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Equity: No Longer a Peripheral Issue at Global Climate Talks

What’s needed now is courage, and a bit of real statesmanship that takes into account the evolving realities of this mad and dangerous world

A version of this report originally appeared in EcoEquity

Well, the annual climate talks began again today. This time they’re in Doha, the capital of Qatar, which has the highest per-capita emissions in the world.

Equity is, of course on the agenda. The surprise — at least it’s a surprise for some — is that its no longer a peripheral issue. With the negotiations now tasked with setting the stage for a 2015 negotiations breakthrough, equity is getting some real time in the spotlight. In that context, you might spare a moment to read The pathway to Ambition, the “equity opener” which was just published in the opening edition of the Climate Action Network’s ECO newsletter. I quite agree with it. In fact, I confess, I wrote it.

The unedited version is just a wee bit sharper. Here it is below:

“Is equity really the pathway to ambition? ECO is here to say that it had better be. Without equity, nothing else will work. Which is to say that nothing else will work well enough. Without equity the story of the climate transition will be a story of “too little, too late,” and — as the scientists are anxiously telling us (see the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat report) — a story without a happy ending.

Let’s admit the public secret that we all already know — equity will either be shaped into a pathway to ambition or inequity will, assuredly, rise before us as an altogether unscalable wall. We can see how this would happen.

The US — while insisting that it’s pushing bravely past the sterile politics of an obsolete North/South firewall — has managed to purge references to Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) and Respective Capabilities (RC) from all official texts. But to what effect? Has it noticed that a supermajority of parties understand the absence of new equity language as an affirmation of the original, and take the Convention’s language to remain entirely operational? Has it noticed that actions provoke reactions? Todd Stern, still the head of the US delegation, has rejected the Annexes as “anachronistic,” and has gone on to call for “the differentiation of a continuum, with each country expected to act vigorously in accordance with its evolving circumstances, capabilities and responsibilities.” It’s a good idea, though alas it suffers by its association with the US’s aggressive — and often abrasive — drive to destroy 1997’s Kyoto Protocol. Coming into Doha, ECO can only wonder if this unfortunate picture is about to change. With Mr. Obama’s re-election, there’s a chance to reset Washington’s international strategy. There won’t be many more.

Meanwhile, the position is obvious. The ambitious, global, principle-based regime that we need can only come by way of a creative elaboration of the Convention’s principles, CBDR/RC first among them. So, yes Mr. Stern, we need a dynamic approach, one that takes the evolving realities of this mad and dangerous world into full and adequate account. But we’re not going to get it without equity. Which is to say that we’re not going to get it without an approach to dynamism that is widely accepted as both procedurally and substantively fair.

Where does this leave us? With a desperate situation in which all wealthy countries must quickly do their part to close the short-terms emissions gap. This, fortunately, is a goal that can be met within the bounds of the existing accords and treaties, if only they’re approached in good faith. In particular, existing commitments — to mitigate and to support the mitigation and adaptation of others — must be met. Beyond the short-term, a new accord will be needed, a more challenging accord that we’re not going to get without a believable commitment to make “equitable access to sustainable development” into something real. This, in turn, will demand a robust negotiation on creative, principle-based approaches to sharing the long-term global costs of mitigation and adaptation. Which, finally, is the bottom line in all this, one that will not be forever denied. There’s still time to launch the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) with high and cooperative ambitions. But, frankly, there’s not much time left. What’s needed now is courage, and a bit of real statesmanship. The Obama Administration, for its part, has to begin negotiating for a regime that’s fair enough to actually work. And the G77’s negotiators must do better as well. When Basic bloc ministers (Brazil, China, India and South Africa, are known in climate talks as the Basic bloc), writing in their September declaration, called for “an enhanced global effort to be implemented after 2020, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which would respect the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and differentiation between Annex I and non-Annex I Parties,” they weren’t exactly signaling an openness to fresh and expansive approaches to CBDR/RC. Not that, given the current situation, their reticence was difficult to understand, but neither did it suggest the kind of leadership that we’re going to need in the Greenhouse Century. Perhaps, after Doha, such leadership will finally be on the agenda.

Difficult negotiations lie ahead. How can they best be organized? It seems to ECO that equity is quite important enough to get its own work stream, thank you. But if this is not to be, we’re confident that the roundtable discussions on either the ADP vision or ambition workstreams — or both! — will be more than willing to open their doors to the equity discussion. One way or another, it’s going to have to take place, and no one should be foolish enough to believe that, by attempting to push it aside, they’re doing the hard and thankless work of true realism.

Here’s some free advice: Let’s discuss principles first, and having agreed on the keystones (hint: the indispensable points are ambition, capacity, responsibility, and the sustainable development rights of the poor) we’ll be in a position to move forward to a practical, non-nonsense conversation about indicators and comparability. We’ll be in a position to move, that is, down the equity corridor — of it you prefer, up the equity ladder — from principles, by way of indicators, to coherent and reciprocal agreements.

This situation will not be quickly resolved. But there’s not going to be any real trust, or momentum, until equity is a recognized, respected, and foundational part of this negotiation. And — does this still need to be said? — until there’s substantive progress on the finance front as well, for this and only this can translate rhetoric and good intentions into believable action. The good news is that both of these breakthroughs are ours for the taking.”

Tom Athanasiou, Author and director of Earth Island Project EcoEquityTom Athanasiou photo
Tom is the director of EcoEquity and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors group. His interests focus on distributive justice within a context of global environmental emergency. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and reports, including The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, and Divided Planet: the Ecology of Rich and Poor. He is currently developing a new book, the working title of which is A New Deal for the Greenhouse Century.

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