Climate Policy


13 September 2021

Utilitarian benchmarks for emissions and pledges promote equity, climate and development

Mark B Budolfson, David Anthoff, Francis Dennig, Frank Errickson, Kevin Kuruc, Dean Spears and Navroz K Dubash


Tools are needed to benchmark carbon emissions and pledges against criteria of equity and fairness. However, standard economic approaches, which use a transparent optimization framework, ignore equity. Models that do include equity benchmarks exist, but often use opaque methodologies. Here we propose a utilitarian benchmark computed in a transparent optimization framework, which could usefully inform the equity benchmark debate. Implementing the utilitarian benchmark, which we see as ethically minimal and conceptually parsimonious, in two leading climate–economy models allows for calculation of the optimal allocation of future emissions. We compare this optimum with historical emissions and initial nationally determined contributions. Compared with cost minimization, utilitarian optimization features better outcomes for human development, equity and the climate. Peak temperature is lower under utilitarianism because it reduces the human development cost of global mitigation. Utilitarianism therefore is a promising inclusion to a set of benchmarks for future explorations of climate equity.

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