Working toward an equitable and ambitious international climate agreement in 2015 that is informed by science, considers the specific needs of the most vulnerable populations, and catalyzes sustainable development.
I spent the recent U.N. climate negotiations in Doha trying to reconcile two injustices. The first is captured by Nicholas Stern’s “brutal arithmetic.” This is the simple, unavoidable fact that bold greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed from all countries to hold global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s most dangerous impacts. Developing nations, many of which are battling crippling poverty and inequality at home, are being told that the traditional, high-carbon pathway to prosperity is off-limits, and that they, too, will need to embrace aggressive mitigation actions. This is a glaring injustice – the product of two decades of missed opportunities in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), inadequate domestic action in industrialized countries, and substantial geopolitical changes in major emerging economies.
But the second injustice is even greater – one that is manifest and which must be avoided. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has illustrated, breaching the 2°C threshold would seriously degrade vital ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. This, itself, is an issue of justice, as climate change undermines the realization of human rights, including the right to food, health, an adequate standard of living, and even the right to life. Those same developing countries who are home to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our global community—and who are now compelled to act on reducing emissions—will be hit first and hardest by climate change’s impacts.
This piece was written with analysis from Athena Ballesteros, Edward Cameron, Yamide Dagnet, Florence Daviet, Aarjan Dixit, Heather McGray, and Clifford Polycarp.
Expectations were low for this year’s UNFCCC climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar (COP 18), which concluded last week. It was scheduled to be a “finalize-the-rules” type of COP, rather than one focused on large, political deals that went into the early hours of the morning. Key issues on the table included finalizing the rules for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period; concluding a series of decisions on transparency, finance, adaptation, and forests (REDD+); and agreeing on a work plan to negotiate a new legally binding international climate agreement by 2015. The emissions gap was also front-and-center, as the new UNEP Gap Report showed that countries are further away than even a year ago from the goal of keeping global average temperature rise below two degrees C.
If you asked five different people what they think “equity” means, you’d probably get five different answers. Their personal experiences and opinions would be overlaid on their cultural perspectives. A philosopher might bring up Aristotle’s teachings on justice; an economist would likely talk about maximizing utility and efficiency. A Buddhist and a Muslim might frame their answers from different perspectives that are difficult to compare, just as the viewpoints would likely vary between people raised under different forms of government.
So it’s no surprise that when climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries come together at the end of each year, they can’t agree on what exactly ‘equity’ means as applied to addressing climate change. To further complicate matters, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ties equity to “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC).”
There are many legitimate views of what equity means in the context of the UNFCCC, reflecting sharp contrasts on how to share both the burdens and opportunities of the global transition to low-carbon development. Some countries emphasize “responsibilities,” usually explained as the historical responsibilities developed countries have because of the greenhouse gases they emitted in the process of growing economically. Other countries focus on “capabilities,” the capacity countries have now to deal with climate change, such as their financial and technological resources to reduce domestic emissions or support adaptation research and activities. Several options for “differentiation” have been suggested over the years, including historical responsibility, levels of economic development, and vulnerabilities and needs. The current approach to equity has become a tug-of-war between countries that are reluctant to make greater climate change action commitments without assurances that others will also act.
History of Equity in the UNFCCC: Capability vs. Culpability
It’s now a full 20 years since adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is designed to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Despite important steps forward in Cancun and Durban, governments acknowledge that their combined efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to limit a global average temperature increase to 2°C.
This post was co-authored by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and current president of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, and Manish Bapna, Acting President of WRI. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
The United Nations climate change convention is 20 years old this month. As we see from the just-completed climate talks in Bonn, Germany, we still haven't solved the problem, nor even agreed how to solve it. Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change become more apparent, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest.
Within this statement lies a deep injustice: Those most affected by climate change did least to cause the problem. We need to put a human face on climate change. In the Bay of Bengal, in Bangladesh, sea-level rise, the increased incidence of cyclones, and higher temperatures are causing freshwater ponds to become salty. These are major challenges for families who rely on water for drinking, washing, irrigation and aquaculture. The impacts are so serious that they threaten the very ability of families -- who produce virtually no greenhouse gases -- to continue to live there.