Qatar: Linking Increasing the Ambitiousness Of National Emissions Reductions Commitments To Equitable Responsibilities

The international climate negotiations to take place in Qatar next week will seek to make progress on increasing the ambitiousness of national commitments on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. In Durban last year the international community created the Ad Hoc Working Groups on the Durban Platform (ADP). ADP has been charged with   developing a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force, under the Convention applicable to all Parties. The ADP is to complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force at COP-21 so it will come into effect and be implemented from 2020.

One of the goals of the ADP is to obtain increased ambition on national emissions reductions commitments. Greatly increasing the ambition of nations to commit to greenhouse gas reductions is believed to be vital because the scientific community is convinced that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

Significantly increasing national commitments to reduce emissions is widely understood to be urgent because nations have not made commitments to reduce their emissions to levels that will prevent 2°C of additional warming, a temperature limit that has been adopted by all nations under the UNFCCC as the maximum amount of warming that should be tolerated to prevent dangerous climate change. Even though many scientists believe that the warming limit should be 1.5 °C or even 1.0°C to prevent dangerous climate change, the emissions reductions commitments that have been made under the UNFCCC fall far short of achieving the 2°C warming limit. For this reason, parties to the UNFCCC in Durban last year agreed that advanced ambition on greenhouse gas emissions reductions is urgently needed and should be the goal of future international climate change negotiations.

Many observers of the climate change negotiations also believe the nations will not make more ambitious commitments to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions commitments until nations take the requirement under the UNFCCC to reduce their emissions based upon “equity” seriously. This is so because developing countries are not likely to greatly increase their emissions reductions commitments as long as developed countries refuse to base their emissions reductions commitments on what justice requires of them. For this reason there is a growing call for, not only increasing the ambitiousness of emissions reduction commitments, but also for nations to take “equity” seriously.

All nations have agreed under the UNFCCC to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions based upon “equity” although almost all nations have yet to respond to climate change on the basis of “equity. More specifically nations agreed under the UNFCCC that:

”The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

(UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3)

II. The Bonn Meeting on “Equity”

Because there is a growing recognition of the need to take “equity” seriously, the UNFCCC Secretariat held a meeting in Bonn in May of this year to encourage nations to exchange views on the meaning of “equity”.

As we shall see very divergent approaches to the meaning of equity were articulated at the Bonn meeting. A full report on the meeting was prepared by the UNFCCC secretariat (UNFCCC 2012). Here is a sampling of some proposed approaches to understanding “equity” made by presenters at the Bonn meeting:

  •  The UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres invited parties to consider three aspects of equity in relation to the global emissions reductions: (1) country circumstances, (2) historical and future contributions to global omissions, and (3) capacity to address climate change.
  •  Bangladesh repeated the claim frequently made by developing nations that developed countries have the primary responsibility to develop a low carbon economy and society.
  •  China explained that the developed countries have “over-occupied” most of the existing atmospheric space through their cumulative emissions, transferring responsibility onto developing countries and creating a new form of inequality.
  •  Singapore stressed the need to define equity in light of different national circumstances such as the fact that Singapore is disadvantaged in terms of the availability of alternative energy sources.
  •  Brazil stressed historical responsibility as an important component in defining equity.
  •  The EU identified the goal of a future regime as enabling all parties to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication, and climate resilient growth. The EU argued that equity needed to be interpreted in a way that reflects nations’ common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
  •  The United States argued that equity should not be defined through a formulaic approach. The United States underlined the common understanding that equity is about fairness and a fair distribution of efforts, and that no one can be asked to sacrifice their development. The United States argued that the focus of equity should be on development and opportunities for growth, and not on the division of the carbon space. The United States argued that a qualitative concept, such as equity, should not be forced to fit into one formula.

(UNFCCC 2012)

And so the Bonn meeting made little progress in developing an international agreement on the meaning of “equity.”  However, several parties recommended that a decision on this matter should be taken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar. Other parties recommended that a follow-up workshop under the UNFCCC might be another option to continue the dialogue on this matter. will be reporting on this from Qatar. We will also recommend that specific questions should be asked of nations about their positions on equity and we are organizing a program on this on December 5th in Qatar.


UNFCCC (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,

UNFCCC (2012) Report on The Workshop on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development,


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law