Equity & Global Climate Change: The Complex Elements of Global Fairness


Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

What constitutes a fair response to climate change is the main question underlying many of the unresolved issues in the climate change debate. It is behind the questions of the level of commitment by industrialized countries, the type of participation to be undertaken by developing countries, the structure of the various trading mechanisms, and the nature and magnitude of financial obligations. What has been missing from the debate, however, are consensus principles that define equity in the context of this issue.

This report, which offers insight on global equity, is the second in a series by the Center. The Pew Center was established in 1998 by the Pew Charitable Trusts to bring a new cooperative approach and critical scientific, economic and technological expertise to the global climate change debate.

Using the language already in the Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol and the way equity has been invoked in other international treaties as a backdrop, the report lays out a new paradigm. We suggest that three criteria—responsibility for the emissions that can cause climate change, standard of living (or the ability to pay for climate change mitigation), and opportunity to reduce emissions—should be considered in differentiating country obligations. Based on these criteria, the report suggests that it is appropriate to divide countries into three groups rather than two: those that must act now; those that should act now, but differently; and those that could act now if feasible. We hope that these ideas will stimulate debate and draw us toward an objective and transparent approach to this critical cause.

The Pew Center and its Business Environmental Leadership Council believe that climate change is serious business. Fairness demands that countries step up to the plate.

Executive Summary

Of the many pending issues within the climate change debate, the question of what constitutes equitable international commitments may be the most difficult to address. Long-unresolved divisions about the distribution of resources and equitable access to them must be considered by climate change negotiators in order to agree on a fair and effective global response. Failing to do so may result in the most inequitable outcome of all, by leaving those who have to face the disproportionate burden of the impacts with few options to address the problem.

There are several philosophical approaches to equity, although the concept remains complex and difficult to define. It can be based on allocation of property rights or on the determination of who is most responsible. Some argue for achievement of the greatest good for the most people, while others are more concerned with minimizing the impact on the least fortunate or with plain common sense.1 There are also many aspects of equity—from maintaining a fair process to ensuring equity for a range of out-comes (baselines, limitations, compliance, monitoring, reporting, etc.). This paper does not review these philosophies in outlining general principles of equity for the climate change debate. Recognizing that pragmatic issues could dominate international discussions, the paper argues for focusing on these principles as early as possible and for using a transparent process.

We propose a new approach to equity, involving three criteria—responsibility, standard of living, and opportunity. Clearly, determining who is responsible for causing the problem is one factor in a fair response to climate change. In line with the “polluter pays” principle, this would include not only who emitted the most in the past, but also who will emit the most in the future. In addition, both national total and per capita contributions are relevant here. A second factor can be represented by national income per person. Looking at relative standards of living might affect who pays for climate change miti-gation, who takes action, and when they are required to take those actions. A third, pragmatic, factor would be opportunity. If one country can more cheaply reduce emissions than another, then it perhaps should be asked to do so.

The paper also outlines a set of principles that could guide negotiations:

  • All nations should be able to maintain or improve standards of living under a global climate change mitigation regime. Consequently, climate change mitigation should focus on alternative low-carbon development paths that don’t reduce economic growth.
  • More broadly, the outcome of FCCC negotiations should not undermine or hinder progress toward the goal of sustainable development.
  • The countries most responsible for greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere should be leaders in the effort to reduce emissions.
  • All nations should work to the best of their abilities — or with help from other countries — to reduce emissions either absolutely or relative to business-as-usual trajectories.
  • The world should take advantage of emission reduction opportunities where they exist.

These principles and these criteria lead to differential treatment for three—rather than the current two—groupings of countries. They also may lead to different actions being asked of countries within these groups. There is a group of “Must Act Now” countries who score high on both the responsibility and standard of living factors; these should be the leaders. There is a group at the opposite end of the spectrum—”Could Act Now”—who score low on at least two factors who should not be asked to take many actions now. The middle group would consist of those countries who score higher on some factors, but lower on others—”Should Act Now, But Differently.” The principles above will drive what is asked of these countries.

We hope that these principles, factors and groupings lead to improved international discussions of equity, at the very least, and, even better, to a solution that all parties believe is fair.

Discussing equity in the context of climate change could require taking on a broad range of topics. By and large, this paper will only address consequential equity (outcome), on the assumption that procedural equity (process) will be addressed in other forums, and will largely confine the discussion to the outcomes of who takes on obligations and at what degree of stringency. Negotiations on other outcomes—compliance mechanisms, monitoring and verification systems, etc.—could easily be driven by the same conclusions presented here. For simplicity of presentation, the paper only refers to emission reductions, but efforts related to sinks of greenhouse gases are assumed to be covered by the same points. One other large aspect of equity—related to the distribution of costs and benefits of climate change mitigation within countries, especially the impact on labor and competitiveness—is important enough to warrant a separate analysis.