10/21/2013 - 15:09

Put development first

In Round One, my colleagues wrote essays underpinned by the same concern—that not enough is being done to avoid dangerous climate change. But they displayed different attitudes toward national responsibilities for climate mitigation. Pablo Solón favors hard emissions targets and timelines. He bases his approach rather strictly on the principles underlying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), particularly the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Rolph Payet, meanwhile, gives highly qualified support to the Copenhagen Accord, which allows nations as they formulate mitigation pledges to take into account what they see as feasible. The two authors' views hint at the fundamental differences of perspective that play out in climate negotiations.

My view is that two issues must stay center stage as the world constructs mechanisms for climate mitigation: effectiveness and equity. Effectiveness means doing enough to address the climate problem. Equity means ensuring that the burdens allocated to individual nations are fair. An equitable outcome that does not adequately address the climate problem is meaningless, whereas any inequitable arrangement is likely to be ineffective.

The Copenhagen "pledge-and-review system" (strongly criticized by Solón in Round One) may be unable to deliver either equity or effectiveness. It certainly hasn't so far. Regarding effectiveness, the emissions pledges that nations have made to date represent some positive action but leave a substantial "emissions gap" in the aggregate. Regarding equity, it is difficult to argue that the Copenhagen process has produced a fair outcome when developing countries' pledges to reduce emissions, on an absolute basis, exceed those of developed countries.

This is not to say that greater effectiveness or equity would result from carbon allocations based on UNFCCC principles. But at least climate efforts would head in the right direction if they started from global emissions targets and then, based on established principles, allocated each nation an allowable level of carbon emissions. Such an approach would reduce the horse-trading that characterizes climate negotiations—bargaining of the sort that often puts developing countries at a disadvantage. Moreover, large national differences in carbon allocations would result from such a process, and this would promote carbon trading, a useful form of international cooperation. But the real question, of course, is whether the UNFCCC signatories—or even the major countries—could agree on the details of such a system and maintain political commitment afterward.

Using the headroom. In years to come, climate mitigation will absorb an increasing share of global resources and policy attention—but this must not distract the world from meeting development challenges such as the provision of modern cooking fuel to the 2.6 billion people who lack it, or electricity to the 1.3 billion who lack it. Sometimes, pathways to addressing these development challenges will be seen as unfriendly to the climate, for instance when it comes to providing fossil-fuel–based electricity to the poor.

Tensions such as these (whether real or perceived) can generally be resolved—but only if basic human needs in developing countries command sufficient attention in the first place. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary to approach climate mitigation from a "development first" perspective. (This would differ from the "co-benefits" approach, which assigns highest priority to climate mitigation itself even as mitigation options are assessed, in part, on the basis of the ancillary development benefits they provide.) In any event, putting development needs first should not be seen as undermining mitigation efforts. Rather, it is a way of ensuring fair treatment for the large swathe of humanity whose low historical emissions have provided everyone else a bit of headroom for orderly climate mitigation.