Equity and Realism?

The New Climate Institute, a pillar of what I like to call “Euro-realist” climate policy, has just made a telling pivot. It did so by way of a recent paper entitled Fair contributions versus fastest possible reductions.

It’s an important marker of a changing debate. Ask anyone who carries the scars of the pre-Paris equity battles. Long story short: the view that nations will have to take on “fair” or “equitable” shares in the global climate mobilization has long been anathema to “realists” who believe, frankly, that it just ain’t gonna happen, and that calls for fair shares are thus obstacles to climate action.

The folks at the New Climate Institute have long been key proponents of this kind of realism, but, it seems, no more!  At least not in this paper, which takes a fair shares position and (the twist) marries it to what appears to be a very tidy and very useful bottom up analysis of national mitigation potential. 

It seems like a good marriage.  I wish the couple well.  Though I couldn’t stop myself from writing Niclas Höhne, one of the authors, and pointing out that the title uses the word “versus,” which clearly implies the old-school view that we’re dealing, fundamentally, with a tradeoff between equity and ambition.

That “versus” should be “and.”  We need both. That’s the whole point, and Höhne willingly granted it. I could almost hear him sigh.

On the key matter, the overall conception of fair shares, here’s how Höhne and Wachsmuth put it:

“To make the stringent global mitigation pathways possible, emissions in all countries have to be reduced as fast as possible. Whether a national emission pathway itself is in line with the responsibility and capability of that country becomes less relevant. It is now more a question of who pays for the transition, not where it is happening.”

This is the key. Without this there is nothing. 

Politically, matters are more complicated, and I’d contest some of the claims in this paper. For example, when speaking of “indicators describing common but differentiated responsibilities,” the only examples given are “emissions per capita” and “GDP per capita,” and this will not do. If you look back at the pre-Paris discussion paper released in 2013 by the international Climate Action Network’s Equity Working group, you’ll find a considerably more sophisticated discussion of equity indicators, one that very importantly takes the class divide (ahem, the rich / poor divide) into account, rather than just the divide between the “developed” and the “developing” countries. 

The real issue, though, is finance. It’s fine to say that the fair shares approach needs to be harmonized with an approach that maximizes decarbonization within all countries, so that we might actually achieve the Paris temperature goals. But unless and until there is a public finance breakthrough, this accelerated decarbonization just isn’t going to happen. 

The real question is if we can finally reboot the equity debate, such that it helps us make that breakthrough. The shift announced in this paper is definitely a step in the right direction. Hopefully, as both the Covid pandemic and Donald J. Trump fade into history, this is the road we’ll take. 

I sure hope so, because it’s the road that’s capable of supporting a true global emergency mobilization. 

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