About the Greenhouse Development Rights project

The Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs) framework is a Equity Reference Framework that is designed to support an emergency global climate mobilization while, at the same time, preserving the rights of all people to reach a dignified level of sustainable human development free of the privations of poverty.  It’s basic approach, which is to calculate a Responsibility and Capacity Index for all countries and to apply that index within an effort-sharing framework, is the basis of the Climate Equity Reference Calculator and the Climate Equity Pledge Scorecard.  

The point here is not to produce a single “correct” set of national obligations or allocations, but rather to provide a robust and powerful analytic environment within which people can express their preferred interpretation of the Convention’s equity principles — see in particular the “equity settings” page — and then examine its implications for any country.  This allows a broad range of approaches to the key equity indicators, some of which are arguably not even consistent with the UNFCCC equity principles, although many are.

GDRs, as an effort-sharing framework (rather than a resource-sharing framework) does not attempt to divide up a physical resource like, say, “atmospheric space.” Rather, it proceeds from the recognition that this space is, for all intents and purposes, exhausted. Thus it seeks a fair way of dividing up the effort – on both the mitigation and adaptation sides – needed to establish human civilization on a new path.

It proceeds by quantifying the equity principles in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. More precisely, it proceeds by extracting three core equity principles from the UNFCCC, and then defining indicators that operationalize those principles in a manner appropriate to a global, climate-oriented, equity reference framework.

For the record, those three core equity principles are:

  • A precautionary approach to adequacy, referring to the collective obligations of countries to undertake and support urgent and adequate global action to prevent dangerous impacts of climate change and provide effective adaptation to unavoidable impacts, without which there can be no justice. (Article 3.3: “The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent and minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.”)
  • Common but differentiated responsibility and capability, in which obligations to take action and provide support, and rights to receive such support, are accepted as functions of both historical and current emissions, and of capability to act. (Article 3.1: “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”)
  • The right to sustainable development, which we understand as the right of all countries to not just lift their people out of poverty, but also to provide their citizens with sustainable and universalizable living standards. By sustainable we mean “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” By universalizable, we mean living standards that could be made available to the citizens of all countries. (Article 3.4: “The Parties have a right to, and should, promote sustainable development.”)

The right to sustainable development requires clarification. In particular, the roles of right-bearers and duty-bearers must be further defined. Also, all countries must take immediate and urgent action to reduce their unsustainable consumption and resource-use patterns, and to follow pathways of inclusive growth and sustainable development. Countries with greater capability must take ambitious actions to address unsustainable consumption and resource use, actions which must inevitably include life-style changes. Countries with limited capability should pursue sustainable development models, which are inclusive, gender sensitive, climate resilient and low carbon, which they can only do if they receive adequate and appropriate support from the high-capacity counties.

A bit more background

GDRs has evolved into an extremely flexible effort-sharing framework. Our goal for it, one that we’re still pursuing, is to be able to model are “reasonable” interpretations of the Convention’s core equity principles.  This is possible because the framework begins with a straightforward accounting of national responsibility and capacity, an accounting that takes explicit care to define both responsibility and capacity with respect to a “development threshold” that excludes the poor, wherever they may live, from any responsibility to bear the burdens of the climate transition.  Another way of saying this is that GDRs provides a coherent, principle-based way to calculate and compare national obligations to pay for both mitigation and adaptation.

The premise behind the GDRs project is that the climate crisis can only be understood against the backdrop of an ongoing and debilitating development crisis, and that it is both unacceptable and unrealistic to expect those who are still struggling against poverty to focus their resources on averting climate change. GDRs goes on from this premise to argue that those who are wealthier and have produced higher levels of emissions must accept the bulk of the costs of a global “emergency program” of mitigation and adaptation. If we’re lucky, and mitigation and adaptation turn out to be cheap and easy, these costs will not be particularly daunting. If we’re not lucky, and in truth it doesn’t seem that we will be, then it’s all the more important to divide the “obligation to pay” fairly. This because, as the slogan goes, “equity is the pathway to ambition.”

Because GDRs is intended to be useful – because it is intended to model a constantly shifting world – it is based on dynamic indicators of responsibility, and capacity, and development, indicators that change as the global economy evolves.  It does not contain any “static” Annexes that list countries.  Rather, it presumes that the climate regime that goes into effect in 2020 must focus pressure on those countries that are not doing their fair share, and it must promise to continue to do so in 2030 and beyond, even as the structure of the global economy changes. If it does not do so, it will not be effective.

None of this is simple. The road ahead is not and cannot be straightforward. But one thing at least is clear.  As long as there is no serious effort-sharing architecture on the table, one that can be used in the critical short term as an equity reference framework, one that is specific enough to provide useful quantitative guidance to both negotiators and campaigners, one that carries the long-term promise of a global accord in which emergency climate mobilization explicitly does not threaten to curtail their development, the countries of the South will fear to seriously engage the climate mobilization.

Think of it this way: even if emissions from industrialized countries were suddenly and magically halted, the dramatic emissions reductions demanded by the climate crisis would still require developing countries to urgently decarbonize their economies, and to do while major fractions of their populations are still mired in poverty. Nor is combating poverty a sufficient goal. As noted above, we take “the right to sustainable development” to mean that developing countries have the right to provide their citizens with sustainable living standards, equivalent to those available to the citizens of any other country. And, to be complete, we also take it to mean that all countries – wealthy countries first of all – have the obligation to provide paths to sustainable prosperity that are open to all their citizens.

This adds to quite a challenge, but we believe that it is the real challenge. In the short term, economic justice is not an absolute precondition of climate mobilization. A solar revolution does not in itself demand developmental justice for all. But step back to see the global position, and allow yourself to look beyond the short term, and the picture changes. The challenge of developmental justice must be faced.  It’s the crux of the political impasse that now stymies the negotiations, and indeed it’s the largest obstacle to the global solidarity we need to face down the fossil-fuel cartel and launch an emergency global decarbonization.

Links for more information

Credits and contract information

The Greenhouse Development Rights framework was developed by Paul Baer and Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity and Sivan Kartha and Eric Kemp-Benedict of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Collectively, they are “the GDRs authors’ group,” and they can be reached at

Most of the programming on the Pledge Scorecard and the Equity Reference Calculator was also done by Eric, with some assistance from Douglas Wang. Tyler Kemp-Benedict did most of the user-interface design and construction.

Continued funding for the Greenhouse Development Rights project has been provided by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Christian Aid. Major funding for Pledge Scorecard was provided by the Minor Foundation for Major Challenges.

We’d also like to thank Kirk Smith, who as far as we can tell invented the Responsibility and Capacity Index, or at least the general approach that it embodies. (We thought that we had done so, but in fact Kirk beat us by over a decade!) See Kirk R. Smith, Joel Swisher, and Dilip R. Ahuja, ”Who pays (to solve the problem and how much)?,” in Peter Hayes and Kirk Smith (eds.), The global greenhouse regime: Who pays?, United Nations University Press/Earthscan, London, 1993.