The Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Bonn for the last two weeks to follow up on their agreements at COP17 in Durban and lay the groundwork for COP18, to be held in Doha, Qatar, at the end of the year.

As part of the discussions, on Wednesday, 16 May, the UNFCCC Secretariat hosted an in-session workshop on “equitable access to sustainable development”. Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at SEI-US and an expert in equity issues, was invited by the UNFCCC Secretariat to deliver an introductory presentation to frame the issues for a discussion amongst the Parties and civil society.

Kartha noted that equity and sustainable development are so multi-faceted that their discussion could be virtually boundless. But in the UNFCCC context, the key point is fairly simple: all countries must do their part to avoid dangerous climate change, but they don’t all have the same responsibilities or capabilities – and developing countries have a right to prioritise sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Defining an equitable outcome
In practical terms, Kartha said, this means that any climate deal must meet three basic requirements to ensure that countries’ right to equitable access to sustainable development is not compromised:

  • The global emissions peak (and subsequent decline) must be consistent with keeping climate change below 2°C, and preferably below 1.5°C – or else sustainable development would be undermined by climate change impacts.
  • Each country must have a sufficient share of the limited remaining greenhouse gas budget, as this determines how soon its national emissions must peak and how quickly decline.
  • Each country must also have adequate financial and technological means to hold down emissions and to make the transition from an economy in which emissions are rising to one in which they are falling, without compromising development needs.

The inescapable math
Keeping global temperature increases below 2°C requires an ambitious mitigation effort, with global emissions peaking by 2015 and declining about 20 per cent compared with business as usual by 2020, followed by further emissions declines of 2 to 3 per cent per year over several more decades.

Because of the small size of the remaining emissions budget available, its allocation among countries “is inherently an issue of equity”, Kartha said.

Even if Annex I countries reducing their emissions sharply, by 40 per cent by 2020, and by 90 per cent by 2050 (below 1990 levels), there will still not be much emissions space left for the developing world. In fact, non-Annex I countries’ emissions would need to peak within two or three years of the global peak in 2015, followed by cuts of 2 to 3 per cent per year.

The faster that Annex I emissions fall, the more time the others will have, Kartha noted, but not much more. Even if Annex I emissions fell by 45 per cent by 2020 and 95 per cent by 2050, as the Alliance of Small Island States has called for, it would only buy non-Annex I countries about two more years, he said.

Not enough time to conquer poverty
This is why access to adequate financial and technological resources is crucial, Kartha said: because many countries are going to have to start reducing emissions well before they have lifted their people out of poverty or built necessary infrastructure – much less reached developed-country living standards.

For example, Kartha said, by the 2015 – 2025 time period when their emissions must peak, India and Indonesia are projected to have incomes level of about $5,000 per person (in purchasing power parity terms), the same as the USA in the 1890s.

In that period, Kartha noted, the USA was rapidly modernising and increasing its CO2 emissions by 6 to 7 per cent per year. “At this same level of income, India, Indonesia and other developing countries will need to be doing exactly the opposite, decarbonising rapidly, and forgoing fossil-fuel driven development as the route out of poverty.”

That is the fundamental challenge of equity, Kartha said. It is vital for all countries to have the means to transition to low-carbon economies, “and to do so without compromising other legitimate development needs”. They will also need resources for adaptation, “to cope with the consequences of climate change that we have failed to avoid”.

Download Kartha’s PowerPoint presentation (PDF, 357kb)

Read a Q&A with other SEI climate experts about the Bonn talks. All must play a role: The red line at the bottom is the 2°C emissions pathway; the wedges are the emission reductions from different countries that would be required, together, to achieve that goal.