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Q&A: Sivan Kartha on the Civil Society Equity Review

An architect of the Climate Equity Reference Calculator explains why the tool’s latest application is crucial for the Paris negotiations, and for real progress afterward.
Marion Davis / Published on 8 December 2015
A mapping of leaders and laggards, based on selected country analyses.

A mapping of leaders and laggards, based on selected country analyses.

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Sivan Kartha

Senior Scientist


In the lead-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference, various analyses have been published of countries’ “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), noting that altogether they fall far short of the mitigation needed to keep warming below 2°C.

On Friday at COP21, a broad and diverse group of civil society organizations presented a major report that rates the Paris pledges based on principles of equity and fairness. The technical analysis was provided by the Climate Equity Reference Project, a joint effort of SEI and EcoEquity. SEI-US Senior Scientist Sivan Kartha, who worked closely with the group, answered questions about the review.

Q: How did you get involved in this?
SK: For years, disparate civil society groups have been talking about the importance of equity in a global climate agreement. SEI has been working to make the discussions more concrete, drawing on data, using clear and transparent indicators, talking about ethical notions like “responsibility” and “capability” using quantitative methods. This caught the attention of these groups, who felt this might be a way past the deadlock.

Several organizations eager to do something about equity came together and built a very broad coalition, including groups from the global North and South, some focused on the environment, others on social justice, some representing trade unions, others faith based groups… These groups started from very different points, but all shared the conviction that the only way a global agreement can be effective is if it is fair. Their views have come closer over time, but there are still big differences among them.

Q: How did they frame the analysis?
SK: The Climate Equity Reference approach is a framework for thinking about “fair shares” that can encompass a range of definitions, and allows for a wide set of ethical choices and assumptions. Through long discussions, the civil society coalition identified the key, ethically salient, politically contentious issues that have been at the root of the divides in the negotiations for years. The first was the thorny issue of historic responsibility… how far back in time should a country’s emissions count in assessing its contribution to causing climate change? Should you go back to the dawn of the industrial age, or just back to the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)? These are tough issues; though they tried intensely, they couldn’t come to an agreement themselves, though they narrowed it down to a range: 1850–1950.

Q: So that’s responsibility. The second issue was countries’ respective capacities?
SK: That’s right. The coalition agreed that income is a good indicator of a country’s capacity, but also wanted to ask, how progressive should this indicator be? It is important not just to look at countries’ average income, but at the distribution of incomes within countries, so you can distinguish between a dollar earned by a rich person vs. a dollar earned by a poor person. That’s also how taxation works throughout the world. There’s a level below which your income doesn’t get taxed, and above it the tax rate rises. For this indicator, the civil society coalition again settled on a range: at the less progressive end it exempted income below 20 USD per day, and counted the rest equally towards countries’ capacity, and at the other end it exempted income below 20 USD and progressively counted income up to roughly 80 USD.

Q: The analysis also looked at a third option, 1990 and about 7 USD a day.
SK: Yes. This was a “political benchmark” that the civil society groups didn’t consider fair, but agreed it’s still politically relevant, so we looked at it as well.

Q: So you calculated countries’ “fair shares” under each of those three settings. A key question here is, what are these “fair shares” of?
SK: They’re fair shares of the total mitigation the world needs in 2030. We used the Climate Action Tracker “1.5°C pathway”. The group decided to call it a 2°C pathway because, as Climate Action Tracker describes it, it’s ambitious enough for a 50% chance to get warming to 1.5°C by 2100, but only after peaking at a higher level, and it provides a somewhat better than two-thirds chance of keeping warming below 2°C. It’s a bit more ambitious than Climate Action Tracker’s 2°C pathway – it caps emissions in 2030 at 31 Gt CO2e instead of 38 Gt. But both require a massive bending of the emissions curve; the latest Emissions Gap report shows business as usual at 65 Gt CO2e in 2030.

Q: What did you find when you analysed countries’ pledges?
SK: Since there is a range of different perspectives, there is a range of fair shares for each country – but you can still learn a lot. When you measure up the INDCs against the equity range – or even against the political benchmark that lies outside the equity range – you get a clear message about who are leaders and who are laggards.

Q: Which ones stand out to you?
SK: The U.S. comes out as a laggard, and so do the EU and Japan, whereas many developing countries are leaders. China is shown to be a leader, which might be surprising to many people.

Q: What was SEI’s role in this project?
SK: Our key role was to provide the tool, and with it a way of looking at climate and equity and fair shares that links what people are struggling with as equity questions, with cold, hard numbers. We provided a fairly simple way to capture progressivity, for example, and helped them account for the rising middle classes in the developing world, and their consumption. That is particularly useful for civil society groups in the South, for their domestic political campaigns, who want to address the roles of their elites.

Q: The analysis finds some countries’ “fair shares” are quite large relative to their domestic emissions – or the reductions they could plausibly make by 2030. How do you deal with that?
SK: Yes, that comes out absolutely clearly, and it’s not surprising. The distribution across countries of the obligation to act, based on capacity and responsibility, is very different from where mitigation needs to happen. Clearly a very large share of mitigation has to occur in developing countries, where emissions are growing the fastest and already account for two-thirds of the global total. This means serious international cooperation is essential. Countries with a large share of responsibility and capacity, but limited mitigation potential, will need to provide support – through financial and technical cooperation – to countries who have less capacity and responsibility, but a lot of mitigation potential.

Q: And yet developed countries’ INDCs focus on domestic mitigation, not climate finance.
SK: Yes, exactly. And the scope of the INDCs has been highly contested. Developing countries fought to be able to include adaptation needs, for example, and by making conditional pledges, they have also highlighted the need for finance. So the lack of any assurance in the INDCs that of long-term, reliable, predictable support is a big problem for those countries counting on that support. There is a lot that still needs to be resolved, and it won’t be easy, and it’s unlikely to happen in Paris.

Q: From that perspective, what needs to happen in Paris?
SK: What is key is that the clearly inadequate INDCs are not locked in. There need to be mechanisms within the Paris agreement for ramping up ambition, that help match wealthier countries who should be providing support with the poorer countries that need to mitigate even beyond their own fair share of the effort. Rather than talking about big sums of money for indeterminate actions, it’ll be a lot more realistic to talk about specific actions in specific sectors, where you can get a better handle of the emissions implications, the costs, the technology requirements, the policy support needed, etc. I think that is where the greatest potential is to raise ambition in Paris and beyond – to match those concrete actions with commitments for support.

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