The Progression of Multilateral Talks on Climate Change and the Challenge of “Equity”: Notes from the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, June 2014

Editor’s Note: As the international community seeks to negotiate a new climate treaty to be completed in Paris in 2015, negotiations have been taking place during the last two weeks in Bonn, Germany as one of the sessions on the road to Paris. Today’s guest blogger, Dr. Idil Boran, from York University in Canada has submitted the following report on progress in Bonn during the first week. A central issue of concern in these negotiations is the need of nations to take equity and justice seriously when they make ghg emissions reductions commitments and when considering their responsibility for adaptation, losses and damages in poor vulnerable countries. Among close observers of the negotiations and the science informing these talks, there is widespread agreement that there is little hope of keeping warming to tolerable levels unless high-emitting nations base their emissions reductions promises on what equity would require of them.

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 The Progression of Multilateral Talks on Climate Change and the Challenge of “Equity”: Notes from the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, June 2014

The June sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Bonn, Germany, June 4-15, 2014. This is one of the “intersessional” meetings that take place at various times during the year between the meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COPs) annually held at the end of each year.

This year’s intersessional meetings are of special importance, the June session currently under way being a critical one. This is because multilateral negotiations on climate change are on a track to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement by the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21), to be held in Paris at the end of 2015. But more importantly, everything to be agreed upon at COP 21 must be drafted at COP 20 the year before, that is in December 2014. It is the present intersessional meeting – taking place in June in Bonn – where the hard work needs to be done, so that all the substantive recommendations can be presented, negotiated, and drafted in Lima. In this spirit, the UN Climate Change Conference convened on June 4 with determination to achieve as much as possible before Lima.

At this point in time, the negotiations are at an important juncture. The goal for the international community is to draw lessons from the Kyoto Protocol era, and to articulate the terms of an entirely new system of cooperation for the Post-Kyoto era. In other words, the goal is to avoid the weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol.

Given that the Kyoto Protocol was motivated by a well-defined conception of equitable distribution of responsibility, many questions arise at this juncture over how equity will be defined within the new agreement. Equity has always been central to multilateral negotiations on climate change. This makes sense for many reasons. First, climate change is expected to affect lives in important ways. Second, the way in which people’s lives will be affected is expected to be more severe in some places than others. Third, climate change is a phenomenon that is associated with human activity, which has been going on for some time and which is intertwined with economic development and growth. For these reasons alone, it becomes obvious to anyone with a sense of fairness that – to the extent that the international community is to cooperate on addressing the effects of climate change – the terms of cooperation ought to be fair.

new book description for website-1_01The terms of cooperation set by the Kyoto Protocol were devised in light of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Given that industrialized nations are responsible for the problem of climate change, the idea was to adopt an allocation of responsibilities that requires developed nations to take up the bulk of the burden. This gave rise to roughly two categories of nations: those who are to assume the costs of curbing climate change by contrast to those who are not expected to do much. But this structure also became highly divisive and unable to generate agreement and compliance, which is desperately needed for action on climate change to be effective.

As part of the new rounds of negotiations, the UNFCCC adopted the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action at COP 17 in Durban in 2011, where negotiations were put on an ambitious track to work out the details of an entirely new international agreement by 2015. When it was first put in place, the Durban Platform did not include too many substantive decisions, for the objective was to allow the terms of international cooperation to be discussed and decided upon through negotiations from 2012 to 2015. The single prior decision that was made, however, was the rejection of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the adoption of a principle of “universality” instead, as the central guiding principle of a post-Kyoto agreement. On this principle, all nations are to contribute to the cooperative scheme on climate change in some capacity. This shift gave the international community the opportunity to have a fresh start and to rethink the terms of cooperation on a (relatively) clean slate.

Additionally, the new international agreement under negotiation is one that is expected to have a richer composition than the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was focused exclusively on mitigation through reduction of emissions. The new agreement is expected to have both a mitigation component and an adaptation component. Within the adaptation component, an International Mechanism on Loss and Damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change is being negotiated as well. This is an entirely novel issue under negotiations, and one with important implications for the philosophical, legal, and ethical aspects of international cooperation. In short, this broader range of issues adds significant dimension to the talks. The principle of “universality” may well be more suitable for this new round of negotiations, as the allocation of responsibility may need to be customized to each specific issue.

Contrary to what might seem at first blush, the principle of “universality” need not require every nation to assume exactly the same amount of costs and responsibilities for a given issue. So far, no one has suggested that. Negotiators are discussing how to achieve equitable conditions within a system of cooperation for each issue. Take the discussions on the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, adopted recently in Warsaw in November 2013. As the issue is still in its earlier stages, the discussions are mostly over procedural matters at this point. But the question of equity arises nevertheless, and remains a central concern. For example, representatives of countries that are particularly vulnerable to the threat of loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, such as the members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), want to see greater representation of these countries in the decision-making body. There is an equity argument that motivates this request. A competing argument is that the advisory and decision-making bodies on this matter will secure more appropriate decisions if they are composed of members with the appropriate expertise, which may or may not align with regional or national affiliations. This argument, which is also motivated by a sense of justice, suggests that the expert-based composition will be conducive to decisions that would maximize the benefits to those whose interests are at stake.

How the discussions will unfold is yet to be seen, but the general parameters of the negotiations are such that equitable terms are to be discussed and tailored. The concept of “equity” is neither a monolithic nor an inert concept. It often needs to be formulated from within the concrete circumstances that make it relevant. Sometimes, equitable conditions devised for specific circumstances can become obsolete if circumstances change, and may need to be rethought and reformulated. Seen in this way, equity is not lost in this new round of negotiations, it is being worked out as new issues arise. Since any decision coming out of these negotiations will set precedents for future debates on international relations, it is important that the international community take the time to think through, and to carefully consider various (and sometimes conflicting) arguments, leaving no stone unturned.

The advantage of the present round of negotiations is that there is a general motivation to advance the debates in a productive way, and to reach a genuinely effective and mutually acceptable agreement. How the talks will unfold in the second week of the June session at the UNFCCC will set the tone for the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) in Lima. And for anyone interested in the philosophical, legal, and ethical dimensions of public policy and international cooperation, a close examination of the dynamics of the negotiations is worthwhile.


Idil Boran.

Associate Professor &

Director of the Certificate Program in Practical Ethics

Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies

York University

Toronto Ontario, Canada