Where's the Fairness in the Climate Talks?

Monday, December 7, 2015 - 12:36

President Barack Obama’s opening speech at COP 21 included some soaring and ambitious rhetoric. Early in the speech he proclaimed, “the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.” But since the President’s speech, his administration has continued to push for a Paris Agreement that hasn’t embraced that responsibility. Instead, the United States has consistently advocated for an agreement that wipes out rich countries’ historical responsibility and weakens the equity or fairness of the deal for developing countries. This approach will not get the world the climate agreement we need. Far from being a limitation, fairness and equity in the agreement are the keys to ambition.

Part of what is driving the United States’ hardline position is a real constraint placed on them by the Republican controlled Congress. Not only are Republicans unwilling to ratify any kind of climate change treaty – no matter how weak – but they deny climate change is even happening. This hardline stance has given Democrats in public office a bit of a free pass from activists. The President is not only acknowledging the seriousness of climate change, he is actively engaging with the climate change negotiations. He’s enacted policies such as the CAFE standards and proposed the Clean Power Plan to cut or limit U.S. emissions.

The reality, though, is that dramatically more action is needed from the United States to give us a chance of staying under 2 degrees Celsius of warming, to say nothing of 1.5. Analysis by a broad range of civil society groups shows that the current U.S. pledge, or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), represents only about one fifth of the U.S.’s fair share of climate action. To really address the climate crisis, we need the U.S. to cut emissions far more deeply, and to provide finance and technology for action in developing countries. Instead of doing this, the United States is systematically undermining principles of fairness and equity within the Paris agreement – looking for ways to shift obligations to developing countries.

This is particularly egregious because while no one is immune from the impacts of climate change, developing countries are feeling the impacts first and worst, despite having contributed the least to creating the problem. Furthermore, developing countries also have many other pressing economic and social priorities, including millions of people without access to power and struggling with food insecurity, and a lack of needed infrastructure such as transit and roads.

Only a limited amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can be emitted into the atmosphere to keep the world under a given level of warming. To stay under 1.5 or even 2 degrees, developed countries have already used up the vast majority of this “carbon budget.” So now, developing countries are facing the challenges of development while the world needs to drastically reduce emissions. They cannot follow the same development pathways as industrialized countries if we want to maintain a safe climate.

This fundamental injustice does not need to close the door on either ambitious climate action or equitable development. “Equity” or “differentiation” language in the UN climate framework makes it clear that developed countries have the primary responsibility to transform their economies and cut greenhouse gas emissions. As part of their fair share of action, developed countries also need to provide finance and technology to support mitigation and adaptation action in developing countries. This support will unlock ambitious action in developing countries, enabling them to cut and avoid emissions, keeping the world under 1.5 degrees of warming, without unfairly denying them the ability to deliver basic services and lift people out of extreme poverty.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not embraced equity as the means to increase ambition. Instead, they have consistently demanded that differentiation and equity be left out of the Paris agreement. This will essentially shift the cost of climate action from the rich countries to the poor. It’s understandable, then, that developing countries are skeptical about agreeing to an ambitious mitigation goal that does not reflect developed countries’ historical responsibility, the need for finance and the importance of sustainable development.

The solution to this problem is not to point the finger at developing countries. The rich world must understand the challenges that these countries face, and recognize that only an equitable solution to climate change can ensure that they take action at a scale that is commensurate to the challenge.

To pursue real ambition, the United States needs to embrace equity in the climate talks. Fairness is the only way to a 1.5 degree world.