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Climate, Energy & Transport

This post was co-authored with Wendi Bevins, an intern with WRI’s Climate and Energy Program.

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

"Think globally, act locally" is a slogan that aptly describes what I witnessed last week at the 4th Annual Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit. At the event, local government officials from four counties gathered to discuss how to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s impacts.

Yep, you heard that correctly – government officials in the United States—in a “purple” state, no less—came together in a bipartisan manner to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. In fact, mayors, members of Congress, county commissioners, and officials in charge of water issues in the state discussed how to move forward with action plans in response to sea-level rise – a climate change impact which is not theoretical, but happening now.

Putting Aside Partisanship for Action

Unlike Congress, these public officials aren't debating the facts of climate change and its impacts or whether we should act. They see current effects and understand that in the face of streets flooding more regularly, drinking water supplies threatened by salinization, and models showing that some neighborhoods could become uninhabitable, what political party you support is irrelevant. Climate change impacts like sea level rise don't discriminate between Democrats and Republicans.

This piece originally appeared on

After two weeks of climate negotiations in Doha, bleary-eyed ministers, negotiators, and advocates are headed back home to the various regions around the world. Few, if any, are leaving entirely satisfied.

The pace of progress on climate change is still too slow, and the political will for greater ambition remains elusive. That said, these talks did achieve the basic goal of extending the Kyoto Protocol and moving countries onto a single negotiating track toward a new climate agreement by 2015. This leaves the door open for more progress ahead.

This year's talks took place against the backdrop of two disturbing trends. On the one hand, there are multiple signs that climate change is here, and its impacts are already being felt around the world. On the other hand, the world remains tied to the consumption of fossil fuels that drive more and more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. With each passing day that we don't shift directions, we are increasingly locking ourselves into a more unstable climate future.

The real question is: Can the international talks have a real impact on climate change?

This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a new proposal detailing how they would like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from existing power plants. Their analysis predicts that their proposal would reduce power sector GHG emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels in 2020, or 17 percent below 2011 levels.

Standards for existing plants are essential if the United States is to make meaningful strides toward a low-carbon economy. NRDC’s proposal provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about how best to design these standards.

U.S. Emissions Are on an Unsustainable Path

Even though the United States has made progress on reducing emissions – most notably through the Obama administration’s new standards for passenger vehicles – we need more action if the country is to prevent climate change’s worst impacts. While U.S. energy emissions have fallen nearly 9 percent below 2005 levels, these trends are not expected to continue without ambitious new climate and energy policies. This is the clear takeaway from both the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012 and a recent analysis by Dallas Burtraw and Matthew Woerman at Resources for the Future.

In the UNFCCC international climate negotiations, “ambition” refers to countries’ collective will to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough to keep global average temperature increase below 2°C. While most countries have made international pledges to limit GHG emissions, these pledges are not “ambitious” enough to add up to the GHG cuts needed to meet the 2°C temperature goal. That’s why many groups are calling on parties in Doha to step up their commitments. Equally important, though, is ensuring that countries are effective in implementing domestic policies that meet – or exceed – the international commitments they have made already.

What Makes for an Effective Domestic Climate Policy?

The “implementation deficit” – a difference between the expected and actual amount of emissions reductions of an enacted policy—stems from a lack of complete implementation of a climate policy. This kind of “deficit” is well documented in a number of policy sectors, with significant implications for the countries’ abilities to meet GHG-reduction targets. Conversely, when climate policies are effectively implemented, they demonstrate that mitigation actions can work, in turn encouraging other countries to adopt similar policies and actions.

The effectiveness of any policy depends on several key factors, including:

Doha, Qatar, may not the first place that you’d pick for a global conference—many people would be hard-pressed to find it on a map. Yet, it’s the location of this year’s global UN climate negotiations (COP 18).

It’s midway through the final week of the negotiations, yet there’s an eerie calm in the sprawling conference hall. The scene here is different than the past two years (in Durban and Cancun, respectively), both of which were filled with tension and even moments of drama. Certainly, no one expected a major breakthrough this year, but the lack of urgency here is disquieting.

The Climate Change Risks Are Increasingly Clear

What’s happening inside the conference center stands in stark contrast to what we’re witnessing outside. Just yesterday, an unusual and massive storm, Typhoon Bopha, swept across the Philippines, taking hundreds of lives and displacing thousands more. While typhoons are common in the Philippines, this storm is the most southern on record and arrived particularly late in the season. Meanwhile, people in the eastern United States and Caribbean are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. And, in India, a new report warns that more droughts loom as monsoons will bring 70 percent less water in the years ahead.

This piece was co-authored with Smita Nakhooda of the Overseas Development Institute, with inputs from Noriko Shimizu (IGES) and Sven Harmeling (Germanwatch).

Developed countries self-report that they have delivered more than $33 billion in fast-start climate finance between 2010 and 2012, exceeding the pledges they made at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. But how much of this finance is new and additional? Developing countries and other observers have raised questions about the nature of this support, as well as where and how it is spent. Independent scrutiny of country contributions can shed light on the extent to which fast-start finance (FSF) has truly served as a mechanism to scale-up climate finance. Our organizations have analyzed the FSF contributions of the United Kingdom, United States, and Japan, and analysis of Germany’s effort is forthcoming.

Our analysis revealed four key insights into the FSF experience:

1) Developed Countries Have Ramped Up Climate Support

The FSF period has been a difficult one: Developed countries pledged their climate finance support at the advent of unprecedented economic difficulty brought on by the 2008 financial crisis. Nonetheless, developed countries have sustained support for climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries, despite fiscal austerity measures that have substantially cut back public spending. Indeed, all of the countries we reviewed appear to have significantly increased their international climate spending since 2010.

In many cases, data limitations impede a direct or accurate comparison of fast-start spending to related expenditures before 2010. But the UK appears to have increased its climate finance four-fold relative to environment-related spending before the FSF period. Germany has nearly doubled climate-related finance. Japan previously mobilized $2 billion per year in climate finance through the Cool Earth Partnership; under FSF, it reports average spending of more than $5 billion per year. Finally, through its Global Climate Change Initiative, the United States has increased core climate funding from $316 million in FY09 to an average of $886 million per year in FY10 to FY12.

As we move into the second week of the UN climate talks, the desert sand is swirling around the conference center in Doha, Qatar. Countries spent the first week tying up some loose ends on several issues, but there are still many details to be worked out before the sand settles and Parties head home. It’s hard to tell whether this meeting will turn into a full sandstorm or clear up.

The uncertainty here in Doha contrasts greatly with the increasingly clear (and grim) climate picture that we’re seeing around the world. Yet another report was just published finding that global carbon emissions are at an all-time high. This publication comes on the heels of the recent UN Environment Programme report showing that the gap in emissions is growing even wider. And, recent World Bank analysis reinforced the potential catastrophic impacts of moving beyond 2 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise. The warnings are clear, but it’s hard to tell if negotiators are ready to respond with the urgency that’s needed.

The Current State of COP 18

Indeed, it is fair to say that most of the critical issues on the table at COP 18 are not yet resolved. All the questions around the Kyoto Protocol and a second commitment period are still open. Issues surrounding finance – including medium-term pledge levels, the long-term work plan, and how to track countries’ climate finance commitments – have yet to be worked out. Roundtables on the Durban Platform resulted in a good exchange of views, but it’s still unclear whether there will be a firm work plan for 2013 or whether it will remain vague. The most vulnerable countries are understandably asking for more action now – even before a new 2020 agreement kicks in – but most countries haven’t put forth specific proposals.

While it’s not surprising that so many topics are stuck after the first week, the lack of action puts additional focus on the role of Ministers. Many are already in Doha, and they have their work cut out for them if they want to make progress in the remaining week of the conference.

As negotiators in Doha move toward a new global climate agreement this week, politicians and planners in the United States are still busy absorbing the lessons of Hurricane Sandy.

With half of all Americans living near the ocean, Hurricane Sandy provides a wake-up call for state and municipal authorities in coastal areas nationwide. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is leading the way, pledging a new generation of storm-resistant infrastructure and forming three commissions to explore how the state can better prepare for climate change’s coming impacts.

Sandy wrought a 1,000-mile trail of damage in towns and cities along the East Coast shoreline. As climate change intensifies, more severe storms (and storm surges), rising seas, extreme heat, and other destructive impacts loom on the horizon. How can New York City; Newark, N.J.; and other cities hit by Sandy rebuild in ways that avoid a repeat of the devastation that deprived millions of the basic essentials of modern life? How can other coastal cities adapt to become more resilient to a warming climate?

Put simply, they need to “build back better,” a phrase first coined by President Clinton following the 2004 Asian tsunami. In practice, this means coupling short-term efforts to get communities back on their feet with longer-term urban development that adapts to expected climate change impacts.

As they seek to make our coastal cities and towns more climate resilient, urban leaders should adopt three key approaches that we believe will be critical to success:


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