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A Fair Compromise to Break the Climate Impasse

Key messages and Policy Pointers

• Given the stalemate in U.N. climate negotiations, the best arena to strike a workable deal is among the members the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF).

• The 13 MEF members—including the EU-27 (but not double-counting the four EU countries that are also individual members of the MEF)—account for 81.3 percent of all global emissions.

• This proposal devises a fair compromise to break the impasse to develop a science-based approach for fairly sharing the carbon budget in order to have a 75 percent chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

• To increase the likelihood of a future climate agreement, carbon accounting must shift from pro­duction-based inventories to consumption-based ones.

• The shares of a carbon budget to stay below 2 °C through 2050 are calculated by cumulative emis­sions since 1990, i.e. according to a short-horizon polluter pays principle, and national capability (income), and allocated to MEF members through emission rights. This proposed fair compromise addresses key concerns of major emitters.

• According to this accounting, no countries have negative carbon budgets, there is substantial time for greening major developing economies, and some developed countries need to institute very rapid reductions in emissions.

• To provide a ‘green ladder’ to developing countries and to ensure a fair global deal, it will be crucial to agree how to extend sufficient and predictable financial support and the rapid transfer of technology.

The most urgent and complicated ethical issue in addressing climate change is how human society will share the work of reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. Looking ahead to 2015 when a new international treaty on climate change should be agreed upon, we fear we are headed towards a train wreck.

Key developed countries have made it clear they will not accept any regime excluding emerging economies such as China and Brazil, and the U.S. and other ‘umbrella’ countries are calling for only voluntary, bottom-up com­mitments. Yet the major developing countries have made equity the sine qua non for any kind of agreement: they will not take on mandatory emission reduction targets with perceived implications for their economic growth and social development, unless the wealthier countries commit to deep emissions cuts and act first.

These entrenched positions between the different blocs have led to the current impasse, but as Nobel laureate economist and philosopher, Amaryta Sen pointed out, the perfect agreement that never happens is more unjust than an imperfect one that is obtainable.

What is a fair and feasible way to break the impasse, given that all efforts are faltering? The most difficult task is determining a country’s fair share of the required emissions reductions in a way that is politically feasible. After 20 years of negotiations and gridlock, it is clear that many conflicting principles of equity are brought to the table, so a solution will have to be based on some kind of ‘negotiated justice,’ or a ‘fair compromise,’ which will not be one preferred by just one group of countries.

A few basic requirements must be met. A feasible, fair and effective climate agreement must involve the largest emitters from both the developed and developing countries. Such an agreement must find a way to engage the latter without penalizing them or the former countries too much. In order to secure progress, above all it must be acceptable to the two world superpowers and top carbon emitters, China and the U.S.; with this leadership, in fact, other emitters will likely follow. This agreement could be forged in a ‘plurilateral’ setting where a limited number of countries come together first, and then be brought into the formal U.N. negotiations as the basis for a future deal, perhaps by 2015.

How can future negotiations on emissions reductions overcome such political inertia? We suggest that taking three manageable steps to a fair compromise will unlock progress.

First, negotiate a core agreement between the 13 members in the MEF (including the EU-27), which accounts for 81.3 percent of all global emissions. This makes the negotiations feasible, where deals can be struck that would be impossible in the vast U.N. forum.

Second, use consumption-based emissions accounting, which is much fairer than the cur­rent production/territorial-based accounting that all past agreements and negotiations have been based upon. These are relatively new numbers developed by the Norwegian research center CICERO, and have been vetted by the top scientific journals and increasingly utilized by policymakers.

Third, forge a fair compromise to allocate emissions rights. We propose a compromise based on a short-horizon ‘polluter pays principle’ and an indicator of national capability (income).

This third step in particular is a genuine compromise for both developed and developing countries, but it is re­quired to break the current gridlock. Each MEF member gives and takes something from this simple, workable framework and all gain a liveable planet in the future.

Throughout the paper we first explain why counting carbon emissions by consumption is far better and the im­plications of doing so, and we then introduce the MEF and why it is a promising arena for forging a bold compro­mise like the one so badly needed before 2015. We then calculate what the numbers actually mean for that group of countries and develop a proposal for a fair compromise that embodies a feasible but fair operationalization of the central equity principles of the U.N. climate treaty, i.e. action by countries according to their responsibility and capability. We conclude with a discussion of how a start in the MEF could lead to a new framework being brought into those broader negotiations.

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SERIES: Global Views | No. 40