The equity debate has taken on some new life lately, particularly in India, where the government is actively reconsidering its position on fair-shares approaches to global climate diplomacy. There’s no word yet on what India’s new position will be, but the recent publication of Meeting Equity in a Finite Carbon World: Global Carbon Budgets and Burden Sharing in Mitigation Actions, a “background” report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, indicates that, at least in some circles, the debate is being taken seriously. Indeed, Tata’s background report was followed by a high-level conference that discussed it, and then the publication of Global Carbon Budgets and Equity in Climate Change, an extremely interesting and forthright set of conference papers and post-conference reflections.
The goal of the Tata report, clearly, was to promote a focused, high-level discussion of the “carbon-budget” approach, whereby all people receive an equal allocation to the earth’s cumulative carbon budget. In this is was apparently quite successful. There is much to say here, and a great deal to like, but for the moment we will make only two points. Both of these points can be clearly expressed with reference to a quote from the initial report, which cited GDRs as a marker of well-meaning but unrealistically radical alternative proposals:
“We ﬁnd that the emissions reductions imposed on the Annex-I countries by our model are close to those recommended by the IPCC and only the proposal by GDR (Greenhouse Development Rights) requires sharper reduction from Annex-I countries. However it also allows for much less carbon space for the developing countries.”
This, unfortunately, is a problematic formulation, for as it became clear during the conference debate, burden-sharing frameworks (GDRs and some versions of the budget approach) which explicitly assign “negative entitlements” to industrialized countries with large emissions obligations actually make sense . Thus, in their post-conference reflections, the authors note:
“In reference to this issue it may be noted that the background paper had kept track of both the physical carbon space as well as the over-occupation by the developed countries. The latter is equivalent to keeping track of negative entitlements. Hence the background paper had not really lost the distinction. However since the language of entitlements was more clearly acceptable and most participants felt that the negative entitlement formulation made for a clearer statement, the authors accepted this shift of language.”
This is an extremely notable result, and one that, in and of itself, deserves some serious reflection.
There is also a second issue hidden in the contrast between Tata’s indicative carbon-budget analysis and GDRs — that as a comparison of burden-sharing frameworks, it boils down to an apples-to-oranges exercise. It applies a carbon-budget approach to a relatively lax global target — one that has well less than 50% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C. It then compares this to the GDRs approach applied to a relatively strict global target — one that has well more than a 50% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C. The conclusion that the GDRs approach imposes more stringent targets upon both Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries is thus unsurprising, and is in fact built into the comparison, so it’s not very meaningful as a critique.
What would be interesting would be a comparison of the budget-sharing and GDRs frameworks that applies them to the same global target. Such a comparison is in the works, and it promises to be quite interesting. Indeed, it promises to be another step towards the unearthing and public consideration of the (extremely challenging) issues raised by principle-based burden sharing.