From the beginning of the global dis-cussions on tackling climate change, notions of equity have been at the centre of the debate. However, the term has been interpreted in different ways by different countries and groups and has also evolved over time. The following is a brief description of how this debate has evolved and its current manifestation.
During the negotiations that preceded the setting up of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, this issue was initially championed by the late Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal who coined the terms "survival emissions" of the poor countries versus "luxury emissions" of the rich.
This argument was made by the developing countries who argued that the developed countries, having been responsible for historic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) since the beginning of the industrial revolution over a hundred years ago and having benefited economically from the burning of fossil fuels, should shoulder a greater responsibility to reduce emission than the developing countries. This led to the adoption of the well known principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR) in the UNFCCC, which means that while the obligation to take action to reduce GHG is common to all countries (including both rich and poor alike), rich countries have greater responsibility as they have benefited more from historical emissions of these gases.
The rich countries accepted this principle in the UNFCCC and they are listed in Annex 1 of the convention by name (they are sometimes referred to as "Annex 1 Parties"). This responsibility was further recognised in the Kyoto Protocol where the rich countries (with the exception of the United States of America) accepted binding targets for emission reductions (again being listed by name in Annex B of the Kyoto Protocol).
The United States, while accepting a target at Kyoto (under the Clinton administration), subsequently withdrew its agreement after George Bush took over as president. Interestingly, from the US perspective, their argument is also couched in the language of equity or fairness, where they asked why they should take on a binding target when China, which was rapidly becoming the biggest emitter, was exempted?
Many years later, we are in a new world where the old dichotomy of rich and poor countries (Annex 1 and non-Annex 1) has been replaced by three groups with the traditional group of rich countries still the same but the traditional group of poor countries being separated into the poor and vulnerable (such as the least developed countries, the small island developing states and Africa) and a new group of rapidly developing countries, namely China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Indeed, while all developing countries still belong to the umbrella group called the "G77 and China," these four countries formed a separate sub-group (called "BASIC") just before the Climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.
Since then the major tussle has been between the developed countries and the four BASIC countries. The recent Climate Conference in Durban was very much along these lines. However, the debate that has been taking place between these two groups is about historic responsibilities for emissions versus current and future emissions, with the BASIC countries arguing that they should remain exempt from accepting legally binding emission reduction commitments while the rich countries should have to do so.
The counter argument from the rich countries is that whereas they were responsible for three-quarters of global emissions two decades ago, they are now responsible for less than half while the BASIC countries now account for nearly half of global emissions (with China now having overtaken the US as the world's biggest emitter). Hence, their argument is that it is only fair that BASIC countries also take on legally binding commitments in the future.
For the rest of the poor and vulnerable countries this argument between these two groups of countries has become like the proverbial fight between two elephants in which it is the grass (namely the poor and vulnerable countries) that gets trampled. Thus, from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable countries, a ton of GHG emitted in the US, Europe, China, India (or for that matter in Bangladesh or Maldives) will have exactly the same adverse impact on poor and vulnerable countries and communities. Hence, it is now incumbent on all countries to reduce emissions wherever they can regardless of historical emissions.
This break within the G77 manifested itself in Durban with the least developed countries (LDC) group and alliance of small island states (AOSIS) aligning themselves with the European Union (EU) against India (on behalf of BASIC) about accepting a legally binding agreement for all countries.
Thus, the debate around equity, which has traditionally revolved around responsibility to reduce emissions, has been couched in terms of "burden sharing" where the BASIC position was that the rich countries should bear a greater share of the burden due to their historic responsibilities while the rich countries (the US in particular) argued that to allow BASIC to continue to be exempted was not fair. Both arguments have merit from their own perspectives.
However, the more recent element of this debate no longer revolves around the notion of burden sharing for emission reductions, but around responsibility for adverse impacts of climate change. In this argument the world is divided on a different basis, namely the 100 poor and vulnerable countries (the sum of LDCs, AOSIS and Africa) who will suffer severe impacts (which may already be occurring). The demand of these 100 countries, whose total emissions account for less than 5% of global emissions, is that all countries who are responsible for the remaining 95% of emissions (including BASIC) must take responsibility to cut their emissions.
One way to characterise the difference between these two notions of equity is to introduce the notion of "justice." Thus, the term equity is used in the traditional sense of who should bear what share (and in what manner) of reducing their emissions of GHG, while the notion of justice (or more correctly "injustice") is what characterises the argument of the "victims" of climate change against all major emitters.
Of course, in large developing countries, like China and India, where there are large populations of poor and vulnerable citizens living alongside smaller numbers of rich citizens (many of whose per capita emissions are equal or bigger than those of rich countries) there is a debate to be had as to whose interests their governments are representing when they refuse to take binding commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from economic sectors that largely benefit the rich and urban middle classes, but which will contribute significantly to the adverse on the rural poor of their own country. This is a debate that citizens of China, India, Brazil and South Africa need to have.
As far as the LDC, AOSIS and Africa groups are concerned the time has come to emphasise the "common" responsibility in the CBDR principle over the "differentiated" part. In other words, all countries must do their best to reduce their emission of GHG regardless of historic responsibilities.
The writer is Senior Fellow at the London based International Institute for Environment and Development and Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, Independent University, Bangladesh.