Discussion Paper

The Case for Intensity Targets

Feb 1, 2005 | William A. Pizer

Abstract

While the rest of the world has pursued absolute emissions limits for greenhouse gases, the Bush administration has proposed an alternative policy formulation based, among other things, on reducing emissions intensity—that is, emissions per dollar of real gross domestic product. Critics of this formulation have denounced the general idea of an intensity-based emissions target, along with its voluntary nature and weak targets. This raises the question of whether intensity-based emissions limits, distinct from the other features of the Bush initiative, offer a useful alternative to absolute emissionslimits. This paper makes the case that they do, based on how emissions targets are framed. The argument draws on four key observations: greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise over the near term, absolute targets emphasize zero or declining emissions growth while intensity targets do not, developing countries’ economic development is integrally tied to emissions growth for the foreseeable future, and intensity targets need not be any more complicated to administer than absolute targets.