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Global Equity - Who Owes What?

What contributions are required of different countries in order to mitigate climate change? How are nationally determined contributions (NDCs) actually determined? These questions were addressed in one of Tuesday’s last COP23 side events: ‘The Paris Agreement & Global Equity: how to implement the concept of Equity at the global level’. The consensus of the speakers was twofold; firstly, that current NDCs are insufficient for maintaining a total warming of 2°C or less, and secondly that a form of carbon pricing is what is necessary in order to ensure a temperature of lower than 2°C.

The realities of how the NDCs ought to be distributed, and how a carbon tax might be allocated, on the other hand, is a much more complicated issue. Speakers at the session ranged from charities; from Christian Aid and Act Alliance, to Swiss government officials, to researchers. All agree on one thing, broadly: that top-down approaches, where carbon budgets are dictated from a (for example UN derived) formula are not the desired solution. Ultimately, countries engage with the Paris Agreement by consent, the recent withdrawal of the US is evidence enough of that. Instead, bottom-up approaches, where countries determine their own contributions based on metrics are much preferred. The factor holding countries to account becomes negotiation and politics. This is where equity comes into play. The NDCs given by the Paris Agreement are not equitable, as explained by speakers at the session. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are disadvantaged, as the guidelines don’t take into account the development of a country when setting out NDCs. The Paris Agreement is top-down in this sense, however overall countries can decide their own contributions. An equity report supported by over 120 NGOs and other organisations, however, has highlighted the need for countries with a higher GDP to contribute more fairly based on their wealth. An interesting graph, shown on page 2 of this report , show that India and China’s NDCs achieve more than their “fair share” of reduction, whereas the US and the EU’s NDCs fall painfully short. The speaker from PIK (a German research institute) was quick to point out that other countries in that area were also falling short of their targets. As had been stated in the good climate practice session on Monday, the decline of coal power is a myth, and a dangerous one. The reasons given for why Europe fell short were interesting; one speaker commented that a lot of focus had shifted to “sustainable mobility” (i.e. electric cars/bicycles/public transport infrastructure) however, this is only valid when the national grid supporting such transport systems are themselves fossil-free. The report itself addresses the USA as a case study whose internal perception of the “unfairness” and external imposition of NDCs has created a political will that acts against the interests of the Paris Agreement, namely by withdrawing from it. So what are the problems with determining NDCs? One speaker talked of the two “gaps” in information regarding climate change. One issue is the “ambition gap”; it’s insufficient to just set out policy guidelines, as there’s no will to implement them. Self-determination is important and from a negotiations and strategy standpoint, this alone is sufficient to ensure that each nation’s contribution is equitable. If a country perceives themselves as paying their “fair share” they are much more likely to meet their targets. Recall that broad participation in climate change mitigation strategies was the first real challenge of climate summits and agreements.

But perhaps more worrisome is the “assessment gap”. Contributions are assessed on an “aggregate” level, meaning that NDCs are determined nation-to-nation. However progress in terms of climate change is measured across the globe as a whole, and the two things don’t add up when comparing actual data. This issue was compounded by a speaker from the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CISR) who explained the principle that countries seeing where their original metrics put them ought to be able to re-adjust their NDCs in order to ensure they’re on track. Ultimately what is being done is not enough. In order to see a world that remains within 1.5°C, we need to see a global reduction of 4% in fossil fuel use. For 2°C that becomes 10%. Carbon pricing is a good solution if implemented sensibly; cutting fossil fuel subsidies, and putting a price on carbon drives innovation, stops free-loading, and can feasibly be implemented fairly. Equity is key in ensuring this happens, both to give countries targets that they possess a will to meet, and also to ensure that the most disadvantaged among us are not paying the price for the lives and lifestyles of the wealthiest. Looking at you, USA.