The Climate Talks: Could an equity tipping point be on the horizon?

On April 29th, at the UN Campus in Bonn Germany, the post-Copenhagen negotiations began in earnest. There were two surprises. The first was that the mood was good. Most everyone was on their best behavior. Even the US delegation was in charming mode. This will no doubt change as we move closer to the Paris winter of 2015, where the next big showdown will take place, but still, it was a relief, and a good sign.

The second surprise is that, with the whole meeting dedicated to shaking out new ideas, we actually got a few. These included an encouraging proposal from AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, to immediately focus the short-term ambition agenda on international support for scaled-up renewable and energy-efficiency deployment. And (the subject of this post) they included the emergence of a global strategy – still tentative, but increasingly defined – for breaking the deadlock on “equity.”

The background here is that the equity agenda continues to haunt the climate negotiations, as it has done since their inception. Nor is this just a matter of North / South bloc-politics-as-usual, though it’s certainly true that “equity” has been a political football since the earliest days of the climate talks. The real problem is that 1992’s UN Framework Convention of Climate Change very clearly obligates the developed countries to “take the lead” in facing the climate problem, and, when all is said and done, they have simply not done so. Even worse, the whole “development” project – the only project that has recently managed to lift significant numbers of people out of poverty – is being thrown into crisis by the scale and severity of the climate threat. In this context, the slogan is clearly right – equity is indeed “the pathway to ambition.” Absent a working agreement on its principles and implications, it will be extremely difficult to shift the negotiations onto anything like a high-ambition track. In may even be impossible.

This is a long and painful story, and I’ll not tell it again. What I will say is that, though the mood may have changed, the hallway crowds still contain plenty of battle-scarred veterans, many of them convinced that the demand for equity and “climate justice” really devolves to nothing more than the demand for a “right to economic growth.” And that, given the low rates of decarbonization that mark today’s techno-economic order, and given the developed world’s unwillingness to even discuss financial and technological support on the necessary scale, such a right simply cannot be squared with the demands of climate protection. That, in practice if not in principle, the demand for equity is an excuse for inaction, one that plays into the hands of both the old emitters (e.g. the United States) and the new (e.g. China). That it blocks the very narrow and difficult paths ahead. That it will be the end of us all.

Still, Bonn managed to cut an opening in the tangle. But how so? And what’s changed?

For one thing, time is running out, and everyone knows it. Given this, and given the experience of Copenhagen (which few negotiators want to repeat) there really is a sense that tough problems must be faced. No real action yet, of course, but at least an air of “flexibility.”

This has implications on the equity front. As one AOSIS advisor told me, there’s now a “very widespread sense” among negotiators that, despite its dangers, “there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle; equity must be engaged.” For another, the UNFCCC Secretariat evidently shares this sense. This, at least, is the impression I get from the ADP2 (the Bonn meeting was, formally, the 2nd meeting of the “Ad-hoc Durban Platform”) which featured, as the first speaker in the first workshop of the first day of this, the new round of the negotiations, Australia’s Professor Ross Garnaut. Not to exaggerate his influence, but this was a notable choice, if only because two months ago in February, in a speech to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Garnaut had this to say about the bottom up, “pledge and review” regime which Copenhagen has left us with:

“For [this new process] to be effective, one major gap in the international regime needs to be filled. The regime needs some framework for guiding assessments of the level of mitigation in each country that amounts to a fair share of an international effort to achieve the agreed global effort.

It would be useful and probably necessary for heads of governments committed to strong global mitigation outcomes to appoint an expert group to develop such a framework for allocating the global effort among countries. Within the context of concerted unilateral mitigation, each country would be free to accept or reject guidance provided by such a framework. The framework would become a focus of international review of each country’s effort, and evolve over time in response to discussion and experience.”

Garnaut made a similar point in his opening talk (see the video here, the slides here), in which he argued that the scale of the danger – “a breakdown in international order” – compels us to break the equity deadlock. To that end, he proposed an “independent expert assessment” designed to yield, in the new term of art, an equity reference framework that could be used to “guide national targets” and, more particularly, to empower negotiators when they review each others pledges. The idea, in the jargon of the day, is to fashion equity into a “ratchet” that can be used to crank up overall ambition, and this despite the fact that we are, at least for the moment, in a bottom-up world.

In this context, I was pleased to be a respondent. I spoke as a member of the Climate Action Network, and in particular as the Co-Chair of its Equity / Effort-sharing Working Group, which recently, in one of CAN’s formal submissions to the UNFCCC, proposed that the Convention’s keystone principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” be interpreted in a dynamic manner. In my talk (the script is here, the video here at 1:12:50) I commented on Garnaut’s proposal, and then introduced the notion of a dynamic model of differentiation based on an “equity spectrum.” I take the liberty of quoting myself at length:

“What is needed is a process that would allow for a proper equity review of the pledges, to be conducted in parallel with the equally-critical science review.

To that end, the Parties should launch an open, expert process to develop an equity reference framework that is suitable to the evaluation of national pledges. This framework would have to be designed to maximize both ambition and participation. Parties, when making pledges, would be guided by the knowledge that these would be evaluated within both the science and equity reviews.

Parties would of course be free to accept or reject the guidance provided by such an framework. But be clear. They would do so against a background in which the possibility of cooperation and ambition is obvious to all, even while it eludes our collective grasp. Even as the suffering and destruction increasingly surrounds us on every side.

They would not be thanked for their trouble.

How to think about such an Equity Review? The first point is that the demands of equity have already been agreed. This is true at the level of the Convention’s keystone text on “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR & RC), and it’s true of the four fundamental equity principles – ambition, responsibility, capacity, and development need – that underlie the principle of CBDR & RC and, of course, our shared vision of “equitable access to sustainable development” as well.

None of this is going to change. Nor should it. Climate, after all, is a global commons problem. The cooperation needed to solve it can only exist if the regime – as it actually unfolds in actions on the ground – is widely seen as being not only “fair enough,” but an actual positive driver of developmental justice around the world.

What is needed is dynamic equity spectrum approach. This is our key point. And here I must note that a dynamic equity spectrum approach would be entirely consistent with the principles of the Convention, and in particular with the principle of CBDR & RC.

A renegotiation or rewriting of that principle, or any other Convention principle, is not needed. Rather the opposite. Such an approach as this would give life and meaning to the principles of the Convention.”

The goal here was to put an “equity spectrum” approach onto the table, to make it clear that action was expected from all countries, in proportion to their “differentiated responsibility” and their “respective capability,” and to displace the argument that “equity” is straightforwardly and unproblematically equivalent to a “binary” model of global obligation in which the Annex 1 countries alone are on the hook for stringent climate action. And do not doubt that this argument lives. Down to Earth magazine reported an unidentified BASIC negotiator explaining that the Annexes are sacrosanct: “There is a meaning behind it. If you don’t follow the Annexes, it will mean side-stepping the Convention. We will not allow this. Even if it means no deal.” Even more starkly (and here again I’m forced to anonymous quotation) I was told of a Middle Eastern negotiator who publicly declared that “We are going to decide what we are entitled to, and that’s what we’re going to pollute.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of hard-ball defensiveness has a certain logic. It represents a style of negotiation that diplomats of all stripes – not just climate professionals – are wearily familiar with. It will certainly remain a part of the game for a long time, and an influential part for as long as the developed countries refuse to pull their fair share. But it is equally the case that it plays directly into the hands of the developed-world’s free riders. Which is to say that the recalcitrant parties of the North can easily hide behind it, and that they welcome the opportunity to do so.

Fortunately, it’s possible to gradually leave the Annexes behind. In their place, over time, we can introduce a dynamic, principle and indicator driven reference framework that expresses the notion of common but differentiated effort in a manner that more effectively captures the political and economic realities of the 21st Century world. And while such a goal would even a year ago have been taken as entirely quixotic, at Bonn it was suddenly on the agenda.

What’s changed? Only our common sense of reality. As one deeply experienced NGO realist put it to me, though (again) not on the record, “Equity is clearly necessary in the long term, if we’re to prevent catastrophe. But in the short term it’s dangerous, and if I thought the case was clear on that side, I’d do everything I could to derail it. But I’m no longer convinced that it’s more dangerous to engage with equity than it is to continue to try to avoid it. I just don’t know. It could go either way. And in the absence of certainly, one way or another, we might as well do the right thing.”

As the week progressed, this came to seem a widespread opinion. In the corridors, and in bilaterals, and in the workshops, the equity question received far more focused and official attention than could even have been dreamed of during the Copenhagen round. Even the venerable old Brazilian Proposal got its turn in the spotlight. Moreover, the conversation evolved in a notable manner. The notion of a dynamic “equity spectrum” remained in play, but the talk turned more and more to the need (echoing Garnaut) that what was really needed was an “open, expert process” that was charged with developing an equity reference framework that the Parties could use to evaluate each other’s pledges.

CAN’s position evolved as well, from the aspirational language that appeared early in the week (see this issue of the Climate Action Network’s ECO newsletter) to the more actionable text that marked the end of the session:

“Today, it is widely understood that without a Science Review there would be no real possibility of achieving the ambition required by science. An Equity Review is imminently needed to muster sufficient political will for that needed ambition.

Such a review must be based upon the equity principles that are embodied in the Convention, most notably the principles of ambition, responsibility, capacity and developmental need.

The challenge now is to develop a set of indicators that properly express these principles, and to build them into an Equity Reference Framework. Such a Framework could help Parties to negotiate a set of pledges that are robust and fair enough to yield the breakthrough that we need in Paris.

This is not about a “formula”. Rather, an Equity Reference Framework would be a tool that the Parties – perhaps with a bit of assistance from their friends in civil society – can use to review and improve each other’s proposals in the later part of the political negotiations.

Procedurally, the key is that, when developing their pledges at the national level, Parties would be fully aware of the fact that these pledges will be evaluated against the science as well as the Convention’s equity principles.

Of course, after this evaluation, Parties will want to scale up their pledges, until they finally have a set that fairly distributes the effort of holding warming to a manageable 1.5°C.

Thus, we are calling for a process that allows a COP decision to launch the Equity Review at Warsaw. This decision should include the following:

  • Parties and Observers should be called upon to make submissions to the ADP co-chairs with their views on relevant equity principles and indicators. These submissions should be made by May 27, 2013.
  • The co-chairs should organize a Roundtable on equity principles and the Equity Review during the June Bonn session.
  • A decision text should be drafted during the autumn session.
  • A decision to launch the Equity Review should be made at COP19 in Warsaw.”

This is, of course, a very big ask. It took years to get the Science Review accepted by the Parties, and there’s precious little chance that an Equity Review will be agreed in 2013. But we have to try, and even so the genie really is out of the bottle. There are lots of equity framework proposals on the table, and some of them are pretty good, and even if we can’t get the negotiations to bless an expert process capable of analyzing them properly, they’re not going to go away. If we can’t have a formal Equity Review, we can — and should — contrive an informal one.

Moreover, and this really is the key, the global carbon budget is now so small that any reasonable Equity Review would inevitably find a great deal of convergence among the proposals. Or at least among the important subset of the proposals, those that truly are founded on the key principles of ambition, responsibility, capacity, and development need. And such a finding of reasonable convergence just might be enough to change the debate, at least in the critical short term.

The critical short term. These are words to remember. It will take a few years to sort out the demands of equity, but it can be done – if we have the will to do so and if we act in good faith. In the meanwhile, the imperatives of the situation cannot be put on hold. As the UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, noted in her opening remarks, the Bonn meeting coincided, more or less exactly, with the first readings of atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations in excess of 400 parts per million.

Frankly, the situation is verging on emergency. Global emissions must be drawn rapidly down to extremely low levels, and this cannot happen without global cooperation on a grand scale. So remember this – the climate negotiations will not save us, but we can’t save ourselves without them. We must have a global climate accord, and we will not get one unless it’s fair. Or at least, as the Australians say, “fair enough.”

Constructing a fair climate accord will not be easy. One wag, commenting on Bonn’s relative conviviality, quipped that “The fangs and the claws will come out in June.” And perhaps they will. But right now we have at least a sense of the way forward. It’s one that must be pursued.

Have we reached an equity tipping point? No, and we may never do so. But we can see one from here.


— Tom Athanasiou, May 8, 2013

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