10 things that are wrong with this approach to “equity”

Ever since our own Anjali Appadurai stood before world leaders at the 2011 Durban climate talks to demand “equity now,” echoing a longstanding demand of climate justice movements across the world, there has been an increasing use of the word in discussions on international climate change policy. The idea of equity is contested, as everyone from social movement leaders to former Heads of State tries to get a slice of the action. Everyone is touting their vision of how equity, and therefore climate justice, can be operationalized at the international level in the negotiation of a new global clime agreement. They’re trying to put in practice in 2015 what the Convention set out in principle in 1992. What many academics and advocates are attempting, at least nominally, is to figure out how to fairly determine each countries’ responsibility for emissions reductions in order to meet an aggregate global goal of emissions reductions that limits the planet to a safe[1] level of warming.

In simple terms, a fair share approach would balance the responsibility of a country with its capacity to act and give consideration to the right to sustainable development. There have been various methodologies proposed, various “equity reference frameworks,” including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, and our own preferred Equity Vision. However, one proposal for an equity reference framework that has recently been getting attention was made by Swaziland on behalf of the African Group at the Warsaw round of negotiations in 2013. Naturally, as climate justice activists and advocates, this got us rather excited. Do the negotiations now have a national climate champion with a vision for equity to rally around? We waited, eager to see what was behind the proposal—the devil is always in the detail. Then, recently, a think tank called MAPS (Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios) published this policy paper, which gives their interpretation of the ERF, and we fell into a depression for it seemed our dreams of true climate justice were about to be dashed. This blog is to explain why we feel that way. Note that we’ll use “the proposed ERF” to refer to the MAPS reading of the ERF, as outlined in their paper, and not to the ERF as proposed by Swaziland. From what we can understand of the MAPS paper, here are some of the issues we are concerned with:


1. It gets the global temperature goal wrong

The proposed ERF refers to a 1.5C goal for the limit of warming, which is good. However, its analysis seems premised on calculations relating to a 2C global goal, which given that Africa has historically warmed 150% compared to global averages, would mean an unthinkable 3.5 degrees of warming for the continent. Therefore the proposed ERF is out of line with the African common position which calls for a limit of “well below 1.5C.”


2. It gets the global emissions reduction goal wrong

By drawing on the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, which includes an emission budget (i.e. what amount of CO2eq could be emitted) of 44 GT for 2020, the proposed ERF offers only a “likely” chance of limiting warming to 2C. Instead, it risks a 33% chance of exceeding 2C, which translates to an even higher chance of exceeding 1.5C and consequently of even higher levels of warming in Africa. A 33% chance of exceeding 2C is a terrible gamble—it’s like playing Russian roulette with two bullets instead of just the one—and is difficult to reconcile with the most ambitious mitigation scenarios considered in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

The proposed ERF also focuses on identifying levels of effort for different countries without clearly specifying the individual or aggregate level of emission reductions for the developed countries. Given that the African common position demands emission reductions by developed countries of 40% by 2017 from 1990 levels (and consequently higher levels for post 2020), it seems at odds with the proposed ERF.

What we should do is identify the most ambitious mitigation scenario in AR5 and, based on this, agree a global budget to 2050, as well as agreed levels of emissions for 2020, 2025 and 2030, all consistent with a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 1.5C. Subsequently, we should identify a methodology based on historical responsibilities and respective capabilities, and which is adjusted for development needs, to define developed countries’ commitments on key issues such as mitigation and finance for 2020, 2025 and 2030.


3. It gets the costs wrong

The proposed ERF uses a figure of $75-100 billion as the cost for adaptation, which comes from a World Bank study and is a severe underestimation of the real full cost of adaptation. When factors such as the adverse impacts of extreme weather in developing countries are accounted for, the estimated cost of adaptation becomes much higher—$600 billion in 2030—as the South Centre (an independent intergovernmental think-tank) have already pointed out.

However, it’s not just on the cost of adaptation that the proposed ERF makes miscalculations: it also gets wrong the global costs of mitigation effort in 2020. Twice. Although the actual method is not stated, it seems like the proposed ERF applies a global mitigation cost of US$35 per tonne to the 44Gt global emissions budget in 2020 rather than to the required deviations (i.e. the actual emissions reductions/mitigation) from the 12Gt baseline estimated by UNEP. The estimated mitigation cost of $35 per tonne is based on a 2007 IPCC study consistent with atmospheric concentrations of 550ppm CO2eq.  However, to keep temperature rise limited to 1.5C to 2C we need global atmospheric concentrations to be held well below 550ppm, which obviously requires substantially deeper and more costly levels of mitigation. What’s worse about the proposed ERF is that it doesn’t even get the math right: in multiplying 44Gt by $35 per tonne, it has arrived at an answer of $154 billion, rather than the correct $1.54 trillion. That’s wrong by a factor of ten.

Given that the proposed ERF has miscalculated both mitigation and adaptation costs, the combined costs are going to be wrong as well. What the proposed ERF seems to do is add the (incorrect) upper estimate of $154 billion for mitigation to an (incorrect) mid-range estimate of $88 billion for adaptation, resulting in the 2020 figure of $242 billion. Because these are all estimates of costs per year, it then multiplies the $242 billion by ten to calculate the combined mitigation/adaptation costs of the decade 2020-2030, with the result being $2.42 trillion. Because they started with underestimates, that figure is misleadingly low. On top of that, the cost of mitigation and adaptation are likely to grow every year during that decade 2020-2030, so when that is taken into consideration the $2.42 trillion is a severe underestimate.

Really what we need is to calculate the global mitigation effort for each year between 2020 and 2030. That means calculating, in tonnes, how much deviation below the global business as usual level for each year is required in order to achieve the required annual emissions budget. We can then use that as a basis for defining the scale of emission reductions by developed countries, and the scale of finance needed by developing countries for mitigation and adaptation. We also need to account for the cost of adaptation in all sectors as well as for the expected costs of dealing with loss and damage. Otherwise we are not achieving equity or advocating climate justice.


4. It gets the dates wrong

One of the basic ideas of climate justice, and indeed one of the principles of the Convention, is the principle of historical responsibility: that the amount of emissions reductions each country should have to do, to some degree, is determined by how much they have already emitted. The question is when to start measuring “historical emissions?” A climate justice perspective demands that we consider emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution, as it was on the back of those emissions (among other things, like the plunder of the resources of the developing world) that the developed world got rich. However, the proposed ERF fails to fully consider historical responsibility because it only takes emissions from 1960 or 1990. This immediately favors developed countries and penalizes developing countries. The Convention is fairly clear, in the preamble, that historical emissions do not begin in 1960, and we should therefore use a base year of much earlier, like 1850, to calculate historical emissions.  As well as that, in order to avoid penalizing the poorest and people who are least-responsible for causing climate change, we should exclude from these historical emissions an amount that would have been necessary for people to have dignified lives—a.k.a. “survival” emissions.


5. It gets emissions per-capita wrong

The point of looking at per-capita emissions is to give everyone a fair share of the emissions budget. But famously, proposals like “contraction and convergence” don’t actually do this. In those proposals every country moves toward a target per-capita emissions level. To give an example, let’s say that target is 2 tonnes. What this means practically is that everyone who is at 4 tonnes today would reduce to only emit 3 tonnes on average across the commitment period. At the same time, those currently emitting 20 tonnes would reduce to something like 11 tonnes, which seems like a lot, but isn’t really fair because it let’s those who are emitting more today emit more tomorrow just because they were emitting more today. That method is called “grandfathering” and, unlike real grandfathers, it’s terrible.

So when the proposed ERF suggests that using emissions per-capita metrics is like “contraction and convergence thinking” then it sounds warning bells off in our climate justice bunker. Does this mean the authors want to grandfather those emission rights to the North? Does it mean they accept that emissions in the South will never by higher than those in North? A proper equity approach would stick to the historical responsibility as outlined in the preamble of the Convention and would recognize that in some countries per-capita emissions might actually need to grow in order to fight poverty.


6. It gets measurement of capability wrong

In order to measure the capability of a country, the proposed ERF uses the indicator of GDP per-capita, but use it based on “purchasing power parity” (PPP) rather than on “market exchange rates” (MER). Countries that have purchasing power parity rates which are lower than their market exchange rates (most developing countries) are therefore at a disadvantage. Given that climate technology is mostly priced and purchased at international rates on the international market, MER is a fairer measurement of capability than PPP. Beyond that, the proposed ERF uses gross capital formulation as a percentage of GDP. Beyond being a complicated metric which we had to look up on google, this approach (according to the folks at MAPS who are promoting it) “might lead to an under-valuation of developed country responsibility as the metric measures change in capital stock rather than established stock, the latter being a better representation of productive potential and productivity.” Basically, it gives more weight to the capacity of developing countries—capacity they don’t really have. Rather than use complex composite metrics which are difficult to justify and explain, we should focus on simple metrics like GDP per-capita. Additionally, that GDP per-capita measurement should be adjusted to include a “development threshold” which would avoid punishing the poor, and would enable a progressive approach to measuring capacity (where the wealthy make greater contributions).


7. It gets “development need” wrong

By aggregating the three metrics of historical responsibility, respective capability, and development need “on an equal weighting,” as the proposed ERF does, you set up the metric of development need in competition with responsibility and capability metrics. A better approach would be to use “development need” in a way that strengthens (from a justice perspective) the metric of historical responsibility by distinguishing between “survival” and “luxury” emissions. Furthermore, the metric of respective capability could be strengthened by distinguishing a basic level of income required to lead a decent life (as is the case with other methodologies such as the Greenhouse Development Rights) and excluding this from being counted towards respective capability. This approach would be more pro-poor and pro-developing countries, while still reflecting the basic equity requirement that the wealthy should do proportionally more.

As well as unhelpfully and unfairly aggregating the metrics, the proposed ERF goes on to convert the aggregate level of effort into a dollar figure by using the incorrect estimates for adaptation and mitigation costs. This fails to set a required level of emissions reductions for each developed country or for all of them collectively. It conflates adaptation and mitigation efforts and costs, and gives the impression that countries can pay their way out of their climate obligations.  For example, the paper says the US should shoulder $58 billion which is 7.1 times the effort of Gambia (suggesting Gambia’s fair share is over $8 billion). It is difficult to see how this result is consistent with the principles of the Convention.  What’s needed is a methodology which defines specific commitments for developed countries—their mitigation effort in CO2e GT as well as for finance transfers for developing countries to be able to meet their mitigation and adaptation commitments.


8. It gets strategy wrong

There’s an implicit strategic assumption in the proposed ERF that it is preferable for Africa to delay saying what is fair between 2020 and 2025 or 2030 and instead focus on developing a “reference framework.” This approach constitutes a significant departure from the historical position of the African group which has always used the UNFCCC to put forward clear and quantified mitigation and finance demands of the developed countries. Smarter strategy would surely entail defining clearly, and on the basis of an agreed equity methodology, the demands of all Parties to the UNFCCC and to build coalitions to support those demands. This would then set expectations for the level of “intended nationally determined contributions.”


9. It gets the timing wrong

The proposed ERF “is premised on an initial submission of commitments or contributions by Parties which are then assessed for adequacy” and therefore seems inclined to defer discussion of what is equitable until after the intended nationally determined contributions are submitted. This fails to establish clear parameters for national governments when setting their intended contributions and risks locking in low initial pledges rather than promoting and justifying the need for high ones.

10. It gets “contributions” wrong

The interpretation of “contributions” in the Warsaw outcome as having an open nature is inconsistent with the demand of many members of civil society, and the African Group position, that Annex I Parties (read: the so-called developed world) will take on economy-wide legally binding commitments. Based on this approach, developed countries could put forward contributions that are neither economy wide nor legally binding, which doesn’t do Africa (or the rest of the world) any favors.


Overall we’re sad to say that the proposed equity reference framework from the MAPS paper is not our cup of tea, nor is it Africa’s (if we take the African common position to speak for Africa). That’s not to say we see nothing of value in it—at least we are talking about historical responsibility, transfer of finance and technology, and global budgets. It’s just that when we look at the details of this particular interpretation we see many problems. These problems can be addressed, and many of the points above contain ideas for their solutions. For a simple, one page explanation of what an actual fair share approach to tackling the climate crisis would be, we suggest reading this vision for equity.

[1] There is no such thing, as even the 0.8 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels that we have thus far experienced has led to widespread and severe devastation.

2 thoughts on “10 things that are wrong with this approach to “equity”

  1. Here is the ‘Carbon Budget Accounting Tool’ (CBAT).

    CBAT is a measurement tool embodying the ‘C&C’ principle.

    Contraction & Convenrations is Domain One: http://cbat.info/#domain-1
    Contraction & Convergence is Domain Two: http://cbat.info/#domain-2
    Contraction & Conversion is Domain Three: http://cbat.info/#domain-3
    Damages & Growth is Domain Four: http://cbat.info/#domain-4

    It may be helpful in framing the matters covered in the article above.

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