As we explained in the last entry, many observers of the international climate change negotiations have concluded that to keep any hope alive that the world will prevent dangerous climate change, it is imperative that nations begin to base their emissions reductions commitments on what equity and justice requires of them, not on economic national interest alone. Yet many nations, including some of the highest emitting countries, are clearly ignoring their obligations to poor vulnerable people or nations in setting their domestic emissions reductions targets.
Because nations have also failed to make commitments to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will limit future warming to 2°C, there is an increasing sense of urgency among climate scientists about the need for all nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
Some nations are ignoring their ethical obligations to others in making national emissions reductions commitments under the UNFCCC despite the fact that nations agreed in ratifying the UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.”
Equity is a concept about which there is no universally agreed to definition. This does not mean, however, that any claim about what equity means is entitled to respect as a matter of justice. Equity is generally understood philosophically as basic fairness. In fact determining a nation’s fair share of safe global emissions is a classic problem of distributive justice.
Distributive justice does not require that all individuals be treated equally when the benefits and burdens of government actions are allocated. However distributive justice does require individuals to be treated equally unless a morally relevant justification can be identified that supports differences in allocations among individuals. For instance, distributive justice would not condone withholding food to starving people on the grounds of differences in race or the color of a person’s eyes. These are not morally acceptable reasons for discriminating among people. However, distributive justice would condone differences in responsibilities to clean up a hazardous waste site on the basis of the volume of wastes deposited at the site by different contributors. A key question, therefore, in determining the meaning of equity under a climate change regime is what differences in allocations are supportable by morally justified reasons.
Although different ethically respectable formulations of just distributions of national greenhouse gas targets will reach different conclusions about how to allocate the burdens of government action to reduce the threat of climate change, many of the justifications for national greenhouse gas reduction targets committed to under the UNFCCC fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, those nations who seek to justify their levels of greenhouse gas emissions solely on the basis of cost to them of reducing emissions or on the claim that they have some prescriptive right to high emissions because they were the first to use the atmosphere as a sink to dispose of their greenhouse gas emissions will fail to pass ethical scrutiny.
In determining what ‘equity’ means in regard to allocating greenhouse gas emissions targets among nations, in addition to some general principles of distributive justice, several norms of international law are recognized as relevant for establishing national responsibilities. Relevant considerations entailed by distributive justice include levels of historical emissions, the survival needs of poor people to use fossil fuels, and the capabilities of some to move more rapidly to renewable energy. International law norms relevant to national greenhouse gas emissions allocations include the “polluter-pays” principle, the “no-harm” principle, and the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle.
Thus far nations have not been asked to explain how their greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments can be justified on ethical grounds.
As we saw in the last article on this subject, there was a workshop in May of this year in Bonn at which governments and others were asked to discuss the meaning of “equity” but very little progress was made in this meeting.
To make progress on these issues, the UNFCCC should ask nations to justify their national greenhouse gas emissions by answering a few questions about their position on equity and justice in the climate regime.
For these reasons, the following questions should be asked of nations as part of preparations for UNFCCC negotiations:
- State precisely your understanding of “equity” on which your national greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitment is based.
- Do you agree that your nation has duties and obligations to other vulnerable nations and people to limit your greenhouse gas emissions to your nation’s fair share of safe global emissions and that these responsibilities must be considered when setting your national greenhouse gas emissions target?
- In determining your national greenhouse gas emissions target how did you take into consideration and quantify your obligations to prevent harm to other nations and individuals outside your jurisdiction
- Do you agree that the historical emissions levels should be a consideration in determining greenhouse gas emissions allocations in such a way that those nations that have consistently emitted greenhouse gases at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions should adjust their commitments to compensate for prior emissions?
- If you disagree with the need to consider historical emissions, how do you interpret the “polluter pays” principle in regard to national greenhouse gas emissions targets?
- If you agree that historical emissions should be a consideration in calculating national greenhouse gas emissions allocations, explain the basis for your conclusions about when historical emissions obligations should be triggered. That is what year are obligations for historical emissions triggered; for instance, should all historical emissions of greenhouse gas emissions be considered or should obligations for historical emissions obligations begin at a certain year such as 1990, the baseline year for the UNFCCC, 1992 the year in which the UNFCCC was finalized, or what year? Please state your reasons for your conclusions.
- Do you agree that the needs of poor people to engage in activities necessary for survival in poor countries should be entitled to priority over activities that support luxury consumption in rich countries when allocating national emissions targets?
- Do you agree that high-emitting individuals and organizations in both developed and developing countries have responsibilities to minimize their greenhouse gas emissions when feasible?
- Do you agree that governments in all countries have a duty to encourage the reduction of unnecessary or wasteful practices that generate greenhouse gas emissions by sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals within their jurisdiction?
- Do you agree that your national greenhouse gas emissions target should be understood implicitly as a position on a global emissions reduction pathway to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels?
- If you agree that national emissions commitments must be understood as a position on a global emissions reduction pathway to stabilize greenhouse gases at safe levels, how does your greenhouse gas emissions commitment
- Do you agree that nations that emit greenhouse gases at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low emitting countries and individuals?
- If you disagree that nations that emit above their fair share of safe global emissions have duties to pay for reasonable adaptation and unavoidable damages to lower emitting countries and individuals, how do you interpret the “polluter-pays” principle?
- Do you agree that all nations have a duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global missions without regard to what other nations do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?
- What if any of the frameworks for allocating national emissions reductions that have been frequently discussed in international negotiations or meetings do you agree with? More specifically do you agree with the “contraction and convergence” framework, the “greenhouse gas development rights” framework, or other frameworks for allocating national greenhouse gas emission that have been discussed in international negotiations?
- Do you agree that all nations including developing nations have duties to limit their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions despite the fact that lower emitting nations may have much lower emissions reductions obligations as a matter of justice and equity?
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law