster containing Russia and South Korea uses 40% of the energy and produces 48% of the carbon emissions of the most energy- and carbon emissions-intensive cluster, yet consumes 105% of the paper of the most energy and carbon emissions-intensive cluster.  Despite their green reputations and generally progressive societies, the Scandinavian and Benelux countries all belong to the clusters of countries with the greatest environmental impacts.  Belgium, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden are found to be statistically most similar to Australia, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, with the average resident of this cluster using 60% of the energy and emitting 61% of the carbon emissions yet 129% of the paper products of an average resident of the most energy- and carbon emissions-intensive cluster.  These findings have been fodder for a lot of discussions, especially since some developed countries with good standards of living have comparatively much smaller environmental footprints in one or all of these metrics.  These findings challenge some conventional rankings because the statistics reflect consumption and exclude measures such as incidence of waterbourne diseases, which otherwise boost some energy- and carbon emissions- and paper-intensive countries to the top of “green” rankings.  For a full explanation of why we chose these variables and the methodology and results, please read the full paper

To summarize: (1) it doesn’t seem like many observers have high hopes for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun accomplishing a tremendous amount, (2) there seem to be greater causes for hope coming out of the political subdivisions of nation-states, bilateral agreements, the EU, and the private sector, and (3) inasmuch as the talks in Cancun are likely to revisit the old dilemma of balancing burdens-and-commitments between developed-vs.-developing countries, we can offer delegates and observers some useful guidance as to which clusters of countries have been – and continue to – have a disproportionate impact on our climate, and the relative per capita magnitude of those impacts.  Comments are welcomed either here (by submitting a comment on this blog) or by e-mailing me at or by connecting on Facebook ( or Linked In (

About Adam Sulkowski

Associate Professor of Law and Sustainability, specializing in research and teaching on sustainable business, corporate social responsibility (CSR), sustainability reporting, integrated reporting, and corporate and environmental law.
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1 Response to Nov. 29 – Dec. 10: the Hot Action You Want in Cancun? Plus observations about Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Korea.

  1. Speaking of action already being taken (out of necessity):
    City of Norfolk, insurance companies, and the Navy – the new treehuggers?


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