Nature and Biodiversity

Should rich nations pay for past pollution?

Chukwumerije Okereke
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Two weeks of international climate negotiations in Lima, Peru, are over, with an agreement pulled out of the bag at the eleventh hour.

While Lima has been seen by many as a mere curtain-raiser to talks in Paris in a year’s time, when a new deal needs to reached to replace the Kyoto protocol, it will have an impact beyond this. Lima has reinforced the familiar battle ground between the developed and developing world, and it has seen the re-emergence of a key concept: climate justice.

The idea of equity is at the heart of this – the question of how to ensure any UN-backed emissions deal is fair and that those countries that caused the problem do the most to clean it up. This had largely been ignored at previous summits but at Lima it was once again a big talking point.

No to equity

“If equity is in, we are out.” Those were the reported words of Todd Stern, the US chief negotiator, on the eve of the last day of Durban talks back in 2011, when the foundations for a new global agreement were laid.

Stern was reacting to the clamour from developing countries that rich, developed nations should take the lead in making emission cuts under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and capability”, given their historical responsibility for climate change and their enhanced technological capabilities.

While some observers were alarmed by Stern’s position, his words were a fair, if vulgar, rendition of the mind-set that is quite pervasive among many developed countries. Rich nations tend to prefer to wave aside or at least make light their moral responsibility to tackle climate change, while appealing for concerted action by “all parties”.

Pragmatism, realism, and “we are in this together” are some of the phrases used by developed countries as they try to duck their responsibility and cajole developing nations to instead step up their own climate actions. It was to this effect that many Western countries lined up behind the US in Durban. Eventually all references to equity, justice and common but differentiated responsibility were expunged from the text.

Justice returns

It was a short-lived victory. Events in Lima over the past two weeks have overwhelmingly demonstrated the utter futility of developed countries’ schemes to diminish issues of equity and justice, let alone sidestep them altogether. In virtually all the key issues and categories under discussion – countries’ mitigation contributions, states’ adaptation commitments, the remit of the loss and damage, and climate finance, among others – equity and differentiation have stood out as sticking points.

For example, the G77 group of developing countries said that the principle of equity must guide all negotiations and long-term actions. Showing their heightened distrust in the progress, developing countries even requested that texts should be displayed on the big screen in real time while negotiating to enhance transparency.

The harshest word for developed countries, however, came from Bolivian president Evo Morales, who referred to industrialised nations that have appropriated more than their own fair share of global atmospheric space as “thieves” that must be made to pay back what they have stolen.

Of course, none of this implies that developing countries should be given an easy ride in negotiating the 2015 climate agreement, or that there are easy approaches to finding a “just” climate agreement. Climate justice is a deeply contested concept, open to multiple interpretations, recommending diverse and sometimes conflicting policy. For example, there are plausible justice-based arguments for allocating carbon emissions quota on individual (per capita) and on national (per country) basis.

However it appears that the Stern approach to international climate politics, seemingly without morality, is beginning to lose ground. If Lima has taught us anything, it is that humanity badly needs a dose of international respect if we are to avoid climate chaos. The brazen scheme to expunge equity from previous climate agreements by the US and its backers only served to further erode the mutual trust sorely needed to make compromises.

Morality might be a dirty word in some states’ foreign policy handbooks. But call it what you like, the world needs to find its guiding principles quickly, and developing countries want rich nations to pay for what they’ve broken.

This article is published in collaboration with The Conversation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Dr Chukwumerije Okereke is a global climate policy specialist and jointly leads the Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships Programme on Climate Justice: Ethics, Politics, Law at the University of Reading.

Image: The sun is seen behind smoke billowing from a chimney of a heating plant in Taiyuan, Shanxi province December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityFinancial and Monetary SystemsClimate Action
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