Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-v9xhf Total loading time: 0.429 Render date: 2022-05-16T09:25:50.647Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

“If Equity's In, We're Out”: Scope for Fairness in the Next Global Climate Agreement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2012


At the United Nations climate change conference in 2011, parties decided to launch the “Durban Platform” to work towards a new long-term climate agreement. The decision was notable for the absence of any reference to “equity,” a prominent principle in all previous major climate agreements. Wealthy countries resisted the inclusion of equity on the grounds that the term had become too closely yoked to developing countries' favored conception of equity. This conception, according to wealthy countries, exempts developing countries from making commitments that are stringent enough for the collective effort needed to avoid dangerous climate change. In circumstances where even mentioning the term equity has become problematic, a critical question is whether the possibility for a fair agreement is being squeezed out of negotiations. To address this question we set out a conceptual framework for normative theorizing about fairness in international negotiations, accompanied by a set of minimal standards of fairness and plausible feasibility constraints for sharing the global climate change mitigation effort. We argue that a fair and feasible agreement may be reached by (1) reforming the current binary approach to differentiating developed and developing country groups, in tandem with (2) introducing a more principled approach to differentiating the mitigation commitments of individual countries. These two priorities may provide the basis for a principled bargain between developed and developing countries that safeguards the opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change without sacrificing widely acceptable conceptions of equity.

Special Section: Safeguarding Fairness in Global Climate Governance
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2012

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 United States Department of State, “United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, Special Briefing: Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change” (Department of State, December 13, 2011); In response to a question about the wording of his quotation, Stern stated, “Whether I said those exact words, I have no idea. I might have, but . . . that's certainly the idea.”

2 UNFCCC, “Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” (2011);

3 Lavanya, Rajamani, “The Changing Fortunes of Differential Treatment in the Evolution of International Environmental Law,” International Affairs 88, no. 3 (2012), p. 618Google Scholar.

4 Ibid., pp. 616–17.

5 This article builds on an earlier working paper: Jonathan Pickering, Steve Vanderheiden, and Seumas Miller, “Ethical Issues in the United Nations Climate Negotiations: A Preliminary Analysis of Parties' Positions,” (Canberra: Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics [CAPPE], 2009).

6 Gupta, S. et al. , “Policies, Instruments and Co-operative Arrangements,” in Metz, B. et al. , eds., Climate Change 2007: Mitigation, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 751Google Scholar.

7 Copenhagen Accord (2009), para. 1.

8 Shue, Henry, “Human Rights, Climate Change, and the Trillionth Ton,” in Arnold, Denis G., ed., The Ethics of Global Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 292314CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Gupta et al., “Policies, Instruments and Co-operative Arrangements,” p. 776.

10 Eckersley, Robyn, “Moving Forward in Climate Negotiations: Multilateralism or Minilateralism?Global Environmental Politics 12, no. 2 (2012), pp. 2442CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Ostrom, Elinor, “Polycentric Systems for Coping with Collective Action and Global Environmental Change,” Global Environmental Change 20, no. 4 (2010), pp. 550–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Meinshausen, M. et al. , “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2°C,” Nature 458 (2009), pp. 1158–62CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

13 Rawls, Compare John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 5Google Scholar.

14 See, e.g., Soltau, Friedrich, Fairness in International Climate Change Law and Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Gilabert, Pablo and Lawford-Smith, Holly, “Political Feasibility: A Conceptual Exploration,” Political Studies 60, no. 4 (2012), p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 A recent example in this journal is Shue, Henry, “Face Reality? After You!—A Call for Leadership on Climate Change,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 1 (2011), pp.1726CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Light, Andrew, “Climate Ethics for Climate Action,” in Schmidtz, David and Willott, Elizabeth, eds., Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters? What Really Works? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 557–66Google Scholar.

18 Gilabert and Lawford-Smith, “Political Feasibility,” pp. 11–12.

19 Ibid., p. 13.

20 Barrett, Scott, Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. xivCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 As exemplified by Posner, Eric A. and Weisbach, David, Climate Change Justice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Lange, Andreas et al. , “On the Self-interested Use of Equity in International Climate Negotiations,” European Economic Review 54, no. 3 (2010), pp. 359–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Compare Christian Reus-Smit and Snidal, Duncan, “Reuniting Ethics and Social Science: The Oxford Handbook of International Relations,” Ethics & International Affairs 22, no. 3 (2008), pp. 261–71Google Scholar.

24 Compare Albin, Cecilia, Justice and Fairness in International Negotiation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

25 See Swift, Adam, “The Value of Philosophy in Nonideal Circumstances,” Social Theory and Practice 34, no. 3 (2008), p. 369CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Rajamani, Lavanya, Differential Treatment in International Environmental Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Rajamani, “The Changing Fortunes of Differential Treatment,” pp. 605–606.

28 Winkler, Harald, Brouns, Bernd, and Kartha, Sivan, “Future Mitigation Commitments: Differentiating Among non-Annex I Countries,” Climate Policy 5, no. 5 (2006), p. 475CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Rajamani, “The Changing Fortunes of Differential Treatment,” p. 616.

30 Ibid., p. 618.

31 BASIC Experts, “Equitable Access to Sustainable Development: Contribution to the Body of Scientific Knowledge” (Beijing, Brasilia, Cape Town, and Mumbai: BASIC Expert group, 2011), pp. 9–11.

32 See Caney, Simon, “Climate Change and the Duties of the Advantaged,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2010), pp. 203–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 See, e.g., Shue, Henry, “Global Environment and International Inequality,” International Affairs 75, no. 3 (1999), pp. 531–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 See, e.g., Singer, Peter, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (Melbourne: Text, 2002)Google Scholar.

35 See, e.g., Vanderheiden, Steve, Atmospheric Justice: A Political Theory of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Bosetti, Valentina and Frankel, Jeffrey, “Politically Feasible Emissions Targets to Attain 460 ppm CO2 Concentrations,” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 6, no. 1 (2012), pp. 8990CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The numbering and titles for the relevant constraints are our own.

37 See Eckersley, “Moving Forward in Climate Negotiations”; and Grubb, Michael, “Cancún: The Art of the Possible,” Climate Policy 11, no. 2 (2011), pp. 847–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 See, e.g., Depledge, Joanna, “The Opposite of Learning: Ossification in the Climate Change Regime,” Global Environmental Politics 6, no. 1 (2006), pp. 122CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 See Pickering, Jonathan and Barry, Christian, “On the Concept of Climate Debt: Its Moral and Political Value,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 15, no. 5 (2012), pp. 667–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 United States Department of State, “United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa.”

41 Depledge, “The Opposite of Learning,” p. 9.

42 Depledge, Joanna, “The Road Less Travelled: Difficulties in Moving Between Annexes in the Climate Change Regime,” Climate Policy 9, no. 3 (2009), pp. 273–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Rajamani, Lavanya, “The Making and Unmaking of the Copenhagen Accord,” International & Comparative Law Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2010), pp. 831–32Google Scholar.

44 Australian government, “Mitigation: Submission to the AWG-LCA and the AWG-KP (24 November 2008)” (Bonn: UNFCCC, 2008).

45 See, e.g., Baer, Paul et al. , “Greenhouse Development Rights: Towards an Equitable Framework for Global Climate Policy,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21, no. 4 (2008), pp. 649–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Depledge, “The Road Less Travelled,” p. 273.

47 These views were evident in a recent UNFCCC workshop; see UNFCCC, “Workshop on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development (AWG-LCA 15)” (2012);

48 Frank Jotzo, “Comparing the Copenhagen Emissions Targets,” Crawford School Centre for Climate Economics & Policy Paper No. 1.10 (2010).

49 See Barrett, Scott, Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Stephenson, Paule and Boston, Jonathan, “Climate Change, Equity and the Relevance of European ‘Effort-sharing’ for Global Mitigation Efforts,” Climate Policy 10, no. 1 (2010), pp. 3–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 See United Nations Peacekeeping: (United Nations, 2011) Assessment of Member States' Contributions to the United Nations Regular Budget for 2012, ST/ADM/SER.B/853 (December 27, 2011); and Olbrisch, Susanne et al. , “Estimates of Incremental Investment for and Cost of Mitigation Measures in Developing Countries,” Climate Policy 11, no. 3 (2011), pp. 970–86, at p. 974CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Heyward, Madeleine, “Equity and International Climate Change Negotiations: A Matter of Perspective,” Climate Policy 7, no. 6 (2007), pp. 518534CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 See, e.g., BASIC Experts, “Equitable Access to Sustainable Development.”

53 Vanderheiden, Atmospheric Justice.

54 Shue, “Global Environment and International Inequality”; contrast Schüssler, Rudolf, “Climate Justice: A Question of Historic Responsibility?” Journal of Global Ethics 7, no. 3 (2011), pp. 261–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Miller, Seumas, “Collective Responsibility, Epistemic Action and Climate Change,” in Vincent, Nicole A., van de Poel, Ibo, and van den Hoven, Jeroen, eds., Moral Responsibility: Beyond Free Will and Determinism (Heidelberg: Springer, 2011), pp. 219245CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 See Vanderheiden, Atmospheric Justice, p. 190.

56 Höhne, Niklas et al. , “Contributions of Individual Countries' Emissions to Climate Change and Their Uncertainty,” Climatic Change 106, no. 3 (2011), pp. 359–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Botzen, W. J. W., Gowdy, J. M., and van den Bergh, J. C. J. M., “Cumulative CO2 Emissions: Shifting International Responsibilities for Climate Debt,” Climate Policy 8, no. 6 (2008), pp. 569–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Compare Vanderheiden, Steve, “Globalizing Responsibility for Climate Change,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 1 (2011), pp. 8182CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 Hayward, Tim, “Human Rights Versus Emissions Rights: Climate Justice and the Equitable Distribution of Ecological Space,” Ethics & International Affairs 21, no. 4 (2007), pp. 431–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Grubb, “Cancún: The Art of the Possible,” p. 847.

60 Compare Lange, A., Vogt, C., and Ziegler, A., “On the Importance of Equity in International Climate Policy: An Empirical Analysis,” Energy Economics 29, no. 3 (2007), p. 547CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Compare Dryzek, John S. and Stevenson, Hayley, “Global Democracy and Earth System Governance,” Ecological Economics 70, no. 11 (2011), pp. 1865–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 UNFCCC, “Outcome of the Work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention,” Decision 2/CP.17, 17th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, Durban, 2011 (2012), paras. 5 and 34.

63 Rogelj, Joeri et al. , “Emission Pathways Consistent with a 2°C Global Temperature Limit,” Nature Climate Change 1, no. 8 (2011), pp. 413–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 Tavoni, Massimo, Chakravarty, Shoibal, and Socolow, Robert, “Safe vs. Fair: A Formidable Trade-off in Tackling Climate Change,” Sustainability 4, no. 2 (2012), pp. 210–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Clarke, Leon et al. , “International Climate Policy Architectures: Overview of the EMF 22 International Scenarios,” Energy Economics 31, supp. 2 (2009), pp. 864–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Russ, Peter and Ierland, Tom van, “Insights on Different Participation Schemes to Meet Climate Goals,” Energy Economics 31, supp. 2 (2009), pp. 5163–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Winkler, Brouns, and Kartha, “Future Mitigation Commitments”; and den Elzen, Michel et al. , “Multi-Stage: A Rule-Based Evolution of Future Commitments under the Climate Change Convention,” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 6, no. 1 (2006), pp. 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Ekholm, Tommi et al. , “Effort Sharing in Ambitious, Global Climate Change Mitigation Scenarios,” Energy Policy 38, no. 4 (2010), pp. 1797–810CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Bosetti and Frankel, “Politically Feasible Emissions Targets,” p. 105.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

“If Equity's In, We're Out”: Scope for Fairness in the Next Global Climate Agreement
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

“If Equity's In, We're Out”: Scope for Fairness in the Next Global Climate Agreement
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

“If Equity's In, We're Out”: Scope for Fairness in the Next Global Climate Agreement
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *