The scientific evidence increasingly indicates that the world may soon reach a point of no return regarding climate change. So, rather than worrying almost exclusively about economic and political inequality, rich-country citizens need to start thinking about how to deal with global energy inequality before it’s too late.

CAMBRIDGE – While denizens of the world’s wealthiest economies debate the fate and fortune of the middle class, over 800 million people worldwide have no access to electricity. And more than two billion have no clean cooking facilities, forcing them to use toxic alternatives such as animal waste as their main cooking fuel. Furthermore, per capita carbon dioxide emissions in Europe and the United States are still vastly higher than in China and India. What right do Americans, in particular, have to complain as China increases production in smokestack industries to counter the economic slowdown caused by its trade war with the US? To many in Asia, the inward-looking debate in the West often seems both tone deaf and beside the point.

Even if Europe and the US deliberately stall their capitalist growth engines – as some of the more radical policy proposals might do if implemented – it would not be nearly enough to contain global warming if emerging economies stay on their current consumption growth trajectory.

The most recent United Nations data suggest that the world has already reached a tipping point where there is little chance of limiting the increase in global temperature to what climate scientists consider the safe threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In fact, a significantly larger rise is likely. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, limiting global warming even to 2°C would require a global carbon price of at least $75-100 per ton of CO2 – more than double its current level – by 2030.

Any solution to the problem requires two interconnected parts. The first and more important is a global tax on CO2 emissions, which would discourage activities that exacerbate global warming and encourage innovation. Equating the price of CO2 emissions globally would eliminate distortions whereby, say, a US-based firm might choose to relocate its most carbon-intensive production to China. Moreover, a worldwide carbon tax would achieve in one fell swoop what myriad command-and-control measures cannot easily replicate.

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