Editor’s Note: Several articles in ClimateEthics have argued that nations have an immediate duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions although noting that what is “fair” is a question about which different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions. See for instance, Ethical Failures of National GHG Emissions Reduction Proposals Approaching Copenhagen, http://climateethics.org/?p=147, ClimateEthics has also frequently commented that some proposed formula for allocating greenhouse gas targets among nations would not pass ethical scrutiny under any respectable justice theory. However, a few proposed frameworks for international action after Kyoto have earned the respect of many commentators interested in a just climate change regime. This post compares two proposed international frameworks on equitable national GHG emissions allocation that are getting significant attention around the world as serious attempts to deal with the question of what is each nation’s fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emissions. These frameworks are: (a) Contraction and Convergence (C&C) and Greenhouse Development Rights (GDR). This post is a summary of a much longer paper on the topic written by Katrin Kraus, a graduate student at Greifswald University. Future posts on ClimateEthics will examine other GHG allocation national targets frameworks under discussion around the world.
Currently two frameworks for allocation of greenhouse gas targets among nations are supported by different proponents of an equitable post-2012 agreement: Contraction & Convergence (C&C) and Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs). Proponents of these frameworks claim that their concept more realistically captures the structure of the climate change problem and provides a better way to solve it. The main points of contention between these two frameworks concern the questions of whether the two frameworks are “fair or feasible?” and “how fair is fair enough?” Given that there are no other national greenhouse gas allocation frameworks likely to secure support of most nations and achieve global greenhouse gas emissions reductions at a rate consistent with the urgency of the global climate change threat, it has been argued that failure to adopt one of two frameworks is ethically unacceptable (Attfield, 2008).
This post describes the advantages and disadvantages of both frameworks. Section II briefly describes the main features of both concepts. Then in Section III, this post identifies four criteria for evaluating these frameworks. Then, in Section IV both concepts are contrasted by reference to the criteria identified in Section III. Given this, the conclusion identifies the most preferable framework for solving the climate change problem.
II. Brief description of both concepts
Contraction & Convergence
C&C was first proposed in 1990 by the London-based non-governmental Global Commons Institute (GCI) (Meyer, 2000). The following will not go into details of possible variations of the C&C approach, but limit itself to the basic concept promoted by the GCI, as it is described in “GCI Briefing: “CONTRACTION & CONVERGENCE” (GCI, 2009).
Basically, Contraction and Convergence is not a prescription per se, but rather a way of demonstrating how a global prescription could be negotiated and organised (Meyer, 1999:305). Implementing C&C in its original form involves two steps. As a first step, countries need to specify Article 2 of the UNFCCC in terms of a long-term global stabilization level for atmospheric GHG concentrations (“contraction”). Effectively, this would create a global budget of GHG emissions which could be adjusted in the future to respond to improved scientific information. As a second step, countries need to stipulate a convergence date, at which time the emissions allocated to each country should complete a linear transition from status quo to equal per-capita entitlements (“convergence”). During the transition period, a yearly global carbon budget is devised which contracts gradually over time whereby the per-capita entitlements of developed countries decrease while those of most developing countries increase. After reaching convergence, all countries would contract their emissions entitlements equally until the requisite global emissions budget is reached. As promoted by the GCI, negotiations should principally take place between regions of the world with further negotiations held within regions to determine the precise amount of national emission budgets (akin to the EU bubble in the Kyoto Protocol). Further integral features of C&C are a global emissions trading scheme and a “cut-off” year which defines the population basis for allocating emissions entitlements.
Greenhouse Development Rights
The second concept, Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs) was first presented as a broad outline at the side events of COP 10 in 2004. Unless otherwise noted, the following information on the GDRs approach is drawn from the latest, i.e. the second edition of “The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World” by Paul Baer, Tom Athanasiou, Sivan Kartha and Erik Kemp-Benedict (Baer et al., 2008).
Compared to C&C, GDRs is a more thoroughly elaborated framework proposal. Six elements are central:
(1) GDRs specifies an extraordinarily ambitious emissions pathway which, geared to the latest alarming evidence, has a relatively high probability of holding global warming below 2°C. This “2°C emergency pathway” has absolute emissions peaking in 2013 and dropping thereafter with a maximum rate of more than 5 percent per year, resulting in reductions of 80 percent below 1990 levels in 2050. Atmospheric GHG concentrations peak at about 420 CO2 ppm (corresponding to 480 ppm CO2-eq) and by 2100 return to 400 ppm CO2-eq or below.
(2) As a further integral feature, GDRs aims at the individual. It claims to preserve the right of each individual to reach a dignified level of sustainable human development. Hence intranational income distribution is taken as a basis for global burden sharing.
(3) GDRs specifies a global development threshold in terms of an income threshold of $7500 PPP. Individuals whose income is below this threshold are ascribed the right to development. These, by definition, poor individuals are not expected to help to pay the costs of the climate transition. Individuals with income above the development threshold, by definition the global consuming class, are thought of having realized their right to development. Instead, they face the obligation of sharing the effort of funding the whole emergency program including the costs of curbing the emissions associated with their own consumption, the costs of bringing everyone below the development threshold up to that level along sustainable, low-emission pathways, in addition to the cost of adaptation to unavoidable climate change and compensation for climate damages.
(4) The precise burden sharing between individuals and states respectively is determined by the so-called Responsibility Capacity Index (RCI). The capacity component of the RCI is defined as income above the development threshold. The responsibility component of the RCI is defined as cumulative per-capita emissions since 1990, excluding emissions that correspond to consumption below the development threshold. In order to calculate the aggregated responsibility and capacity of a given country, a model of income distribution based on the Gini coefficient is used. It is assumed that within a given country, income is linear proportional to emissions, and hence to responsibility.
(5) Applied to industrial nations, the RCI indicates obligations to reduce emissions which in a couple of years from now grow to more than 100 percent. The European Union, for example, has a reduction obligation of approximately 140 percent below 1990 by 2030. That is, countries with high capacity and responsibility have a dual obligation which can only be met by strenuous domestic action and the financing of decarbonisation abroad.
(6) Two options are described in detail to operationalize the GDRs framework. The first option is based on regular estimations of global mitigation and adaptation costs. The determined costs are then shared among the world’s nations in proportion to their RCIs. Within countries, a progressive climate tax should collect each nation’s obligatory financial contribution. At the global level, these funds would be channelled to a single grand international fund to manage and allocate the financial resources required for the climate transition. The second option comprises a global cap and trade system on the basis of national business as usual (BAU) trajectories which, at the start of each commitment period, should be updated and revised. At the same time, it will be negotiated what fraction of its no–regrets reduction opportunities any country should be responsible to exploit by itself. The RCI serves here as the basis for determining national mitigation obligations which are defined as shares of the global mitigation requirement.
III. Criteria for the assessment of climate policy proposals
Any future climate regime should be environmentally effective, that is, it should prevent or at least limit dangerous interference with the climate system. Moreover, any proposed regime should also allocate the burden of meeting this objective among the world’s nations in an equitable manner. Beyond that, it should have prospects of timely being realized under the current political and institutional conditions, that is, it should be acceptable and feasible.
The four criteria are mutually dependent and very much interlinked. For example, a concept’s performance with a view to the equity criterion determines its chances of being accepted which, in turn, is a precondition of its implementation. A downright equitable concept, however, may turn out to be practically infeasible and hence environmentally ineffective.
To be consistent with the ultimate objective of stabilizing atmospheric GHG concentrations, any proposed climate change regime must provide for stringent emissions targets resulting in large reductions of net global GHG emissions. Although the ambitiousness of the emissions reduction of a given proposal is an important contributor to its environmental effectiveness, it may not necessarily be decisive. Other factors affecting the environmental effectiveness of a given climate change regime proposal include whether it accounts for changes in scientific understanding, how easy and how fast it can be implemented effectively, to what extent it stimulates technological change and changes in public awareness, attitudes, and learning, to what extent it encourages long-term participation, and how it provides for compliance.
The assessment of this criterion will concentrate on the certainty a proposal provides that it will result in environmental effectiveness. Here, the factual time constraint is of paramount importance. According to Hansen et al. (2008) “continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects”.
Because among other reasons nations have legal duty under the United Nations Framework Convention to reduce their emissions based upon equity, all proposed climate change regimes must require equitable reductions among nations. Here John Rawls’s “Theory of Justice” (1971) provides a solid theoretical basis. John Rawls argues that social and economic inequalities should be allowed only if they are to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society. While Rawls sees the so-called “difference principle” as determining a fair distribution of the benefits and burdens produced by social cooperation within self-contained national communities, both Beitz (1979) and Pogge (1989) propose that Rawls’s difference principle should be applied globally arguing that national origin is equally morally arbitrary to a distributive scheme as e.g. race and gender. Per se, a concept designed to solve the climate crisis must not necessarily simultaneously solve other problems such as global poverty. Nevertheless, the minimum requirement it has to fulfil is to not further worsen the situation of the already bad-off.
Political acceptability can be straightforwardly determined if a state openly supports or rejects a proposed climate change regime or similar versions thereof. If there is no express statement, a good starting point to judge political acceptability is provided by the relative burden a concept puts on different states or groups of states. As individual parties must ratify the negotiated agreement, national cost considerations will be critical because any proposal which may be perceived as posing unproportional burdens to some states, while favouring others, risks facing political opposition. In judging political acceptability, it will be assumed that states which benefit in financial terms will accept a proposed regime provided that there are no other conditions entailed by the proposed regime which can be assumed to be unacceptable because of other considerations such as previous statements of the nation. However, this is not to preclude the possibility that, for reasons of justice and fairness, nations will accept a proposed framework which imposes reasonable burdens on their citizens.
This criterion is primarily concerned with two dimensions of political feasibility, namely negotiability and implementabilty. Whether a concept can be negotiated successfully depends on a number of factors such as simplicity, moderate requirements on data and tools, compatibility with the UNFCCC and Kyoto architecture, flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and economic predictability. Factors relevant to implementation include the institutional capacity a concept demands and whether it provides mechanisms to facilitate compliance.
IV. Main results of the comparison
When comparing the concepts of C&C and GDRs, a fundamental point must be made that both approaches have different levels of precision and ambition. More specifically, the authors of GDRs explicitly focus on the individual and contend that the climate change crisis can only be tackled in combination with the development issue and that the GDRs approach has the potential to accommodate both issues at a single blow. The authors of C&C primarily focus on nations and do not maintain to solve the development issue as well.
While GDRs applies the Responsibility Capacity Index (RCI) to quantify national mitigation and adaptation obligations, C&C is silent on the question of adaptation. In this respect, C&C is incomplete. The following summarizes for each criterion the main results of the comparison.
A. Political feasibility
Both frameworks are widely compatible with the existing legal architecture. As they allow for emissions trading, both score equally well with a view to flexibility and cost effectiveness. Beyond that, C&C is in many respects clearly advantaged.
As C&C in its simplest version only requires agreement on the level of stabilization and the date of convergence, it can be expected to be negotiable within comparatively little time.
Conversely, GDRs is definitely more complicated than C&C. In order to make GDRs fully operational, nations need to agree upon a number of matters including the emergency emissions trajectory, the precise level of the development threshold, the year when responsibility starts, the formula to calculate the RCI, and the respective weights of capacity and responsibility. To assign national obligations, regularly, country-specific data on BAU scenarios and no-regret options would have to be processed. This reduces the transparency of the GDRs concept and significantly increases the necessary amount of data.
Compared to GDRs, C&C has a higher degree of institutional feasibility. Due to its simplicity, C&C only requires data about emissions and population numbers of all nations. As periodic renegotiations of emissions targets in the sense of the Kyoto Protocol’s commitment periods and the preparation of BAU scenarios are redundant, nations would have a general long-term certainty over the conditions under which they would have to participate and could plan accordingly. This increased planning reliability would help nations involved in a C&C regime to comply with what they have committed themselves to in good faith, independent of economic cycles.
From an ethical perspective, C&C can be justified by conceptualizing the limited assimilative capacity of the Earth’s atmosphere with regard to GHGs as a common pool good to which each human being, in principle, is equally entitled. In line with a presumption in favour of equality, every person worldwide is entitled to emit the same amount of GHGs. Under this presumption, the burden of proof lies on those who argue for an unequal distribution of emission entitlements (Kverndokk, 1995).
The deviation in favour of presently high-emitting countries that is due to the transition period can be justified on the basis of the principle of need. Accordingly, high-emitting countries are granted more emissions rights than they would get if there was an immediate per-capita allocation because they need time to change lifestyles and infrastructure. However, just as well, it can be argued that industrialized countries deserve less than equal per-capita emissions rights because of their historic responsibility for causing the climate problem. This would be in line with the polluter-pays principle, a well-established international law norm. Another critical feature of C&C is the population base-year. It would be morally arbitrary to exclude all persons born after a certain date from using a common pool good.
Concerning the situation of the least well-off, it is found that all those countries with currently very low per-capita emissions would not need to contribute to finance the climate transition. Instead, they would benefit from hot air trading. Rawls’s difference principle would thus be satisfied.
The authors of the GDRs framework (Baer and Athanasiou, 2007) also consider the global sinks for GHG emissions a common resource; however, instead of equality of emissions rights, they argue that the focus should be on developmental equity. The justifiable claim that developed countries should be liable for the emissions they historically caused is accounted for by introducing the right to development.
Strikingly, the way Baer et al. define the right to development in the GDRs framework is not consistent with the right to development as declared by the UN General Assembly in 1986. Following the first Article of the 1986 Declaration, Arjun Sengupta (2006) defines the right to development as “the right to a process of development in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized”. In fact, the authors of GDRs understand the right to development very well as a right to human development in the sense of reaching “a modest yet dignified level of well-being” (Baer et al., 41) , but for the sake of calculating the RCI, development is reduced to its economic dimension (Baer et al., 42). This is justified by the fact that particularly in low and middle income countries there is a high correlation between income and basic indicators of well-being. From an ethical perspective this justification is problematic since a correlation at the national level is not necessarily causation at the individual level. Especially in the case of women rights, it is not proven that rising income necessarily leads to a more dignified life.
Although, if ideally realized, GDRs would improve the living conditions of the worst-off in financial terms, it would not necessarily be fair to any duty holding individual. For example, it is critical to derive from the income individuals presently earn their causal and moral responsibility for present and past emissions. The assumption that the total income individuals earn above the development threshold is available to be taxed according to the calculated RCI must be criticized as well. Individual people may have legitimate reasons why they need or deserve more income. As well, the authors of GDRs ignore some social realities when they do not question why some countries are characterized by very large inequality in income distribution and whether it is realistic to assume that in those countries GDRs can effect voluntary redistributions. Accordingly, it is not clear whether the rich minority in poor countries would pay to fulfil national climate obligations and that the living conditions of the worst-off individuals would not deteriorate.
C. Political acceptability
Over the past years, C&C has been officially endorsed by the European Union and several developing countries (GCI, 2008). In contrast, so far no government has accepted GDRs. Beyond factual acceptance, it is illustrating to consider financial benefits and burdens under both concepts.
For developed nations, both concepts entail financial transfers beyond anything that have so far been made. As C&C does not prescribe precise target values, it gives scope to industrialized countries which may facilitate their acceptance. Basically, slower convergence reduces the burden of higher per-capita emitters. For example, C&C would also be feasible with the proposed EU target of 550 ppm CO2. However, this limit would hardly be in line with the thereby proposed temperature target of limiting global mean temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (Meinshausen, 2006). With regard to GDRs one needs to consider that the magnitude of the dual obligations is dimensions higher than those currently considered in major developed countries and the EU. For example, the EU has pledged to return to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and to 30 percent below 1990 levels in case other developed nations agree to similar commitments. By comparison, GDRs claims a reduction of approximately 80 percent below 1990 by 2020. Another point is that developed countries have so far resisted a legal obligation to transfer resources to developing nations in line with the right to development (Marks, 2006:71).
With regard to developing countries, a straightforward attribution of benefits and costs is not possible. Under a C&C regime, at least developing countries with low per-capita emissions would not need to contribute financially to climate protection. Instead, hot air trading would entitle them to vast financial resources of which they may per se freely dispose. However, under a stabilization target of about 450 ppm CO2-eq in combination with convergence by 2050, developing countries with per-capita emissions above or close to the world average will soon have to deviate from their business as usual path and will not receive excess emissions allowances (Höhne and Moltmann, 2008). Under a GDRs regime, each developing county would need to exploit a certain fraction of its no regrets options. In addition, each developing country would need to contribute to the funding of the global emergency emissions program according to its income distribution. Obligations which GDRs imposes on developing countries concern the defaults that first this contribution should be fully absorbed by wealthy inhabitants and that the allocation of additional financial resources should be subject to a specified decision-making process. However, so far developing countries have refused to finance mitigation and adaptation measures from their own resources. Human rights requirements related to the implementation of the right to development have been resisted as well by several developing countries (Aguirre, 2008:118).
D. Environmental effectiveness
A fundamental difference between both concepts is that while C&C is principally neutral regarding the specific long-term target to be agreed, GDRs prescribes an ambitious emergency emissions reductions pathway. However, it may be doubted whether a regime based on GDRs would result in higher emissions reductions than a regime based on C&C.
Decisive is that GDRs, unlike C&C, contains three serious risk elements (cf. Kraus, 2009).
(1) While, due to its simplicity, C&C could be implemented relatively fast, GDRs is definitely more complicated including some highly controversial questions which are time consuming to negotiate (see above). Generally, each additional negotiating point lengthens the duration of the whole negotiation and entails the risk of bringing the negotiations to a complete halt. As a dire consequence, the whole concept could not be implemented and emissions would continue to rise.
(2) A further grave disadvantage of GDRs is to be seen in that business-as-usual (BAU) scenarios play a central role in both proposed implementation options. Compared to C&C, GDRs does not directly allocate the precautionary emissions budget necessary to hold the emergency pathway but the global mitigation requirement which can only be determined after national BAU scenarios have been prepared and negotiated. That is, while nations under the C&C concept have the possibility to factor in the emissions constraint at every level of planning, nations under the GDRs framework are allotted their national mitigation obligation only after they have already prepared BAU plans. In other words, while under the C&C framework the limited assimilative capacity of the atmosphere occupies a central position and the economic system can only grow within the atmospheric limits, GDRs gives national development and growth ambitions top priority which only as a subordinate step are accommodated to natural limits. In addition, BAU scenarios rely on assumptions about the evolution of factors which are difficult to control (e.g. economic growth, energy demand, energy efficiency, technological progress) and inherently unpredictable (societal development). There is an increased risk of tedious discussions and a negotiation deadlock, in which case national mitigation obligations could not be assigned and individual states would continue to carry out their BAU plans. In this way, GDRs impedes the change of environmentally harmful behaviour and the exploration of sustainable alternatives.
(3) GDRs does not only make Western consumerism absolute in taking it as the standard for reaching a dignified life but also entitles every individual to the resources necessary to lead a life as a member of the global consuming class. Discussions about sustainable consumption – as many as there may be – cannot detract from the fact that the Western mainstream lifestyle in its present form is energy and resource-intensive and as such a main cause of the current climate misery. There is a certain risk that even with massive North-South transfers of the most modern and energy-efficient technologies, a lifestyle that relies on ever-increasing consumption and accumulation of resources cannot be adopted by the global population on a sustained basis (cf. Linz et al., 2002). A global regime based on GDRs runs the risk of legalizing comprehensive infrastructure projects in developing countries which serve to introduce the Western lifestyle but which are not compatible with Earth’s life-sustaining capacity. Another critical aspect is that by reducing development and the capacity component of the RCI to income, aspects such as behaviour change and sufficiency are systematically ignored. GDRs might give the impression that with adequate resource transfers and redistribution measures, the climate problem will take care of itself and that profound behaviour changes and a fundamental reorientation and self-limitation will not be necessary.
Taken together, the above suggests that GDRs performs worse against all of the four criteria. In its present form, GDRs is also inappropriate to implement the right to development and to solve the development crisis.
Compared to GDRs, C&C is easier to negotiate and to implement, C&C has a higher potential to lead to a global climate compromise, C&C rests on less contestable ethical foundations, and has a higher potential to stimulate changes in public attitudes and awareness. All in all, C&C is the preferable concept. However, with a view to tackling the climate challenge, C&C should put more emphasis on the fact that in the future for many countries the conventional development path based on increasing economic growth and the consumption of fossil fuels will no longer be feasible.
Climate change largely challenges prevalent international institutional control mechanisms. To overcome the climate crisis, it is therefore the more important to create a global atmosphere of trust as a basis for comprehensive cooperation across social, economic, and cultural divides. The image of a divided world which is in the centre of the GDRs Framework (e.g. Baer et al. 2008:91) may aptly describe reality but it may not show a vision of how to bridge the gap between rich and poor, North and South. C&C, however, evokes the image of a global community in which, under growing pressure, people in poor and rich countries alike act together to bring about a more careful and sustainable management of the atmosphere.
However, a global climate partnership based on C&C will only be achieved once the obligation of rich countries to assist adaptation in poorer countries is duly recognized. This is not a question of charity but a question of justice and fairness.
Graduate Research Assistant in Environmental Ethics
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