Equity as Strategy: It’s not four years after Copenhagen; it’s two years before Paris!

Among my many hats, I help to coordinate the Climate Action Network’s Equity Working Group. Two things to know here. One is that CAN is a network of over 850 Non-governmental Organization in more than 90 countries. The other is that it’s been toiling in the dry fields of climate diplomacy for a long, long time.

The Equity Working Group is also known as the Effort Sharing Working Group, a complication of language that’s perhaps a bit confusing to people unfamiliar with the dialect spoken inside the conference halls. Or maybe not. This is, after all, 2013, and the rules of the great inside / outside game that is international climate politics are pretty well known. In any case, there’s no background in this brief post (though if you want some, see The Climate Talks: Could an equity tipping point be on the horizon?).  What you have here is just a few quick pointers, before the 19th Conference of Parties opens in Warsaw.

At this point, there’s quite a bit of cynicism about the international climate talks. But note two subtleties. First, nothing else has worked either. Second, these are not the negotiations as we knew them before Copenhagen. In the conference halls as on the rest of the climate battlefield, the stakes are clearer, and the tensions higher. Moreover, some key pieces have been moved. Not that there’s been a breakthrough, not yet, but there are real forward-looking elements in the mix. The equity debate, in particular, has come a long way.

One example: back in 2009, when the Copenhagen COP began, the North / South “firewall” stood strong.  Today, there’s a difficult, even painful, but nonetheless substantive global debate on dynamic, principle-based differentiation. Another example: when the Copenhagen summit opened, the dream of a fair and ambitious global accord was still shaped around the image of a grand global bargain, one in which “top down” emissions “targets and timetables” would be “allocated” to countries. Today, no one honestly imagines that such a deal is on the table.

Many of us wish it was, don’t get me wrong.  But we know it’s not.

Today, four years after Copenhagen, everybody knows that we’re in a “bottom up world” in which “sovereign states,” as they are called, “pledge” actions. The think-tankers then tally up these pledges and post them in documents like the United Nation’s Environment Program’s 2013 Emissions Gap Report, so that we can all know just exactly how far we’re falling short of the emission pathway we need to reach if we want to keep Earth’s climate system from swinging altogether out of control. This is the reality, and it’s critical to admit it, because only by doing so can you get to the really Big Question — How, in this chaotic, toxic, bottom-up world, do we most effectively pressure all these “sovereign” states to “ratchet up” ambition?

It’s a very tough question, but fortunately there are lots of answers.  Though few of them — this must be said — focus on the negotiations. In fact, its glaringly obvious that there’s no hope — in the conference halls or anywhere else — without a massive technological revolution, and a robust divestment movement, and a great awakening, and a whole lot more besides. But it’s also true — and this is quite unfortunate, given the dysfunctional state of our governments — that even all these together would not be enough. Whether we like it or not, we need a strong, ambitious, and effective international political accord; there’s no real hope of bringing the fossil-fuel cartel to heel without one.

Which is why it matters that what we’re likely to get instead of an ambitious and effective accord – the best deal we can make, whatever it turns out to be — is currently scheduled to be finally struck in the exhausted last hours of COP21, in the Paris winter of late 2015. And here there are two big pieces of news. One is that the IPCC, in the wee late hours on the Stockholm meeting where it just finalized the Working Group 1 Summary for Policy Makers, has drawn some very useful carbon-budget lines in the sand, and put them squarely and publicly onto the table. The other is that equity – the dark horse in the climate menagerie – is prominently on the table as well.

The current jargon, here, rotates around terms like “equity reference frameworks” and “equity indicators.” And the big idea, such as it is, has to do with establish a framework within which – despite all the dysfunction and confusion on every side – we can at least use indicators to see which countries are proposing to do their “fair share” of the global effort, and which are still trying to free ride into a darkening future.

Or, if I may quote the beginning of the Climate Action Network’s painfully-negotiated paper on equity indicators, which was published in September:

“Some people still believe that allowing equity a prominent place in the UNFCCC negotiations only increases the chances of deadlock. Our view, in contrast, is that a breakthrough on equity is essential to a breakthrough in the negotiations. Extremely ambitious action will only occur within a regime that meets the legitimate development needs of the world’s poor. Equity, and a process for equity, must be forged into instruments of cooperation and breakthrough.

This brings us, immediately, to the Convention’s core equity principles, and to the need for equity indicators that properly express those principles. Clarifying these equity indicators is now a top priority. Doing so wouldn’t be enough to bring real life into the negotiations – only action is action, and only finance is finance – but for all that, a greater agreement on equity would be a game changer. Agreement on convention-based equity indicators, in particular, would enable real comparability of effort, and thus a regime in which free riders everywhere can be clearly identified.

The ultimate need, here, is the formal agreement of an Equity Reference Framework under UNFCCC. The immediate need is a focused effort to agree on a small list of well-designed equity indicators that, taken together, allow us to adequately model the Convention’s core equity principles, as they bear upon the challenge of a cooperative and extremely ambitious global climate transition.

The goal of this paper is to enrich the equity debate by defining a small (as simple as possible, but no simpler) list of Convention-based equity indicators. We offer this analysis to the Parties, for their use in the coming negotiations and in a possible formal equity review. In addition, this analysis will anchor the informal equity reviews that CAN and other NGOs will conduct in parallel to the formal UNFCCC processes.”

What’s going to finally happen, in the big crunch that starts in earnest in Warsaw in mid November, and passes through Lima in late 2014, and arrives in Paris in late 2015? Are we going to manage anything that even remotely resembles the breakthrough that we need? Obviously, we don’t know. But despite the pall of exhaustion that settled over the global climate movement after Copenhagen, this is not a battle we can walk away from.

Which is why you should read CAN’s Equity Indicators Brief, which lays out the strategy pretty clearly and comprehensibly, and in only two pages! And why you should hope that, on this front too, surprises are still possible.