Getting a Fair Deal: The Climate Equity Reference Project in Nature Climate Change

The May 21st issue of Nature Climate Change contains a good overview of the equity debate in the climate negotiations, one distinguished — in our perhaps opinionated view — by a number of substantive quotes from EcoEquity’s own Tom Athanasiou. The piece, by Sonja van Renssen, is called Getting a fair deal (you can download the pdf here), and in addition to Athanasiou it quotes a number of other key figures in the current debate. Athanasiou’s voice is key, however, as you can see by comparing Getting a fair deal to another more cautious bit of reportage from Nature magazine itself, Jeff Tollefson’s Big compromises needed to meet carbon-emissions goal.

Tollefson begins well enough, quoting Harvard’s Joe Aldy to the effect that “Once you say we are not doing enough, it begs the question, ‘Who should do more?’,” but he immediately muddles this simple clarity by quoting Niklas Höhne, of the NewClimate Institute in Germany, to the effect that “But equity and fairness is something which is very much up to interpretation — what’s fair for one is not fair for another.”

Nothing against Nik, but the view that “equity is just a matter of opinion” has bedeviled the climate debate for years. Indeed, the clarity that we’re finally winning — the big news here is that the equity debate is making progress — has not come easily, and this kind of rather blithe subjectivism is a big part of the reason why.

Van Renssen begins more effectively, by noting that the equity debate is moving, and that what’s really at stake is a “modern” interpretation of “common but differentiated responsibilities” that “puts the spotlight on leaders and laggards.” She then turns to our own Climate Equity Reference Calculator and, when she arrives at “there are plenty of ways to measure equity” problem, she casts a wider net. Quickly, she returns to the core issues.

Sure, “fair share is relative to your definition of fair” — Athanasiou grants the point — but

“[the] climate equity reference calculator lets the user choose a mitigation pathway and test different equity settings. “The differences between defensible cases are much smaller than the similarities,” he finds. Athanasiou proposes ‘equity bands’ and concludes that “the INDCs by and large propose only half of the fair shares of developed countries.” In fact, the mitigation ‘fair share’ of countries like the US exceed its domestic potential so “international financial and technological support is as important as ambitious domestic mitigation action.”

There’s more, of course, and as with a lot of journalism, there are a few context problems. But the closing point is the one that we want to leave you with. This is an emergency, and in an emergency, equity is not the only overarching concern. Action, finally, counts for a great deal, and while all countries should be doing their “fair shares,” they should also be doing their utmost. The real challenge is to establish the conditions within which they — and all of us — can and will do just that.