BASIC experts: Equitable access to sustainable development

It’s unwise to predict the future, particularly the future of the climate negotiations.  But if you believe that their outcome is critical, and that it will bear heavily upon our common future, then you’ll hope that Equitable access to sustainable development, a long-in-the-making report by climate and climate-equity experts from India, China, Brazil and South Africa, will be taken seriously.

The EASD report was released on December 3rd in Durban, just about the time that the talks started hotting up, so it’s unlikely that most negotiators had time to read it with any care.  But if Durban goes at all well, if that is it manages to save the Kyoto Protocol and to otherwise open the door to serious consideration of a next-generation climate accord, one that’s actually fair enough to support real ambition, then this report will, eventually, be recognized as a turning point.

The South’s Ministers, at least, will take it seriously.  They know the problem of “equitable access to sustainable development,” and that it must be solved if there’s to be a successful global climate regime.   And, at this point, it may also be reasonable to hope that, after Durban, the environmental NGOs will finally begin to face the challenge of fair-shares global burden sharing.

The governments of the North are another matter.  The Europeans, certainly, do not imagine that the demands of sustainable development can be put aside, and even the United States, despite its political crisis, is in some kind of motion.  Not that the Obama team will welcome this reassertion of the equity agenda.  That would be too much to hope for from the “realists” that brought us the Copenhagen-era push for Pledge and Review.  But at the same time, it seems clear that the orthodoxies of traditional realism no longer charm as they once did.  They have become cover stories, and this no realism can survive.

This report, for its part, is a serious one.  It wastes no time pretending that the global carbon budget has not already been essentially exhausted, or that development-as-usual is still a viable option for the South.  Nor does it pretend that we can muddle through with bottom-up accounting and a bit of technological optimism.  These are all things that just can’t happen if we seriously intend to stabilize the climate system.  Developmental justice is a precondition for high ambition, and this report imagines that we’re serious enough to face this bottom-line fact.

“Equity,” unfortunately, is a notion that’s easy prey to self-serving twists.  The authors here are thus to be commended for their effort to delimit the salient core of the climate-equity debate.  The cost of this effort is high.  For example, they focus on a 2000-2050 global emissions budget of 1440 Gt CO2 that many among us view as dangerously high.  The benefits of compromise, though, are also visible, for in the end the authors are able to mark out a consensus that, while still vague, is precise enough to indicate a way forward.  If “equity” is defined as a universal human right to sustainable development, then only two approaches to a global fair-shares reference framework – cumulative per-capita budget sharing and the “responsibility and capacity index” approach to effort sharing that’s marked out by the Greenhouse Development Rights framework – are at all promising.  The fact that, in this report, high-level teams from throughout BASIC recognize and publicly affirm this reality is thus a very big deal.

The report, of course, has its shortcomings.  My particular criticism is that the authors give almost no attention to economic stratification within countries.  Even South Africa, while speaking for an approach that includes economic capacity as well as historic responsibility, passes too lightly over the subject.  But all told it’s the accomplishment here that’s most notable.  This report is a marker of the debate that’s actually needed.   May we have it soon.