Unpacking Equity: Mapping the Role of Equity and Justice in International Climate Change Policy

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Gender, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (GDPP) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the GDPP.

by Reena Manjania 

hand-644145_1920 resizedOn October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report cautioning policymakers of the impacts associated with global temperatures rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. In identifying these impacts, the report highlighted how countries greatly differ in their vulnerability to climate-risks and in their ability to respond to these risks. Specifically, the IPCC identified that some countries will continue to disproportionately experience the effects of climate change through the loss of income, adverse health effects, displacement or hunger. These inequalities speak to considerations of equity and justice – two central issues affecting the advancement of international agreement on climate change policies.

Defining Equity and Justice in Climate Change Policy

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines equity as taking into account the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of different national circumstances when sharing the burden of addressing climate change. Similarly, climate justice is concerned with addressing issues of distribution with respect to impacts, responsibility and actions around climate change. Various principles of equity and justice have been used to evaluate issues of fairness in climate change policymaking. These principles often take two different forms: consequential principles and procedural principles.

Consequential principles are used to evaluate policies in terms of their outcome, such as the extent to which they promote equality or social welfare. Issues related to this evaluation mechanism include whether the welfare of the poorest nations should be maximized in dividing costs or benefits, or whether those with the most resources should cover the cost of mitigating climate change. Additionally, procedural principles are used to evaluate policies in terms of the legitimacy in the way they are created. This includes identifying how decision-making procedures respect the equal status of all parties, or if agreements reflect the capacities and historical responsibilities of those they bind.

Brazil’s proposal during the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations represents the application of both the procedural and consequential principles. The proposal called for distributing the burden of emission reductions according to each country’s historical responsibility for the global temperature increase. The implication of this proposal was that industrialized countries would have the largest emission reduction targets. As a result, the proposal included the creation of a Clean Development Fund — a punitive financial instrument that would have required industrialized countries to pay fines for exceeding their emissions targets. The funds would have financed the transfer of clean technologies, abatement projects and adaptation projects in developing countries. Additionally, by engaging developing countries in the debate over emission commitments of industrial countries, the proposal had the potential to balance negotiation and decision-making powers.

Equity and Justice in International Climate Change Agreements

In 1992, the UNFCCC officially differentiated the responsibilities of developed and developing countries in combating climate change. According to the UNFCCC, developed countries were required to help developing countries and “economies in transition” with emission reduction and adaptability efforts by providing them with financial resources and technological aid. Conversely, certain developing countries (such as those with prone to desertification and drought, or those that rely heavily on income from fossil fuel production) were recognized as being especially vulnerable to climate change risks, and as a result, were to have their concerns addressed through investment, insurance and technology transfers.

Differentiation based on national capability continued under the Kyoto Protocol. Participating countries were subjected to different mitigation commitments. Additionally, differentiation was also present in terms of finance and technology transfer, where developed countries were expected to provide funding for emission reduction and adaptability efforts in developing countries.

Despite having been ratified by over 140 countries, the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol was limited as developing countries were exempt from binding emission reduction targets. The targets included robust rules on how to account for emissions and report progress, as well as an international mechanism for compliance. As such, the Kyoto Protocol represented a top-down model for climate negotiation, embodying fairness through the differentiation of duties, with only developed countries being held to account.

Contrastingly, equity and justice in the Paris Agreement were reflected through a bottom-up approach. Specifically, the Paris Agreement sought to respond to equity considerations in its accommodation of “nationally determined contributions”. This means that each country had the freedom to autonomously align their efforts in voluntarily reducing national emissions and combating climate change with their national circumstances. As a result, nations themselves defined and justified the fairness and equity of their contributions, representing a stark contrast to the top-down approach in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Future of Justice and Equity in Climate Change Policy

The recent IPCC report calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, it is critical to understand what this means in practice. Measures that limit global warming should reduce unfairness in terms of those that benefit, those that pay and those that are negatively affected. In light of these considerations, rapid changes should be coupled with longer-term, sustainable development in order to mitigate national inequalities exacerbated by climate change. Broad equity commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement are important in this regard, but future measures should be more definitive in terms of scope, timelines and implementation in order to address climate equity and justice in a way that is actually rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented.

Reena Manjania is a 2019 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from York University. Her policy interests include gender equality, gender-based violence prevention and labour issues within public policy.