Metrics for aggregating the climate effects of different emissions: a unifying framework

R.S.J. Tol, T.K. Berntsen, B.C. O'Neill, J.S. Fuglestvedt, K.P. Shine

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Multi-gas approaches to climate change policies require a metric establishing equivalences among emissions of various species. Climate scientists and economists have proposed four kinds of such metrics and debated their relative merits. We present a unifying framework that clarifies the relationships among them. We show, as have previous authors, that the global warming potential (GWP), used in international law to compare emissions of greenhouse gases, is a special case of the global damage potential (GDP), assuming (1) a finite time horizon, (2) a zero discount rate, (3) constant atmospheric concentrations, and (4) impacts that are proportional to radiative forcing. Both the GWP and GDP follow naturally from a cost-benefit framing of the climate change issue. We show that the global temperature change potential (GTP) is a special case of the global cost potential (GCP), assuming a (slight) fall in the global temperature after the target is reached. We show how the four metrics should be generalized if there are intertemporal spillovers in abatement costs, distinguishing between private (e.g., capital stock turnover) and public (e.g., induced technological change) spillovers. Both the GTP and GCP follow naturally from a cost-effectiveness framing of the climate change issue. We also argue that if (1) damages are zero below a threshold and (2) infinitely large above a threshold, then cost-effectiveness analysis and cost-benefit analysis lead to identical results. Therefore, the GCP is a special case of the GDP. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change uses the GWP, a simplified cost-benefit concept. The UNFCCC is framed around the ultimate goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations. Once a stabilization target has been agreed under the convention, implementation is clearly a cost-effectiveness problem. It would therefore be more consistent to use the GCP or its simplification, the GTP. © 2012 IOP Publishing Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Article number044006
Pages (from-to)1-8
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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