Adequacy and Equity: Three Focal Questions

By Stephen Bernow and Sivan Kartha

Note: Steve Bernow, a former EcoEquity Board Member, was the head of the Tellus Institute’s Energy Department. This is one of his last essays, written with Sivan Kartha of the Stockholm Environment Institute shortly before his unexpected death on July 5th, 2003. He is missed.

This paper asks three questions that are focal to devising an effective climate protection regime. The first two questions – What is “adequacy” and What is “equity” – arise from the observation that both adequacy and equity are necessary features of an effective and politically acceptable international climate regime:

* Adequacy requires that greenhouse gases emissions decline sufficiently to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

* Equity requires that the obligations assigned to nations for achieving this outcome reflects their radically different responsibilities, capacities, and needs.

The third question “How do we reconcile climate strategies with local realities” asks how adequacy and equity can be embodied in a climate regime in a manner that addresses realities and goals at the local level, where both climate change and sustainable development take their meaning. This paper offers some initial thoughts

What is “adequacy”

Parties to the UNFCCC have pledged to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. But they have not proposed a long-term target to guide their work, nor have they even defined “dangerous”. Ideally, Parties would identify an unambiguous threshold that separates “tolerable” interference from “dangerous” interference. But they cannot, in part because uncertainties persist, complicating scientists efforts to use GHG emissions trajectories to precisely forecast atmospheric concentrations, concentrations to forecast warming, and warming to forecast local impacts. Nor do we know how effectively human and ecological systems could adapt to those impacts, nor the precise cost of mitigating them. And perhaps most worrisome, we do not know the precise thresholds for triggering abrupt and irreversible high-impact events, such as a deterioration in the thermohaline circulation, collapse of a major ice sheet, or the release of greenhouse gases from large biotic or marine reserves.

In the absence of an unambiguous threshold to steer us, our response must be robust to the broad range of foreseeable outcomes that are consistent with our imperfect information. Our response must accomplish three things:

* First, it must virtually guarantee that catastrophic climate disruption is averted.

* Second, it should initiate a prompt and orderly transition toward a low-GHG global economy and established the foundation for much deeper long-term reductions.

* Third, it should ensure that we are well-positioned to accelerate efforts if our path later proves too optimistic, by developing low-GHG technologies, by building less long-lived high-GHG infrastructure, and by firmly establishing the institutions needed for a global climate regime and local responses. In short, it must accord with the precautionary principle.

The path urged by the European Council might be appropriately robust and prudent. At its October 2002 meeting of environment ministers, the Council reaffirmed the “[European] Community’s position that global efforts should be guided by a long-term objective of a maximum global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels… ” (1) The IPCC Third Assessment Report suggests that the CO2 stabilization target consistent with a maximum 2 degree Celsius warming in the 21st century is approximately 450 ppm (IPCC WGI, 2001; sec. 9.3). Current GCM modelling suggest that this stabilization target could be met by holding cumulative emissions to ~565 GtC while halving annual emissions by 2100, with continued reductions thereafter. (2) An even lower path would be needed to avoid further temperature increases in the following centuries or to allow temperatures to return towards pre-industrial levels.

Figure 1 shows this 450 ppm stabilization trajectory and, for comparison, three other scenarios from the IPCC’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, a high scenario (A2), a mid-range scenario (A1B), and a low scenario (B1), all of which assume no explicit climate policies.


Figure 1. The 450 ppm stabilization path, and a high

(A2), mid-range (A1B), and low (B1) SRES scenario.

Of course, neither the 450 ppm stabilization path nor any other path should be adopted as an unalterable course of action. Our course should be modified as climate science develops and more information becomes available, and as society itself evolves. We might find our chosen path unnecessarily stringent, or we might find it leading to a temperature rise exceeding our limit of tolerance. Indeed, for the 450 ppm stabilization scenario, the uncertainties in current climate science lead to a relatively wide range in the estimated long-term temperature rise: from 1.5 to as much as 3.0 Celsius.

What is “equity”

The global resolve to work toward such a target will only materialize if an equitable framework is offered. And while the demands of equity can be argued forever, some points are clear. It is, for example, obvious that an equitable framework would acknowledge the disparity among nations in historic and continuing emissions. It would also recognize that the world’s majority lives in poverty, and that relief from poverty will entail an increase in energy services and an unavoidable near-term rise in carbon emissions. To be sure, certain near-term carbon reduction measures can also provide development co-benefits. But until a decent standard of living is reached, the world’s poor majority will defer ambitious reductions, even as its aggregate emissions grow and exceed those of the wealthy minority. Unless and until this occurs, significant sacrifices cannot be expected. The poor majority will not be able to afford to check its carbon emissions. Nor will it have access to the technological and institutional capacities to do so. Nor will it be inspired to do so, as long as the vast disparities in per capita emissions rates persist among nations. This recognition is explicitly – if ambiguously – reflected in the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol in the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

A compelling case can be made that an equitable approach would allocate emissions allowances to nations on an equal per-capita basis, justified by the premise that the global capacity to absorb carbon is a scarce and depletable common resource that should be allocated equally. Fairness might warrant some modifications to this strict per-capita allocation, since nations differ in respects that might be relevant to their legitimate claim to this limited global resource. Some national circumstances might be legitimate grounds modifying a strict per-capita allocation (e.g., emissions correlated with differences in natural resource endowments or climate-related energy demands, or a gross intra-national disparity in access to energy) , while others (e.g., emissions correlated with greater affluence) might not.

Figure 2 shows how the global stabilization path from Figure 1 might split between countries of the North (Annex B) and countries of the South (non-Annex B), and Figure 3 shows the per-capita trajectories implied by these emissions trajectories. Note that the emissions trajectory for the North declines steadily from todays levels, leaving a modest amount of atmospheric space for countries of the South to slightly increase their emissions rate, over the next two decades, before it too declines. In this hypothetical scenario, per-capita emissions from North and South converge by the end of the century, from todays radically differing starting points. (3)

Figure 2. Emissions in North and South consistent with 450 ppm stabilization path.

Figure 3. Per capita emissions in North and South

consistent with 450 ppm stabilization path.

Such a framework would incorporate some sort of international trading (or exchange) mechanism through which countries with per-capita emissions that exceed the global average could purchase allowances from countries with per-capita emissions lower than the global average. As a result, revenues would flow from the North to the South for an extended period of time. Figure 4 shows the annual flow of carbon allowances from the South to the North necessitated by the paths shown figure 3. It also illustrates what the compensating flow of revenues from the North to the South would be, based on the very rough assumption that the carbon allowance price escalates steadily (~2%/yr) from $10 to $100 per tonne of carbon over the course of the 21st century in real terms.

Figure 4. Annual purchase of carbon allowances from South,

and annual flow of revenue to the South (assuming an

allowance price increasing from $10/tC to $100/tC).

Whereas these revenues would ostensibly compensate for Norths greater use of the global capacity to absorb carbon, it could actually serve as an investment at many levels. These revenues could help fund the expansion of access to energy services for the poor, adaptation to ongoing climate change, the long-term transition to a low-GHG path in the South, and sustainable development in general, providing they were targeted to do so. Doing so would require a greater attention to the local meanings of adequacy and equity.

How do we reconcile climate strategies with local realities

Adequacy and equity, though critical terms in the climate equity debate, do not of course outline the entire range of concerns. This is, in the first instance, because they are generally treated complementary and separable goals of the broad climate regime: adequacy defines the global mitigation requirement, and equity defines national responsibilities. Generally, these twin goals are discussed in terms of averages the global average temperature rise, the national average per-capita emissions. Yet the spatial distributions across regions and communities of these indicators, and especially their extremes, cannot be ignored.

Adequacy is in its essence a local concept. Even in a world with an ostensibly acceptable average global warming of 2 degrees Celsius, some regions will suffer far greater local warming, and correspondingly grave impacts. Shifts in temperatures, rainfall, storm and drought patterns will affect different communities to dramatically varying degrees. And those localities and groups with the least capacity to endure and adapt will suffer most.

Like adequacy, equity is a local concept. Evolving toward equal per-capita national emissions allowances is worthy goal, particularly if adjusted for disparate national circumstances, but it is not enough. The disparities in per-capita emissions among nations are echoed within nations, and are associated with disturbing inequities in income, political power, and health. Fully two billion of the worlds poorest lack even remotely modern energy services, using their backs, legs, beasts, and often-scarce biomass resources at best, and subsisting in dire deprivation at worst.

While global or national averages mask local consequences, climate strategies must ultimately devolve to the local level. As we devise a response to the threat of a changing climate, we are pressed to answer profound questions: Whom and what are we ethically obliged to protect when we adopt a stabilization target How and when should those individuals who are most victimized by climate change but least responsible help to fight it And are we not morally bound to compensate and assist them in protecting their livelihoods and engaging this struggle

At the local level, the ability to protect livelihoods from the inevitable impacts of climate change and to move onto a low-GHG path will require that all of the key elements of sustainable development co-evolve: satisfaction of basic material needs, public health, strengthening of community resilience, widespread education, technical capacity, ecological integrity, economic soundness, social equity and solidarity, enfranchisement and democracy. But, given that these challenges fall not merely upon nations but upon communities within nations, a climate regime must ensure that communities are empowered and enabled to respond.

Revenues earned by the South under a global emissions trading arrangement based on a modified per capita allocation could provide significant resources (see Figure 4) toward this challenge. Yet there is no assurance that revenues will be thus targeted, unless a framework is established specifically for this purpose. In particular, since the primary challenge is to support sustainable development at the local level, such a framework may prove most effective if communities were helped directly. A global fund could be established to do this[4], through which some fraction perhaps half of the proceeds of the international trade in emissions allowances are channelled.[5]

Such a fund would need a just and carefully designed governance structure, which balances apparently competing claims (and needs) of sovereignty across three loci. These are (i) the local communities, representing the ecological and human specificities of genuine sustainable development, (ii) nation states, representing strategic vision and mediating between the national polity, communities, and the international sphere, and (iii) the international community, including development and environment NGOs, representing general aims and principles of global and local sustainable development. Such a fund would draw upon both political and civil society representation, and would require carefully constructed principles, protocols, delivery mechanisms, accountability provisions and evaluation procedures. These steps would help place sustainable development at the foundation of the fund.

One specific approach to greenhouse gas mitigation in developing countries, known as Sustainable Development Policies and Measures (SD-PAMs), advocates activities to reduce emissions that are designed and implemented consistent with other high-priority social development goals, as defined at the local level. By definition, such activities are in the best interest of developing countries, but to the extent that they call for larger capital investments, better institutional coordination, advanced technologies, etc., there will be barriers to their effective implementation. A fund such as that discussed above, administered in a manner so as to target SD-PAMs activities, could be very effective at enabling developing countries to transition to sustainable, low-GHG development trajectories.

Climate Change and Sustainable Development

The dual goals of adequacy and equity lie at the heart of a reciprocal relationship between climate protection and sustainable development: a stable climate is necessary for society to pursue sustainable development, while real sustainable development is conversely needed to ensure a stable climate. A rich discourse and democratic enfranchisement, which is a human rights issue of intrinsic merit, is therefore also needed to ensure the legitimacy and effectiveness of a just climate regime in the near term, and to secure the social and material basis for a sustainable world in the not too distant future.


1. The quoted document defines the European Union’s negotiating position for COP 8, and goes on to say “…and a stabilisation of CO2 concentrations below 550 ppm. This is likely to require a global reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases by 70 percent compared to 1990, as identified by the IPCC;” 2457th European Council Meeting, Luxembourg, 17 Oct, 2002. ( )

2. We are describing here the WRE450 emissions trajectories (Wigley, 1996; 2000), although there are other paths consistent with stabilization at 450 ppm. Radically different paths may be mathematically valid, but since the starting and end points and the integral are essentially fixed, they might require impractically rapid technological and socio-economic changes.

3. It is noteworthy that the cumulative emissions of North would still far exceed those of the South for many decades, even in this scenario where annual emissions from the South soon exceed those of the North.