Qatar: Bumping Up Against Climate Change Limitations On Human Activities Makes the Ethical and Justice Issues Unavoidable

The recently concluded Qatar climate negotiations clearly demonstrated that issues of ethics and justice may no longer be ignored in the search for a global climate change solution.   Each year in international negotiations, pleas of vulnerable developing nations have become louder calling for developed nations to respond to climate change in ways that are consistent with their ethical obligations. Yet, up until recently,  nations could ignore their ethical responsibilities provided they made any commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  However the longer nations wait to respond adequately to climate change, the more difficult it becomes to ignore what ethics and justice requires of them because climate science is telling the international community that it must now implement a global solution that is sufficiently ambitious to avoid catastrophic climate change and the new constraints on response options entailed by limits on total global emissions make it impossible to avoid issues of basic fairness, justice, and equity.

An adequate global solution will need to limit total global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will prevent dangerous atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from accumulating and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore each nation must agree to limit is emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.

Up until now, nations could pretend that baby steps toward a global solution were acceptable progress.  The urgency of finding a global climate change solution now makes it clear that such pretense is foolish self-deception.

Even if there is no agreed to climate change solution in the form of a new treaty, from now on each nation’s response to climate change will be examined by the world as a fairness issue because a problem like climate change requires nations to limit their emissions to a just share of total safe global emissions.

For instance, in Copenhagen in 2009, the US committed to reduce its emissions by 17 % below 2005 emissions levels. This promise could plausibly be evaluated as a positive, if weak, promise to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet, just a few years later, the US commitment is much more clearly seen as an abdication of its global responsibilities to prevent catastrophic warming. 

It is now clear that even if the previous voluntary commitments made by nations are fully complied with, the world will likely experience catastrophic warming above 3 o C.   Given that the US commitment is among the weakest among all developed countries, the US commitment is widely seen by the international community as an unacceptable abdication of its ethical obligations. This is so because no ethical theory would justify the relatively small US commitment as constituting the US fair-share of total safe global emissions.  And so, the US commitment on emissions reductions was seen by many in Qatar as a rejection of its global obligations.

Given that there is now a strong scientific consensus that the entire global community must limit its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25 to 40 % by 2020 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change, any national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must now be reviewed through the lens of distributive fairness and environmental ambition. This was not the case just a few years ago.

Although the negotiating agenda was modest in Qatar because the Durban COP last year created a four-year negotiating process to create a new global climate change treaty, even the modest Qatar agenda frequently ran into contentious disputes about basic fairness and equity.

The Qatar negotiations were focused mostly on agenda setting for the next three years of negotiations that will seek to come up with a new comprehensive treaty on climate change.  Yet even on the mostly procedural issues under discussion in Qatar, ethical issues, that is matters of basic fairness, were at the center of disputes about the most contentious issues.

There were several main hopes for Qatar. Nations hoped to make progress on: (a) the structure of a new comprehensive treaty on climate change that would be concluded in 2015 and come into force in 2020, (b) financing clean technology in developing countries, (c) finalizing a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, and (d) damage and loss issues.

A.   Progress On a New Comprehensive Treaty

Most nations had hoped that Qatar would make progress on the new comprehensive climate change international agreement that is scheduled to be completed in 2015 although very few believed that any of the most consequential issues entailed by the new treaty would be resolved in Qatar.

The most contentious issues that arose about the new treaty in Doha were about framing issues including whether developed and developing countries would be treated differently under the principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities.” This is, of course, a fairness issue at its core.

Progress on other new treaty issues about which there was a reasonable expectation of agreement in Qatar was blocked due to the need to first resolve some of the other issues about financing low carbon technologies in developing nations and the extension of the  Kyoto Protocol that were in contention in Qatar and lingered to the close of the conference. For a while, negotiations on the new treaty issues were suspended in Qatar.

Nevertheless, there was hope coming into Qatar that at least some nations would increase the ambitiousness of their voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions originally made in Copenhagen in 2009 and confirmed in Durban last year.  This hope was motivated by the fact that it has become increasingly clear that the voluntary commitments affirmed in Durban are not enough to limit warming to 20C, a temperature increase that threatens to trigger rapid, non-linear temperature change and associated harms.  It is now abundantly clear that the voluntary commitments made by some governments are obviously inadequate as a matter of justice not only because they collectively provide no hope of avoiding dangerous climate change but because some of the commitments cannot be justified on any reasonable theory of distributive fairness. And so, most of the existing emissions reduction commitments by developed countries were seen as both inadequate and unfair in Qatar.

The voluntary pledges made by the largest developed countries are as follows where highs and lows indicate that some countries have made multiple commitments.


Nation Low High Baseline














New Zealand








United States














(WRI 2012)

Evaluating the fairness of these commitments is beyond the scope of this article, a matter that will be the subject of an upcoming entry on  It can be said that strict comparisons of the percentage reductions promised in the above chart is an insufficient basis for fully evaluating the fairness of these commitments because there are differences between nations in baseline years which greatly affect the quantification of the commitments as well as differences among nations in per capita and historical emissions, and economic capability to make reductions, matters which arguably should be considered in evaluating fairness. (For a comparison of emissions reduction commitments looking at historical and per capita issues see the World Resources Institute Report:  Comparability of Annex I Emission Reduction Pledges)

Although a more sophisticated analysis of the above commitments is necessary to evaluate them as a matter of justice, given that the most recent science is saying that the entire world needs to reduce emissions by 25% to 40% to have hope of preventing dangerous warming, with the exception of Japan and Norway, an initial strong case can be made that most developed nations have utterly failed to make pledges consistent with their ethical obligations to not harm others because their reductions commitments are lower than what the entire world needs to prevent dangerous climate change and developed nations will be compelled by any reasonable theory of justice to make reductions greater than those required of the entire global community including poor countries that have not contributed much to the existing problem. And so it is easy to identify the injustice of the existing commitments even though it may be more difficult to say what perfect justice requires.

No nations offered to increase their ambition on emissions reductions in Doha.  A submission from Bolivia, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other countries during the first week of the Doha meeting called for developed parties to “reduce their aggregate emissions by 40 to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” Of course, there is little to no chance that developed countries will soon agree to this demand.  Yet it is quite clear that controversies about fairness of emissions reduction commitments will plague upcoming negotiations in the years ahead.

Although no major developed country increased its emissions reduction commitments in Qatar, a few countries made new commitments or modified prior pledges. They included Monaco, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Ukraine, and the Dominican Republic.  (See: Climate Action Tracker)

Developing countries in Qatar frequently expressed great disappointment about the failure of developed countries to demonstrate more ambition in regard to their emissions reduction commitments.  For this reason, it is very unlikely that a global deal will emerge in 2015 unless developed countries increase their emissions reductions commitments to levels arguably minimally consistent with what fairness requires of them.  Thus it will not be possible to duck questions of fairness about emission reduction commitments in the years ahead.

B. Finance of Developing Country Clean Technology.

Developed nations had agreed in Durban climate negotiations in 2011 to provide for $30 billion dollars in start-up money by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020 to finance low emitting technologies in developing countries.  Developing countries had hoped that Qatar would identify concrete funding mechanisms to fulfill these general funding goals as well as identify a second start-up period after 2012 for which specific new funding pledges would be made. For the most part this did not happen.

The most contentious issues on these matters in the Qatar negotiations were about whether developed nations would identify specific financing mechanisms that would generate funding revenues that matched the agreed upon goals.   Developed nations have implicitly agreed that making financing available is their responsibility as this funding is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change and the promised funding will enable developing nations to pursue economic development that would not make the threat of climate change worse.

Given that the world now must work together to keep total global greenhouse gas emissions below levels that will keep atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases below levels that will trigger catastrophic climate change and that developing nations have legitimate needs to pursue economic development that will enable their poorest people to escape desperate poverty, the financing issues in contention in Qatar are also matters of justice. This is so because what is at stake is whether those nations most responsible for the threat of climate change will accept responsibility for preventing dangerous climate change by helping the poorest nations get access to low carbon technologies while allowing these poorer nations to pursue economic development that the developed nations relied upon to generate their existing wealth.

For the most part, the expectations of developing countries on finances were not met in Qatar. Although a few new pledges were made by members of the EU, other countries did not come forward with concrete numbers.

C.   A Second Commitment Period Under The Kyoto Protocol

 The first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol that was originally negotiated in 1997 came to end by its own terms at the end of 2012. Many developing countries and some developed countries believed that  developed countries should commit to a second  commit period under the Kyoto framework and as a result the Qatar negotiations were expected to finalize the second commitment rules under the Kyoto approach.

The Qatar negotiations successfully met some but not all major expectations on defining a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol for those developed countries that choose to sign-on. (The United States, New Zealand, Canada, Russia, and Japan will not participate in the  new Kyoto obligations nor will any developing countries that never had emissions reductions obligations previously.) The new commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol includes enforceable emission reductions from 2013 to 2020 by Australia, Belarus, the EU and its member states, Kazakhstan, Monaco, Norway, Switzerland and Ukraine.

Those developed nations that have refused to be bound under the second Kyoto Protocol framework have frequently justified non-participation on the basis that they need not commit to reduce their emissions as long as other nations such as China and India have no binding commitments.  Given that the new treaty to be negotiated by 2015 will include all nations, some developed nations not participating in the renewed Kyoto Protocol including the United States have justified their non-participation  on their right to wait to make binding pledges until all nations have emissions reductions responsibilities. Yet this position is based upon a very dubious assumption, namely that nations have no duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of global emissions until other nations do the same.

As has explained in some detail before, all nations have a duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, without regard to what other nations do. (See Brown, Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions) And so, the unwillingness of some developed countries to participate in a second Kyoto round was criticized by some in Qatar on ethical grounds as a failure of these nations to agree to commit to reduce their emissions to levels required of them by reasonable theories of distributive justice. These nations argue that since nations are only being asked to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, they may not refuse to commit to reduce their emissions on the basis that other nations have refused to do so.

Despite the fact that some nations have agreed to be bound under the Kyoto Protocol in a second commitment period to certain emissions reductions targets, several ethical problems with these commitments can be made about these commitments can be made. They include:

  •  The number of countries with emission reduction commitments in the second Kyoto commitment is too small to achieve the reductions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.
  • As is the case of the individual voluntary commitments originally made in Copenhagen discussed above, the reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol are less ambitious than needed to prevent dangerous climate change.

The most contested issue in Qatar on Kyoto issues was whether Russian and Poland could carry over surplus credits that they did not need from the first Kyoto commitment into the second commitment period and thus be able to sell credits to those countries that had agreed to reduce their emissions, a result that would further reduce the potential environmental benefit of the emissions reduction commitments under the Kyoto deal. Vulnerable developing countries viewed this possibility as unjustly reducing the obligations of developed countries.  In response to this issue, a number of countries – Australia, the EU, Japan, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway and Switzerland– have signed a declaration in Qatar that they will not purchase these units.

D.  Damages and Loss from Climate Change

 The Qatar negotiations struggled with how to address loss and damages associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. This issue was identified in the Bali COP in 2007 but not resolved in subsequent COPs. At the Cancun climate change conference in 2010, nations established a work program on loss and damage and requested that the convention’s Subsidiary Body on Implementation make recommendations in Qatar on how to address loss and damage.

The issue of who should pay for climate change damages in developing countries is a hugely contentious matter because of the enormous amount of money that will be required to compensate those who are harmed by climate change, the difficulty in attributing damages in some cases to human-induced climate change, the need to allocate damage compensation responsibility among those nations who are mostly responsible for climate change, and the strong opposition to any provision that could be construed as acknowledging damage compensation liability by most developed nations.

If nations become liable for climate change damages, the costs to them could be devastating. For instance, the U.S. Congress is now considering a $60.4 billion request to cover damages from just one superstorm, Sandy, that caused damages in just a few US States, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  There are dozens of storms every year that could create huge financial losses comparable to Sandy. And so damage and loss responsibility is the unacknowledged angry guerrilla in the next room among climate negotiators.

Yet, the responsibility for compensation is at its core a moral and ethical issue particularly if nations that cause climate change have been apprised of the potential harms to others and have done nothing to reduce the threat of climate change because of costs to them alone.  And so, who is responsible for climate change damages is both a very difficult, explosive, and thorny issue, but an issue not likely to go away in future negotiations. Since all nations have agreed that the polluter should pay for environmental damages under the Rio Declaration in 1992 and that nations have a responsibility to prevent harms to others outside their jurisdiction under the “no harm principle” agreed to in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it will be difficult for high-emitting nations to completely ignore loss and damage issues despite how strongly they wish for it to go away.

In Qatar, the parties agreed to discuss the establishment of an international mechanism to address loss and damage that will be taken up for approval at the 2013 Warsaw climate meeting. And so, issues of loss and damages are likely to plague negotiations in the years ahead


 As we have explained many times,  climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue.  Furthermore this fact has profound significance for policy formation, a matter that has largely been ignored in press coverage of climate change issues at least in the United States.  In fact, most of the public debate about climate change policies has completely ignored the obvious ethical issues raised by climate change.  For instance, the US press rarely discusses the ethical issues raised by US responses to climate change and how policy formation must be responsive to these ethical questions.  Yet the recently concluded Qatar negotiations has made it very clear that the ethical issues raised by climate change will become more prominent in any discussions about any global solution to climate change the longer nations wait to adequately respond to climate changeIn addition, US press accounts of the Qatar negotiations have completely ignored the justice and ethical issues that were so central to what happened in Doha.

 It is also highly unlikely that nations like the United States will respond adequately to climate change unless citizens see a need to respond to their ethical obligations to do so.   For instance, US citizens are not likely to support policies that will achieve the ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to meet US ethical obligations unless they understand issues of fairness that require the United States to greatly increase its ambition on emissions reduction goals   For this reason, it is in US citizens interest to turn up the volume on the ethical issues entailed by climate change as well as a matter of basic  morality.

For these reasons, organized an event in Qatar that reviewed questions that governments should be asked about ethics and equity to move the equity and agenda forward and to help all people understand the ethical issues raised by their governments positions on these issues. (See, Qatar: Questions That Governments Should Be Asked About Their Positions on Equity and Justice.)

Because of the importance of recognizing the ethical issues in  moving the world to a climate change solution. those seeking to reduce the threat of climate change should work to find ways to give ethical considerations more traction in policy formation.  A new book by this author, Climate Ethics, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, explores how to achieve more traction for ethical principles in developing policy responses to climate change.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University of Law





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