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
In Article 3, the Convention makes distinctions between developed and developing countries. Annex I of the Convention lists developed countries, which were are expected to “take the lead in combating climate change.” The Convention was agreed to in 1992, and its divisions between developed and developing countries reflect the economic conditions at that time.
Debate regarding equity and CBDR-RC has been especially focused on the “D”—differentiation. Under the Kyoto Protocol (1997), differentiation between countries has included specific mitigation commitments with targets and timetables for developed countries, but not developing countries. Differentiation is also present in terms of finance and technology transfer, where developed countries are expected to provide funding and other resources to developing countries in their endeavors to reduce their own emissions as well as adapt to climate change.
Over time, developed countries have questioned the differentiation for mitigation targets. They argue that major emitters, whether they are included in Annex I or not, should be held to binding commitments to take climate action, and that the Convention’s principles are dynamic and should respond to changing geopolitical realities. For example, in 1997, the U.S. Senate sought to condition ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on whether actions by other major emitting countries were mandated, regardless of whether they were listed in Annex I. Supporters for mandating emission targets for major developing country emitters point to the emissions trends over the past two decades: In 1990, developing countries produced one-third of annual global emissions; today they emit 55 percent of them. Projections indicate that by 2030, developing countries could produce as much as 70 percent of global emissions.
Some developing countries counter that the Convention’s principles require that developed countries lead in the climate change mitigation effort because they are historically responsible for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions. They also have the greatest capacity to act given their financial and technological resources. This perspective is based on the fact that the accumulation of emissions since the Industrial Revolution created our current climate problem—between 1850 and 2000, 79 percent of emissions came from developed countries. Some civil society representatives and academics have proposed formulas which divide future atmospheric space according to historical responsibility and populations. They often also propose maintaining differentiation between Annex I and non-Annex I countries as originally stated in the Convention.
There is another group of countries with a major stake in this debate—those who contribute little to emissions and who lack financial and other resources to adapt to it. In the negotiations, these countries are included in the groups called the Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island States. No matter how they may feel about historical responsibility or capacity, their prime concern is that climate change solutions are found and implemented as quickly as possible. For them, climate change is an existential challenge—their land will cease to exist as it succumbs to sea-level rise, or it will fail to yield reliable harvests to feed their populations.
Equity and Ambition Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
The UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report found a significant a gap between the emission reduction commitments of today and those needed by the end of this decisive decade to safeguard the planet and its inhabitants from climate change’s worst impacts. This ongoing battle over the correct interpretation of the principles of the Convention and resultant divergence in opinion on how to apply them has been one major impediment to ambitious climate action commitments.
Until countries address the equity issue, ambition is likely to remain low. For the communities most vulnerable to climate change— like those who rely on subsistence agriculture, those living along low-lying coasts or on small island nations, and those whose water supply comes from glacial melt—time is of the essence in this debate.