Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps

Floods hit a village in Pakistan. People living in poverty are hit hardest by climate change.
Floods hit a village in Pakistan. People living in poverty are hit hardest by climate change.

This blog post is coauthored by Tom Athanasiou from the Climate Equity Reference Project

In March, Johan Rockström and his coauthors published A roadmap for rapid decarbonization in Science, wherein they propose a “roadmap” of escalating actions from now until 2050, designed to keep the average global temperature change under 2° Celsius, with some chance of limiting it to 1.5°C. Vox’s Brad Plumer then published a long commentary on their roadmap. Both the Science and Vox pieces cover a lot of ground in a small space and we appreciate both efforts to come to grips with the scale of the needed climate action.

The bottom line, as scientist and critic Kevin Anderson put it, is that the Rockström et. al. piece has “upped the ante.” In particular, it has translated carbon-budget science into a specific, decade-by-decade plan for a greatly accelerated global technological transition, driving net global CO2 emissions down to a near-zero level in 2050 – a mere 33 years. This type of planning is crucial as policy makers everywhere wrestle with the immense challenges of meeting the collective goals they agreed to in the Paris Agreement. However, a key element is missing from Rockström’s roadmap: equity – that is, the fair sharing of climate action among countries. We cannot hope to succeed unless this challenge, too, is taken up, so its omission from Rockström’s paper as well as the subsequent Vox article is unfortunate.

Equity is critical to transformative global climate action; it is not only a moral imperative but also a political and technological precondition of success.

International climate equity has specific meanings and a long history, all of which are crystalized in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), negotiated at the 1992 Earth Summit. And, we must add, the Trump administration’s disdain for climate action is no excuse for ignoring the climate treaty’s foundations. If we’re to achieve the Paris targets, an unprecedented global mobilization will be needed before 2030. It won’t happen if we seek to hide the equity challenge under the rug.

Climate equity recognizes that while all countries have climate obligations, these are differentiated based on historical responsibilities for climate change and national capacity to respond to it. Essentially, rich, developed countries, which are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas currently in the atmosphere and have significant national capacity to act, must do more and do it sooner than poorer developing countries. And they must do so while at the same time improving the lots of their own poor and vulnerable citizens.

What’s missing in this roadmap is clarity on these challenges. There is a passing comment that “the richer coal-intensive countries must spearhead the coal exit,” and a tantalizing reference to “effective international corporation tax regimes; and inheritance reforms that account for historical wealth generated by fossil fuels without compensation of externalities,” but these are given without detail, and are altogether insufficient. The equity side of the transition challenge is fundamental and pervasive, and it must be present throughout any transition roadmap, if it is to be believable.

Morally, there’s no question that developed countries must take the lead, and also assist the poor in the extremely challenging decades that lie ahead. Developed countries including the United States have been emitting far more carbon for far longer than developing countries, and they are, moreover, the homes of most of the world’s wealthy. The top-line message here could not be more clear, for the richest 10% of the world’s people produce half of Earth’s fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%. This is the essential background without which it’s impossible to understand the position today, in which we’ve used up essentially the entire global carbon budget, and, to note the sharpest part of the challenge, developing countries face an urgent need to leapfrog to renewable energy even as many of their citizens still lack basic energy access, let alone proper health and education systems. Even worse, people in the global south – especially the poorest – are already feeling the impacts of climate crises they did nothing to create. Asking them to take to a roadmap that makes no provision for such facts is simply wrong.

Nor is climate equity just a moral challenge. There are strong instrumental reasons to believe that, unless we put the equity challenge front and center, there’s little hope of following any road as difficult as the one that Rockstrom and his co-authors have laid out. The bottom line here is that, given the emergency situation we’re now facing, developing countries must mobilize on a scale that far overwhelms their capacity to act alone, and they must do so even as rising climate impacts force them to prioritize adaptation. They cannot possibly meet these challenges without support from developed countries, and even in the short term it’s difficult for them to lay the necessary plans without some modicum of confidence that such support will be forthcoming.

One key aspect of support is financing, which Rockström and his coauthors discuss. But theirs being an essentially techno-economic roadmap, few details are filled in, save for a mention of the need to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. But subsidy reform is not in itself equitable or sufficient; to catalyze global climate action at the necessary scale, a massive transfer of financial and technological resources from rich to poor countries is needed. In the absence of such a transfer, there is simply no political calculation that developing country governments can make that will enable the transformation to take place. The framework for facilitating this so-called “climate finance” is already in place thanks to the UNFCCC, in institutions such as the new Green Climate Fund; what is needed now is for rich countries to actually pony up the money.

In other words, equity is as critical politically as it is morally. Only if the international community bands together will it be feasible to stop climate change. This is a hard truth, particularly these days, but it’s one that must be remembered. Developing countries face the enormous challenge of continuing to pursue development to meet their citizens’ basic needs and adapting when possible to profound climate-related impacts, all while also undergoing an economy-wide transformation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Some small island states are at a risk of disappearing entirely. This all for a problem, again, that they did very little to create.

Why, in such a situation, should we expect them to mobilize capacities that they do not have, to stretch to the utmost, if developed countries aren’t already straining to do their fair shares, as indicated in the last instance by their wealth? How can they plan on the necessary scale of ambition if they aren’t sure that the necessary support is coming, or at least confident that the world’s elites are not in denial about the realities here? Only with equity is decisive climate action politically achievable.

In addition to the omission of equity, we disagree with several elements of the roadmap, in particular its reliance on an extremely large-scale deployment of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Such a deployment would require a huge amount of land, which would inevitably lead to deforestation and the forced displacement of rural communities, and worsen the already-increased danger of widespread hunger that climate change has placed squarely in our future.

All this said, the roadmap’s forthrightness and transparency is to be commended. The possibility that “concerns may rule out” the immense scale-up of negative emissions technologies (NETs) that the authors assume in their central “carbon law” scenario is clearly anticipated (if given less attention and consideration than we think this risk deserves), as is its consequence: “Only deep emission reductions during 2020-2030 can enable BECCS to be scaled back or abandoned” while still allowing us to hold the Paris targets. Similarly, the authors’ upfront reveal of their outsized negative-emissions assumptions is also to be commended. Such assumptions have for too long been hidden in technical scenario databases that only scientists consult; it’s good to have them out in the light, and it would be even better if a similar high-transparency policy were followed whenever reporting the land-use requirements in such scenarios as these. And, finally – and this is something the Vox article missed – NETs are geo-engineering.

The next decade will be crucial for climate action, and we need many more roadmaps to help citizens and governments think their way through the current deadlocks and onto a path in which the promise of the Paris Agreement can actually be realized. So while we appreciate that Rockström and his coauthors looked to these very same goals when they set out their roadmap for action, the fact that they’ve downplayed the equity challenge seems to us to significantly undermine the efficacy of their intervention. The concreteness and transparency of their paper has its virtues, but equity isn’t a luxury that can be set aside in the interests of technology-led path forward. Rather, it’s the critical second leg of true climate realism. Technology is essential, but without equity there will be no real cooperation and no effective drive for transformative climate action.

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