A call for an equitable climate change regime

Published on 2021-03-09


The climate debate, and the climate negotiations, have from an early stage centered on the issue of equity. So, why is that so? 


The answer lays in the nature of the problem of climate change which is inherently unfair.  When it comes to climate change the issue of equity can be viewed from multiple angles. The first being in terms of distribution of CO2 emission allowances. There are no doubts that developed countries are responsible for 75% of total historic emissions. According to studies carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the atmosphere has a limited capacity to absorb CO2 without causing dangerous interference with the climate system. Wealthy countries are responsible for such an amount of emissions that they have largely consumed the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2. Because of historical emissions, the developing world has very little left to use in their quest to bring their population out of poverty.  This presents the challenge of an equitable distribution of mitigation burdens and in turn the challenge of an equitable distribution of emission allowances between countries. Indeed climate change represents a tragedy of commons in the way  that fighting global warming demands that the entire world reduces CO2 emissions to halt the increase of global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.  

Secondly, the definition of what constitutes “dangerous climate change” highlights another aspect of the equity issue. The distribution of the consequences of climate change is highly uneven around the world. Developing countries are suffering the impacts of climate change much more than the industrialized world. With this comes the challenge to protect those who will suffer the most from the adverse effects of global warming. 

Thirdly, climate change is also an injustice towards future generation as adverse effects of current emissions are going to be felt over time.  With this comes the challenge of an equitable distribution of mitigation burdens between those who are alive and those who will be born.  In this regard, equity issues raise the question about what obligations our generation have to those to come and accordingly, to what extent the present generation should take the costs derived from mitigation actions. 

Last but not least, climate change brings specific challenges for the governance because of its global dimension. With this comes the challenge of empowering all actors to effectively participate in the negotiation process for achieving a global climate regime.

From the above it follows that a call for an equitable climate change regime ties together a group of issues: equity is invoked in order to protect the most vulnerable people from adverse effects of global warming, to provide distributive justice among the present generations and between them and the future generations and, for ensuring an inclusive and transparent negotiation process.

Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash

About the author

Rosa Manzo

PhD in international environmental law and climate change at Oslo University.