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This is a guest essay by Andrew Pendleton. Pendleton leads the climate change policy work at Christian Aid. The essay is part of a series on climate equity.

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Andrew Pendleton of Christian Aid1. What would climate equity look like? What’s the end state we’re aiming for?

There are many truths in the climate change debate — almost all of them inconvenient. Perhaps the least convenient is that it is no longer possible to stay below 2°C without cutting the emissions of nations yet to develop — that is to say, a real cut over current levels, not just a lower rate of increase. At the same time, it is unacceptable to constrain these nations’ development while billions of people remain poor.

This is the climate equity challenge, and it must now be set in the context of largely non-negotiable global emissions reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050. As an organisation that advocates on behalf of the world’s poorest communities, Christian Aid supports the least risky and therefore most stringent pathway to decarbonisation. Therefore, step one in defining climate equity is to set a global carbon budget, within which all countries, industrialised and developing, have a legal obligation to remain.

Clearly, within the broad category of “developing” countries, there are differences in levels of development as significant as those that exist between this category as a whole and the industrialised world. This demands that any international framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and divvying up assistance to help vulnerable communities adapt to already inevitable temperature increases, must differentiate between people and countries at according to their level of development.

The poorest and least developed nations must largely be absolved from any obligations beyond accepting they have a finite emissions budget. Their duty in the climate debate is to ensure their support for vulnerable communities is well-organised and that adaptation is integrated with mitigation so the growth in their emissions remains sustainable within the global budget. The costs of adapting and mitigating in these nations would be met almost entirely by wealthier countries.

Rapidly developing economies — most famously India and China, but also, in the longer term, countries such as Mexico and Nigeria — must meet some of their domestic mitigation and adaptation costs and must commit to reductions in emissions. Essentially, though, the difference in cost between conventional, fossil-fueled development and low-emissions, highly efficient development must be met by wealthier countries.

Industrialised countries, largely those currently in Annex 1 of the UNFCCC, must do the lion’s share of the work, both reducing emissions in the immediate term and settling the balance of payments globally. In effect, this is repayment of ecological debt that has been incurred through the process of industrialisation.

Working with U.S.-based EcoEquity and the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, Christian Aid has been working on a paper called The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World (PDF), which builds on EcoEquity’s Greenhouse Development Rights framework. It sets out three essential steps towards climate equity:

  • Limit global warming below 2°C through an “emergency programme” of emissions reductions.
  • Share out of the economic burden of the emergency programme according to responsibility for the problem and capability to deal with it.
  • Share out, in a similarly fair way, the burden of adapting to already inevitable temperature increases.

2. What are the policy steps that start us down the road?

The engine room of the Greenhouse Development Rights proposal is an index of countries, ranking their historical responsibility for climate change and their current capability to deal with curbing emissions and with the mess that is likely to be created by what has already been emitted.

This approach provides a clear and transparent way of carving up the global cost of staying below 2°C, and of adapting to the profound changes brought about even at that level of warming. All countries would be required to mitigate, but depending on their responsibility (calculated using cumulative emissions since 1990) and capability (calculated according to countries’ per capita income, adjusted for wealth disparity), would have to meet none, some, all, or more than all of their domestic costs.

So, according to this logic, the UK, which currently emits 2.13 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, would have to pick up a much larger 4.4 percent of the international costs of mitigation and adaptation (whatever these costs might be).

It is clear from this that even if the UK were to eliminate its domestic emissions entirely, it would have met less than half its global obligation. This might at face value seem harsh, but the UK’s economy is the world’s fifth largest, it is responsible for more than 6 percent of cumulative emissions since 1850, and the money that flows through the City of London finances up to 15 percent of current global emissions.

Together, including the UK, the 27 countries in the EU would have a 27.2 percent slice, whereas a 35 percent allocation would go to the US. India and China, because of their low levels of human development and low per capita wealth, would have a 0.4 and 6.9 percent share of the burden respectively.

Such an index could be used to allocate emissions rights for a carbon-trading system (clearly, it would significantly under-allocate to the rich world and over-allocate to the poor). Equally, such a tool could suggest a tax-based means of collecting revenue, with countries paying in to a global superfund to discharge the international part of their obligations.

3. What’s needed, politically speaking, to marshal support for those policy steps?

If climate rhetoric equated to climate action, then the UK and wider EU would already be well on the way to meeting their obligations. However, while there are now some more ambitious reduction targets on the table from Europe, what no nation has yet said is that part of the deal must be willingness on the part of those most responsible and capable to pay for mitigation and adaptation in countries at lower stages of development.

There are plenty of facts in the climate debate, and plenty of officials aware of these facts. But their political masters are not yet dispatching orders to the frontline of the debate that action is now necessary. So, politically speaking, what’s needed is for a few, influential countries to make the running. Europe, the self-professed progressive region, is the best place to start.

The UK is now in the process of enacting a climate change bill that seeks to put into statute reductions in CO2 emissions of at least 60 percent by 2050 over 1990 levels. Christian Aid and others are urging Prime Minister Brown to go even further and raise the level of the bill’s ambition to at least 80 percent cuts. A few more progressive countries binding themselves to big cuts, plus some more money on the table for adaptation, might help ease a constipated process.

If the EU were to auction permits in the ETS and put some of that revenue into funding mitigation and technology transfer overseas, that might help too.

But the decisive factor in the UK tabling its climate change bill has been campaigning by ordinary citizens, and herein lies the key. It is not possible for individuals, unaided by policy changes, to reduce their carbon footprint by 80 percent. But it is possible to change policy with citizen action. If, country by country, people were to demonstrate their will to see their government enact legally binding reduction targets, then perhaps we would arrive at 2012 and realise that the international agreement had already been ratified.