Climate Change and Burden Sharing

Perhaps the most controversially debated issue in climate negotiation is the question of burden sharing. According to the 1992 UNFCCC, the challenge of tackling anthropogenic climate change requires “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. This by itself is politically and ethically hardly a controversy. But, as always, the devil lies in details. What does this important principle exactly mean? How are we to define “responsibility” and “capability”? And what does follow? Many approaches have been proposed. A fairly appealing one is called the Greenhouse Development Rights and was proposed by Paul Baer, Tom Athanasiou and Sivan Kartha.

What seems clear – or, at least, is rather widely recognized – is that, while tackling climate change, we shall do our best to not impede poor societies’ development. This is indeed the idea behind the UNFCCC’s “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” principle. It has two components: the question of responsibility for global climate change, and that of the capacity to deal with that challenge. There is no agreement so far as to how concretely incorporate the recognition of these two into a globally binding framework/agreement, i.e., a post-Kyoto treaty. There have been multiple proposals (e.g., that made by Brazil – to make historical emissions of greenhouse gases the foundation of burden sharing), most exposing flaws in the areas of ethics and/or practicability.

An ethically and “technically” appealing proposal was made in 2007 by Baer et al. in their paper “The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World”. So far it has not really found its way into the mainstream debate, but nevertheless their concept of Greenhouse Development Rights is worth consideration.

Baer et al. start their paper by acknowledging the widely spread belief that action to tackle climate change has to be taken soon, wholeheartedly and globally. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that there are many people, especially in developing countries (but in the industrialized world as well), who are not able to bear further burdens atop of what they already have to struggle with in their everyday life. Furthermore, the authors oppose the simplistic generalization that only Annex-I-countries (i.e., the US, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and most of Europe) should bear the burden of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. While there are individuals in rich countries who live in poverty, there are rich people in poor societies, too – e.g., the richest man in the world is a Mexican. This leads Baer et al. to a individual-level consideration and the definition of a “development threshold” (based for practical, but acceptable reasons on income). People living below this level would – accoarding to their approach – be excluded from the international burden sharing.

With respect to the responsibility issue, the Greenhouse Development Rights concept is based on the cumulative emissions since 1990 (this too is an ad hoc, but defensible choice). Once again, there is a threshold (approximated on the basis of income) defining the “border” between what may be called “subsistence” emissions and “luxury” emissions. Only the latter count when the burden sharing part of an individual is sought.

Given the thresholds above, the so-called “Responsibility and Capacity Indicator” (RCI) can be calculated for each country – taken the fraction of the population above each threshold, the amounts of “luxury” emissions and wealth are calculated and combined by multiplying weighted factors that symbolize them (see the paper for details). The RCI thus provides a measure of burden sharing – it assigns shares of the global mitigation and adaptation burdens to individual countries. Depending on the chosen global goal, each country’s share can be easily calculated.

The interesting insight from Baer et al.’s calculations is that the bulk of the burden is to be borne by developed countries – especially the US. The consequence is critical – if the proposal would be adopted, the developed countries would likely be unable to meet their targets inland. Along with lowering their own emissions, they would be forced to (heavily) invest in mitigation and adaptation efforts in poorer countries – regardless of the specific institutional framework.

The above mentioned outcome of the Greenhouse Development Rights approach makes it politically rather “unrealistic” – hardly any politician in the developed world would be eager to embrace it. Nevertheless, its logic and ethical implications remain valid and, I would argue, highly persuasive. As Baer et al. themselves emphasize, the exact values they chose for demonstrative calculations (e.g., the specific “development threshold” or the weights assigned to the “responsibility” and “capacity” indicators while combining them into the RCI) are rather unavoidably arbitrary and it could be argued that somewhat differing numbers are “the right ones”. However, the basic argument holds, and so do its consequences – since most citizens of rich countries (and rich people in poor countries) are responsible for the bulk of the greenhouse gas emissions that are heating our atmosphere, and at the same time have the means to do something against that, they are the ones who should bear the burden.

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