How Can We Create a Fair and Ambitious Climate Agreement, with Differentiated Responsibilities?

October 29, 2015

The countries that have used up much more than their share of the atmosphere in pollution they have dumped there over the past 200 years must lead the way and reduce greenhouse gas pollutants rapidly in the next 15 years.

As the bishops said on 26 October, the Paris agreement in December must “strongly limit a global temperature increase and set a goal for complete decarbonisation by mid-century, in order to protect frontline communities suffering from the impacts of climate change, such as those in the Pacific Islands and in coastal regions.”  We must put “an end to the fossil fuel era,” phasing out emissions by midcentury and providing “affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy access for all.”[1]

Scientists point out that wealthy and technologically advanced nations have the technological ability to move to 100% clean energy much faster than other states or nations.  Nations that are rapidly extending electricity to all also represent an opportunity to develop in the right way without duplicating the fossil-dependent path taken by others.  Developed countries have a “differentiated responsibility” to move to make a rapid shift to clean energy and help poorer countries do so as well.  Recent studies have shown that “most countries need to at least double their efforts on climate,” and developed nations would need to double or triple their current efforts to limit global warming to 2⁰C.

Fair and ambitious climate agreements can be measured and evaluated using cumulative emissions.[2] “Distributive justice” proposes that all countries start from the present and converge at some point at the same level of per-capita emissions.  However “corrective justice” seeks to correct the unfair distribution in past emissions by requiring higher historical emitters to emit less per capita in the future (and perhaps even produce negative emissions). This essentially means that all nations have an equal sum of past and future per-person emissions.[3]  One proposed mechanism for fairness is that countries match the effort, calculating commensurate targets based on either distributive or corrective justice approaches (whichever results in a more generous allocation for each country). Ultimately, no country does any “more” than any other country, and each country is free to choose its own definition of what is fair.  Leaders can be identified as such and relative ambition can be transparently assessed.

Achieving 1.5C with high probability requires CO2 emissions to be zero as early as 2045, no later than 2065, with negative emissions thereafter, and total CO2 below a level of 400ppm CO2 equivalent in the long term.[4]  Zero net emission economies and societies are achievable as part of well-planned, robust economic growth that emphasizes shifting from reliance on fossil fuels (e.g., coal) to clean energy for electricity, shifts to electrification (for transport and other demands) that displaces demand for oil and gas, and improved energy efficiency in buildings and plants that helps lower electrical demand.  We also need to respect and protect the Earth and our life support systems, such as forests and natural areas that provide natural carbon sinks.

The choices we make today lock in emissions trajectories for decades to come, leaving communities vulnerable to climate impacts or charting a better, safer, and healthier path forward.   Clean, affordable, reliable fuels like wind and water can turn energy poverty into energy prosperity, employing more people and supporting more families.  This shift is vital to the health and well-being of future generations as well as our own.

[1] New York Times,  On current energy poverty, on current (fossil-fuel based) trends, there will still be some 500 million people in Africa without access to modern energy in 2030.  At this point, 621 million people – 2 out of 3 sub-Saharan Africans –do not have access to electricity and Africans pay as much as 66 times more for their electricity than someone in the UK according to the Department for International Development.  Half of businesses in sub-Saharan Africa say a lack of reliable electricity supply is a major constraint in their enterprises. Power outages cost sub-Saharan Africa countries 1-2% of their GDP annually.

The use of solar panels provides not only a safer and more reliable energy supply, but cheaper too. Additionally, reaching the 2030 objective could create 4.5 million jobs in the off grid renewables based electricity sector. Solar has already come a long way in the region. In 2009, just 1% of sub-Saharan Africans used solar lighting. Today, that has reached nearly 5%.  A joint project with Kofi Anan and Richard Branson thinks that solar-powered energy can be provided to all by 2030.  The latter said, “Energy poverty and economic poverty are two sides of the same coin. Access to sustainable energy like solar can change all that. It fuels entrepreneurship, it boosts educational opportunities and it’s an incredible source of women’s empowerment.” /2015/oct/22/solar-power-energy-africa-low-carbon-campaign-kofi-annan-bob-geldof-richard-branson

[2] G. Peters, R. Andrew, S. Solomon, and P. Friedlingstein, Measuring a fair and ambitious climate agreement using cumulative emissions. 15 October 2015. Environmental Research LettersVolume 10Number 10


This chart shows targets (for 2025 and 2030 in each case) under different justice approaches. All targets are expressed against 2010 levels.

Country Years Distributive justice Corrective justice
Argentina 2025 -18% -14%
Argentina 2030 -28% -24%
Australia 2025 -18% -40%
Australia 2030 -30% -65%
Brazil 2025 -25% -31%
Brazil 2030 -35% -45%
Canada 2025 -29% -48%
Canada 2030 -41% -70%
China 2025 -19% +3
China 2030 -32% -4%
EU28 2025 -30% -35%
EU28 2030 -41% -49%
India 2025 +68% +68
India 2030 +84% +98%
Indonesia 2025 -32% -26%
Indonesia 2030 -39% -32%
Japan 2025 -39% -34%
Japan 2030 -50% -45%
Mexico 2025 +1% +8%
Mexico 2030 -9% +13
Norway 2025 -2% -13%
Norway 2030 -13% -23%
Russia 2025 -35% -53%
Russia 2030 -48% -73%
Saudi Arabia 2025 -11% -21%
Saudi Arabia 2030 -22% -38%
South Africa 2025 -21% -22%
South Africa 2030 -33% -37%
South Korea 2025 -44% -36%
South Korea 2030 -54% -43%
Switzerland 2025 -23% -13%
Switzerland 2030 -33% -20%
Turkey 2025 0% +4%
Turkey 2030 -5% +6%
USA 2025 -29% -51%
USA 2030 -41% -74%


[4] UNEP (2014) Emissions gap report.