21 Apr 2012
Equity and Global Climate Policy
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The key issue is not defining equity but determining whether climate change is a sustainable development or an environmental challenge

A workshop on ‘Equitable access to Sustainable Development’ is to be held in Bonn in May as part of the negotiating process for a new arrangement on global climate change. The treatment of equity in a global approach continues to be an unresolved and divisive issue, because the approach of all counties seeks to define an elusive concept, equity, and tweak a failing system arrived at in 1992 rather than develop a vision for 2032.

The starting point should be an assessment of how, despite the principles of the Convention and continuing growth of emissions in developed countries, half of humanity, which has yet to enjoy the benefits of industrialization, urbanization and increases in levels of income, finds itself in a situation where there is strong pressure on it to take on commitments to reduce increase in emissions of carbon dioxide.

Clearly the arguments that were made by developing countries in the run-up to the climate treaty in 1992, subsequently over a 20 year period, and are now being repeated have not been successful. Developing countries continue to treat the CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities) principle as the policy driver, even though it does not exist in this form. A compromise was made in the Climate Treaty in 1992, and we agreed to the addition of the words “and respective capabilities”. The result is that international environmental law continues to struggle with the on-going debates over whether developing countries should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and, if so, how much financial support developed countries should provide for such efforts.

It is important to stress that the strategic issue for the next round of Climate negotiations is the question of equity. The unresolved matter is not agreement on a definition of equity but whether political decisions on equitably sharing the global commons (a new paradigm) are a precondition for agreement on a global rule-based system, or, incremental steps to develop a rule based system on the basis of the Cancun Agreements (the old paradigm) will lead to equitable outcomes. 

There are two widely different ways of considering the way climate negotiations review the challenges ahead around the use of natural resources. The environmental case is based on impact of climate change on the natural ecosystems, and the assertion that the stabilization level and timeframe for peaking of emissions is the most important global policy issue. The sustainable development case is based on the global commons as an economic resource requires that stabilization of concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that developed countries do not use up all the carbon space at the cost of developing countries.

Both views of the climate challenge are legitimate. The scientific basis for climate change can be made either in terms of reducing emissions and environmental damage (natural science) or sharing the global environmental resource for sustainable development (social science), but with very different implications for countries, because damage is measured in terms of additional ‘flows’ and points the finger at developing countries, while limits on ecosystem services is measured in terms of sharing total ‘stocks’ of greenhouse gases and requires developed countries to take substantial measures. Global climate policy is a zero-sum game, if technology is not factored into the equation.

Humans have always altered their local environment; with industrialization, urbanization, motorization and increase in incomes they have begun to alter the Planet. According to recent analyses, in this context, what really matters is the total greenhouse gas budget we allow ourselves, because of the scientific uncertainty associated with emission rates and concentration target  which cannot be accurately inferred from quantities we can observe. For example, differentiation should be based on stages of development rather than historical responsibility for environmental damage.

Consequently, at the workshop in Bonn, in May, recognizing the existence of global ecological limits, developing countries should pose the moral question – can sustainability be achieved through technological efficiency, if so, how? If not, how much of the world’s common resource does any one nation or individual have a right to for their well-being? 

International cooperation to achieve human wellbeing of all by 2050 would be based around a new principle of ‘shared prosperity and responsibility’. The global rule based system would annually review progress in three areas - reaching multilaterally agreed national carbon budgets, development and sharing of innovative renewable energy and agricultural biotechnologies, and bringing energy services and adequate food to those in developing countries who do not have adequate access to them at present.