What fairness on climate change looks like (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

Entire books and lengthy journal articles get written about what fairness and equity on climate change mean, but some of these differences were summed up in one image, courtesy of the USA.

At last week’s UN climate talks, a series of workshops and presentations preceded the main part of the negotiating, one of which focused on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries. During the US presentation by deputy envoy Jonathan Pershing, this set of graphs came up:

US Mitigation Presentation during workshops at the 2011 UN Climate Conference in Bangkok

The context of this slide was in a discussion about countries taking “comparable effort” in addressing climate change, the point of which was to show how there are different ways of measuring such efforts.

Simply put, against a 1990 baseline for emissions (the standard reference point), the US is only making a 3% reduction in its 2020 target, because of how US emissions have increased over the past two decades (top left graph). But against a 2005 baseline, the US is making a 17% reduction in its 2020 target, an ‘effort’ that is ‘comparable’ to other developed countries (top right graph). It looks on a similar scale to the EU target, because the EU as a whole has been reducing emissions over past two decades (for various reasons, some deliberate and others less so), and so reductions over the next decade match those of the US.

Pershing’s remarks during the presentation were to the effect that no single metric of measurement will suffice, and that comparability takes a number of different forms, all of which are legitimate. The point of this was to deflect criticism that the US isn’t doing as much as it should be given the size of its emissions – and in doing so, shift attention to whether the efforts of certain developing countries are “comparable” in this regard.

He also quite candidly acknowledged that US efforts prior to 2005 were “inadequate” – but the upshot of this is an attempt to try and reset the clock to 2005, saying in effect that “we weren’t really trying before 2005 so it would be unfair to judge us on that period”.

More broadly, US efforts to define ‘fairness’ litter the record of the climate negotiations: even as it was negotiating and signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution that expressed its opposition to any agreement that did not include large developing countries because that would be unfair on the US economy. George W. Bush’s repudiation of, and withdrawal from the Protocol later, in 2001, echoed this same argument about Kyoto’s unfairness in comparing the US’s obligations on reducing emissions to that of developing countries.

Whether this latest effort succeeds at persuading policymakers and diplomats that the US really is doing its fair share on climate change remains to be seen. But it also takes place in a context where claims of fairness (often rephrased as ‘equity’) abound and compete – in the demands of civil society campaigners, developing countries, or the principles of the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself (Article 3.1: The Parties should protect the climate system…on the basis of equity…). Debate over what fair outcomes (not to mention a fair process) looks like has raged for two decades, and isn’t about to end anytime soon.

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3 thoughts on “What fairness on climate change looks like (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

  1. Nick Chan says:

    Hi Aubrey,

    Thanks for the comment! Notwithstanding all the high-profile endorsements that contraction & convergence has recieved, what I find interesting about the international negotiating process is how particular ideas and proposals gain traction, and how negotiators are persuaded (or perhaps coerced) into adopting particular sets of them.

    ‘Fairness’ is one (but only one) reference point against which proposals are measured, but the acceptance of particular proposals tells us something about what definitions of fairness or equity policymakers have in their heads.

    In this light, do you have any thoughts as to why C&C has got as far as it has, but not further? Might the clarity of a common global convergence level be just too scary for some?


  2. Aubrey Meyer says:

    Hi Nick

    The basic dilemma is that we cause the problem of climate change [with still uncontrolled emissions] much faster than we respond to avoid it. Put simply, this is a battle that we are all measurably losing.

    The issue of ‘fairness’ and how to deal-with [or avoid] ‘it’ is [and for twenty years has been] a dominant but fruitless dead-end in the UNFCCC negotiations. Parties and their advisors have been treating the objective of the UNFCCC merely like a ‘suggestion’ and developing an ‘aspirational’ attitude to it [it might be a good idea to avoid dangerous rates of climate change etc . . . but then again] . . .

    For me your finger comes nearer the issue when you use the words ‘the clarity of a common global convergence level’ rather than fairness. This may be ‘scary’ for some, but it is not as scary as climate changing at a faster and faster rate.

    C&C is a solution to this that is *rational* and *transparent*. Considering the danger we are all in, *clarity* is more to the point of achieving the UNFCCC-objective in the time that is left to do this, than is continuing opaque and unresolvable arguments about fairness in a process that is anyway, just being aspirational.

    I put a document with more thoughts and references for you at this link: –

    It may be useful.

    Warm regards


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