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Equity in an International Climate Agreement: Lessons from Other Multilateral Regimes

The nineteenth United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) is shaping up to be a “construction COP” where nations take steps toward achieving a new global climate agreement by 2015. But with wide-ranging interests at the same table, establishing equity has once again taken center stage in the international climate negotiations and will be a key issue for achieving a new global climate agreement.

The 2015 agreement is meant to apply to all nations, raising obvious questions about which countries will take what actions and how equity factors into those determinations. Since ensuring all Parties consider the climate agreement fair is a necessary first step to meaningful participation, WRI’s new paper, Equity Lessons from Multilateral Regimes for the New Climate Agreement, examines how equity is treated in a number of multilateral environmental, trade, human rights and international aid agreements.

This exploration was undertaken as part of the Climate Justice Dialogue collaborative project with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and was supported by the Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

While the regimes we examined differ from climate policy and the UNFCCC, they provide important lessons and analogies to help guide the UNFCCC toward a fair and inclusive outcome in 2015. Equity cannot be addressed in the abstract, but must be incorporated in the negotiations of the new climate agreement in concrete ways.

By studying what’s worked, and sometimes what hasn't, in other international regimes, important lessons emerge and point to five specific approaches that are important for the UNFCCC process:

1. Equity is addressed in a multi-dimensional way.

Equity is addressed in part by the way in which agreements differentiate among the commitments of Parties. But equity is also reflected in the institutions, support, and procedures that promote the objectives of a regime and facilitate participation. A new climate agreement will only be fair and ambitious if it addresses equity in this broader, multi-dimensional way. This approach should also include developing equity frameworks incorporating a full range of issues such as vulnerability to climate impacts and access to technology.

2. An effective process for determining equity can start with consideration of objective factors followed by a dynamic political process.

Establishing an effective process to determine differentiated commitments is essential to success. Agreement can be reached when a basket of objective criteria provide a starting point for discussion but conclusions are reached through negotiations. Though there are clear differences between European Union (EU) policy and the UNFCCC, the EU experience in determining effort sharing for greenhouse gas emission reductions is a particularly instructive model for the UNFCCC in this regard. In both 1997 and 2009, the EU process began with a variety of criteria for setting country targets, including equity factors, before negotiating an outcome with reasonably equitable commitments.

In the UNFCCC, a robust consideration of equity should be integrated into the negotiation process for proposing national mitigation offers and assessing those offers. This might involve agreeing on indicators up-front, or allowing countries to choose their own but justifying their view of equity during the review and assessment process.

3. A wide range of approaches to differentiating commitments can be valuable.

Multilateral regimes have used a number of approaches for differentiation, and exploring various approaches to differentiation between national commitments will be useful for the UNFCCC’s next steps. Differentiating the timing of obligations has been a helpful model for achieving success in some regimes and may be particularly important to consider in the climate context.

In addition, flexible forward movement (agreements that enable enhanced commitments by some but not all Parties) may help strengthen the regime over time. The UNFCCC could also create pathways for countries to make plurilateral commitments to action on certain policies or technologies, thus allowing some nations to “go further faster” than others with less capacity.

4. Access to technologies and capacity for innovation is essential.

Increasing access to finance and technology while increasing capacity are key to success and can help create a shift in mindset from sharing burdens to galvanizing opportunities. For instance, the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund was a catalyst for developing countries to stimulate investment in new technologies, which helped level the playing field with developed countries. While the causes of climate change are more complicated and are embedded more deeply in the global economy than ozone-depleting substances, access to specific technology and capacity building are still necessary to ensure all countries can mitigate and adapt to climate change, and they should be centrally addressed in the climate agreement negotiations.

5. Ensuring equity while establishing procedures and institutions strengthens participation and compliance.

Facilitative modes of promoting compliance, rather than sanctions, have been useful for developing countries in many multilateral regimes, especially as part of a process including discussion with countries about how progress they are making aligns with their responsibility and capability. In addition, ensuring country ownership of national strategies and plans, finance priorities, and implementation of finance is vital.

For instance, the international framework for aid effectiveness has emphasized country ownership and the central role of nationally-determined priorities and strategies to drive change. Due to this focus, developing countries have adopted strong national-level development strategies while improving measures and standards to track performance. In the UNFCCC, using facilitative modes to promote compliance and ensuring country ownership of strategies and plans can build a deeper level of participation.

Ultimately, although other regimes are not exact analogies to the UNFCCC, and while climate change poses specific and sometimes unique challenges, we found that these lessons from other regimes can be extremely valuable to climate negotiations. Equity plays a central role in achieving consensus, and the UNFCCC should consider these lessons in order to effectively build fairer, stronger climate action.

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