Global Climate Justice gets its 15 Minutes: The UN workshop on “Equitable Access to Sustainable Development”

A few weeks back, deep in a diplomatic warren in Bonn, Germany, the UN climate negotiations convened their first major session since December’s “breakthrough” in Durban, South Africa.  It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Bonn didn’t go well.  See this rollup or, if you’re braced for the details, see the Climate Action Network’s coverage and commentary, and the Third World Network’s coverage and commentary, and the IISD’s summary.  The UNFCCC Secretariat will also be doing a report; no doubt it will be soon.

The “Youngos” in action

Despite the dead air of the Maritim conference hotel, Bonn was notable, for two reasons.  It was another halting step in our gradual collective awakening into the maddening grind of post-Copenhagen reality.  And – the topic here – it was the occasion for a formal, day-long, plenary workshop on the topic of “Equitable Access to Sustainable Development” (hereafter “EASD”).  The equity workshop (the video stream, in two parts, is here and here; the TWN’s summary is here) was agreed to and scheduled at Durban, and – if we’re clever and very lucky – it may someday be remembered as a step in the great post-Copenhagen reboot.

Maybe.  But there’s been no reboot yet.  Bonn was like walking around in limbo.  And the workshop itself wasn’t any kind of breakthrough.  Most of it was entirely predictable.  But it did take place, and it did have its high points, and it did perhaps succeed in its primary purpose – to announce to the world’s sprawling community of self-styled (and at this point rather depressed) “climate realists” that the equity question simply isn’t going to go away, as much as they’d like it to.  Whether we’ll be able to engage it productively, against the background of what I will call the great global governance crisis, well that’s another question.

Some quick points:

First, the EASD debate is extremely pressing, for the very specific reason that it’s closely tied to the overarching need to stabilize the global climate system as quickly as humanly possible.  Not to get into the science, or the convolutions of the negotiations, but the bottom line is that the atmospheric carbon concentration is entering the red zone, while emissions still continue to increase.  These emissions have to peak, and fast, and that peak has to come not as a temporary recession-linked downspike, but rather as the beginning of a long and sustainable abandonment of carbon-based fuels.   Which is the whole point of the EASD debate.

Rewind back to 2010 in Cancun, where it was formally and publicly recognized that the imperative of a rapid emissions peak was inextricably linked to an equally imperative need for economic development and poverty eradication in the developing world.[1] Keep this connection in mind during the next few years, as the next round of negotiations (2012 to 2015) runs some very rough waters, and as the North’s all-knowing pundits point the finger of blame at the South.  Which – absent some reason for trust, especially on the all-important question of economic development in a climate-constrained world – will continue to refuse to agree to a global peak year.

The logic of the situation was clear back in Cancun, when EASD first took the stage.  Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC executive secretary, noted as much in the Bonn workshop’s opening remarks:

“The notion of equitable access to sustainable development was first introduced in the Cancun agreements, in the context of a time frame for global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions.  Here, the COP recognized that the time-frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries, and that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.”

Second, the equity workshop was an occasion for repeated assertion, by civil-society activists, NGO researchers, and country negotiators speaking from the podium, that equity is not – as the realists profess to believe – an obstacle to increased mitigation, but rather a “gateway to ambition.”  Not that this assertion has yet been decisively argued or publicly debated – this will be an essential job in the next few years – but Bonn put it on the table and it looks like it’s going to stay there.

Bonn saw the wide distribution of CAN’s two-page briefing on equity and ambition, which was written by its “effort sharing working group” and treated at Bonn as the position of the entire global network.  It begins with this very clear statement:

“If we are to close the ambition gap, we must also close the equity gap.  We’ve known this for years, and the Durban Platform gives us an opportunity to act on this knowledge.  The challenge now is to very rapidly build both momentum and trust.  They can only be built together.”

The equity workshop began in earnest when Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, in the first of the workshop’s two introductory presentations, laid out the stark logic of the equity-to-ambition link.  Kartha showed that, if we’re to avoid climate catastrophe, developing-country emissions will have to peak while their per-capita incomes are still extremely low.  This, in a way, is the whole problem, or at least the part that’s visible above the surface.  It highlights and clarifies the nub of the climate dilemma, the core dilemma that must somehow be faced if we’re to make EASD real, and by so doing break into a more capacious negotiating space.  Kartha is an author of the Greenhouse Development Rights framework (full disclosure, I’m another), as well as a coordinating lead author of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (Working Group III, Chapter 4, Sustainable Development and Equity).  If you’re following the climate equity debate, definitely click through to his presentation (at the start of the first stream) or at least download his slides, or see this summary of his talk, on the Stockholm Environment Institute’s website.

Martin Khor’s presentation (see the first stream; see a written version version of his argument here) focused on the implacable arithmetic of the global carbon budget, and on its implications for not only developmental justice but adaptation as well.  Khor, the director of the South Center, specifically argued that equity is the gateway to ambition.  The South Centre is extremely influential among developing-country negotiators and within southern civil society, so Khor’s position matters. It’s worth noting that he went out of his way to talk not only about “common but differentiated responsibilities,” but about “respective capabilities” as well.  This was much in contrast to the Chinese presenter, Professor He Jian Kun (see the first stream) who was similarly insistent on the importance of historical responsibility, but pointedly (and perhaps shortsightedly) silent when it came to capacity.

Arthur Runde-Metzger, speaking for the European Union (see the second stream) was the very model of a green diplomat.  To be sure he had it easy – he represents a political bloc that, on this issue at least, is in touch with reality.  His key point was that we need a global framework that is both fair and dynamic, one designed for the ongoing, rapid change of the world economy.  Frankly, it was a relief to hear a high-level negotiator state this rather public secret from a plenary stage.  Lately, we’ve been drifting into a situation in which high-level calls for new global architectures (Todd Stern comes to mind, as does Robert Stavins) deliberately avoid the “fairness” problem.   So the EU deserves credit for taking the focus off the drive for a “binding” accord (which, frankly, we’re not going to get without a real and manifest increase in finance and technology support) and putting it on the need to negotiate a “dynamic” approach to global differentiation, and for further arguing that such a dynamic approach also could, and must, prioritize the imperative of sustainable development.  (One criticism should also be noted: Runde-Metzger came come off as altogether too optimistic, when it came to the keystone problem of “decoupling” developmental opportunities from carbon emissions).

Third, nothing about the equity / EASD debate is going to be easy.  If there was any doubt about this, it was dispelled when Ambassador Gafoor from Singapore (the canonical newly-wealthy country, happily ensconced within non-Annex 1) took the stage.  He argued (see the first stream) that Singapore’s “national circumstances” (as a small-island state, no less!) meant that it was impossible for it to be treated fairly in any scheme that leveraged per-capita indicators in any way.  As if wealthy Singapore didn’t have the capacity to, say, build massive offshore wind farms.  And it was further dispelled by China, which as noted above refused to say the C word.  And again by Jonathan Pershing from the US of A, who (see the second stream), spent his time reviewing the many ways in which equity and EASD, though “the United States is supportive of both of these concepts,” could, if misconstrued, “undermine the broader objectives of our convention.”

Pershing’s talk is a must-watch, for it was an almost perfect distillation of the arguments against equity.  Attend, in particular, to the straw men as he expertly makes them dance and sing:  Equity is clearly a priority, and while the US supports it “in a general way,” there is no single definition.  He had the good fortune to be a review author in the equity section of the IPCC’s 3rd Assessment Report, “and in that assessment report, we listed 13 different approaches to equity,” but they were not weighted or prioritized.  “They were all interpretations that were valid, they were all approaches that could have generated, from one or another perspective, a ‘fair’ outcome.”  Of course we can agree that we need a “fair distribution of effort,” and that “all countries have an imperative to develop,” and that “eradicating poverty is a core tenet for everyone.”  But a “formulaic approach” to EASD undermines our common goal.  In particular, the “idea of assigning fixed emissions rights misconstrues this core challenge of addressing climate while promoting development.”

Then came (again), the official optimism about decoupling.  And a riff against the BASIC Expert’s report and cumulative per-capita approaches.   And the ritual incantation about how broke the OECD countries are.  And a riff against the Annexes (much of which was, alas, spot on).  And then the kicker: “Any time you use a formula,” it’s “going to be antithetical to ambition.”  Thus, what we have to do is “remain consistent with our understandings of equity,” but at the same time “act with the greatest possible ambition.”  But equity and ambition are “qualitative concepts” that cannot be forced into a formula.  Too narrow a focus on any one approach would “inevitably lead to many countries feeling that approach is unfair.”

Quick conclusions

First, and with all due respect to the good old days of the IPCC’s 3rd Assessment Report, the CAN Equity Briefing appears to have done a better job with the equity tangle.  This because it specifically rejects the rather absurd idea that all opinions (or feigned opinions) about equity principles are equally valid, which after all implies that none of them is valid at all.  Instead, CAN specifically argues that only three, let’s call them “master equity principles,” are fundamental to the crisis in the negotiations:

“The adequacy principle, which is an equity principle for the simple reason that climate catastrophe would be the ultimate injustice.  If any proposed regime is incapable of delivering an ambitious global mobilization (using 1.5°C and the survival of the most vulnerable as our benchmark) it simply cannot be accepted as equitable.
The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR/RC) remains key.  We badly need a common understanding of equitable effort sharing, one that reconciles the abstract principle of CBDR/RC with a concrete model of global differentiation that is adequate to the complexities of the emerging world system.  Such an approach, obviously, must give due account to both responsibility for the climate problem and the capability to act on it.
The right to sustainable development.  This principle (and its reach beyond “poverty eradication”) is inevitably controversial, but, in truth, there will be no effective global ambition without it.  To be very clear, “equitable access to sustainable development” implies no right to unconstrained emissions; such a misinterpretation would conflict with the fundamental objective of the Convention (to protect the climate system).”

Second, and finally, the point of this debate is not to agree on any single “formulaic approach” (in fairness to Pershing, such approaches have indeed been fetishized in the past), but rather to seek a rough consensus on principles and indicators.  These could then be taken as guides to good-faith negotiations on the great problem of “comparability of effort,” and, if and when a real global mobilization finally does finally become possible, a proper effort-sharing accord.

How could anyone fear such a search for rough consensus?  The answer (Pershing’s words again) is that the realists feel that an “overly narrow” approach to equity “will likely drive us away from an agreement.”  Here, it might help to be a bit more blunt.  What the realists actually believe is that “equity” is a purpose-made playground within which negotiations would be drawn out forever, purpose made because the wealthy countries will never accept any even minimally fair definition of their fair-share obligations.  Which is of course a perfectly reasonable belief.  The strange thing is that the realists, and certainly their representatives in the negotiations, often conclude that, by insisting on equity, it’s the developing world that’s negotiating in bad faith.

All of which is a fine illustration of the climate crisis as “the commons problem from hell.”

So what’s the prospect?  Are we doomed to perpetual deadlock?  I don’t think so.  I think in fact that if the world’s more enlightened elites could somehow contrive, or be forced, to put real finance and technology support on the barrel head, we might yet be able to make progress.  We do, after all, have lots of interests in common.  That’s the nice thing about an emergency!

Also, there’s no necessary conflict between “Every country should do its fair share” and “Every country should do all that it can.”  We could pursue both tracks simultaneously, working around domestic constraints – and we all have them – as best we can.  We could do so, successfully, as long as we do so in good faith.  “Good faith,” of course, doesn’t come easy, but those are the real magic words.  As we head farther out into the post-Copenhagen badlands, we’re all going to have to have a big think about whose “negotiating strategy” fits the bill.

It’ll be a hard think, but equity principles and indicators can help.

– Tom Athanasiou


[1] The key text is in Decision 1/CP.16.   To wit: “Also agrees that Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries, and bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries and that a low-carbon development strategy is indispensable to sustainable development; in this context, further agrees to work towards identifying a time frame for global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions based on the best available scientific knowledge and equitable access to sustainable development, and to consider it at the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties”