For more than two decades, crafting global actions that all nations believe to be equitable has been a central challenge for international climate policy.

A new approach is required to resolve this challenge. Building on the experiences of 23 countries, this report demonstrates that climate action and equity can be mutually supportive and that well-designed climate policies can strengthen the capabilities of the least well-off and most vulnerable.

Key Findings

  • Focusing on strengthening the capabilities of communities and countries, offers guidelines for achieving equity while meeting the demands of sufficient mitigation and adaptation.
    — Sufficient climate actions are required to prevent the direct impacts of climate change from eroding the capabilities of the least well off and most vulnerable, now and in the future.
    — Climate policies should be designed to enhance, rather than diminish, the capabilities of those who are least well off, most vulnerable, and least able to represent themselves.

  • Well-designed climate policies, implemented at the local, national and international level can play an important role in helping communities and countries strengthen their capabilities.

  • Renewable energy policies, carbon pricing schemes, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, transportation, and community forest management are all key policy areas that offer opportunities to enhance well-being while pursuing a low carbon development pathway.

  • Prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable in national adaptation planning, ensuring their participation in the planning process, and undertaking robust assessments of vulnerability that address capabilities and social and economic contexts, can all play a vital role in achieving equitable adaptation and resilience outcomes.

  • A broad range of international institutions and policy makers, including those both within and outside of the UNFCCC, play a vital role in enabling the kinds of policies that achieve equitable climate action.

  • The 2015 international climate agreement, in particular, offers a tremendous opportunity to make fundamental progress of equity issues global. A capabilities approach should inform the consideration of equity in the INDC process as well as ensure that equity is embedded in all elements of the agreement—mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage, finance, capability building, technology, and transparency and accountability.

  • Ultimately, approaching climate equity from an understanding of capabilities offers the opportunity to build the capabilities of nations, strengthening their ability to pursue strong climate policies, and generating a transformative climate regime.

Executive Summary

As climate impacts mount, so does the urgency of resolving the equity challenge. Those least responsible for climate change are often the most vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, sea level rise, and other impacts, further exacerbating existing inequities. Meanwhile, actions—both to address climate impacts and to reduce emissions—are intertwined with broader equity issues involving livelihoods, health, food security, and energy access.

The urgency of the equity challenge is heightened by recent negotiations for the new international climate agreement in 2015. Parties have determined that the agreement must be both “applicable to all Parties” and remain “under the Convention,” raising questions regarding equity that must be addressed by global leaders if the agreement is to build consensus and ambition.

This report offers a new approach to these challenges linking actions to combat climate change with broader equity objectives. This approach places the well-being of people and communities at the core of climate action, illustrating how well-designed low-carbon energy and adaptation policies can promote and enhance the capabilities of the most vulnerable and least well off.

This report draws on the capabilities approach formulated in the development arena by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The capabilities approach recognizes that human well-being, and the realization of human rights, depends on access to a range of basic capabilities such as the opportunity to pursue a decent livelihood, to benefit from sufficient nutrition, transport, housing, physical safety, and security, and to engage in collective decision-making. Climate policies—both those reducing emissions and those adapting and building resilience to climate impacts—can contribute to protecting and strengthening these basic capabilities. This report also focuses on the capabilities of the most vulnerable or least well off because their capabilities are most at risk and in need of strengthening.

This report does not argue that a capabilities approach should become the only framework for pursuing climate equity. Rather, it proposes that the concept of capabilities offers useful guidance in achieving equitable climate action that is grounded in a thorough understanding of the geographical, social, and economic differentiation that exists among individuals and communities.

This understanding can be used to build consensus and collective ambition in the international climate agreement in 2015, as well as to support the design and implementation of policies at all scales that strengthen capabilities. Over time, this approach will build the capabilities of nations, strengthening their ability to pursue strong climate policies.


Recommendations for the UNFCCC

The report specifically addresses how the 2015 international climate agreement can take account of and help build capabilities.

  • Equity considerations, including capabilities, should be integrated in the process for countries to develop and evaluate other countries’ intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). These country contributions will form the cornerstone of the 2015 agreement and present the greatest opportunity to explicitly recognize the importance of capabilities as countries decide the types and levels of action they will take. This does not mean setting aside the issue of responsibility for emissions, including historical responsibility. However, a focus on capabilities provides an opportunity to consider a number of additional dimensions of equity:
    a. human development;
    b. economic capacity, including consideration of the relative costs of climate action and the economic benefits from taking climate action;
    c. resilience to climate impacts, including physical security and capacity to adapt in the face of climate change; and
    d. governance capacity and social support structures

  • National actions proposed in their INDCs also present one of the greatest opportunities to create synergies between climate action and capabilities. By incorporating policies that reduce emissions while building capabilities, and by strengthening climate resilience for the most vulnerable, countries can pursue climate action that enhances equity. For many developing countries, these policies will need to be supported by those countries with greater capabilities.

  • Equity should be recognized in all of the core elements of the 2015 agreement – mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, finance, technology, capacity building and transparency and accountability. The role of capabilities should be considered in countries’ ability to act, while also creating ways to strengthen the well-being of people. For instance, a new capacity building facility could be created in order to assist countries in developing the national capabilities needed to pursue action. Similarly, the agreement should ensure that climate finance is used effectively to help build the capabilities of the least well off and most vulnerable.

Recommendations for International Institutions and Policymakers

The report provides recommendations for a broad range of international institutions and policymakers, both within and outside of the UNFCCC, to enhance capabilities and drive climate action, including:

  • Provide upfront investment for low-carbon pathways and adaptation efforts that are designed to enhance equity and build capabilities, including for equitably designed energy policies;

  • Provide technical assistance, capacity building, and guidance to enable countries to formulate and implement the types of equitable climate policies highlighted here;

  • Ensure that finance is accessible to those who need it, including nontraditional banking populations, to undertake innovative and locally appropriate climate action;

  • Support the implementation of “before and after” vulnerability assessments and evaluations to identify impacts of climate action on the capabilities of affected groups; and

  • Enable participatory planning and stakeholder engagement in the development of climate policies across all sectors.