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Put equity at the heart of stopping climate catastrophe

To deliver the Paris Climate Agreement target of keeping global warming below 1.5˚C there has to be a massive, urgent escalation of ambition and action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This can only be achieved if climate negotiators have a frank and open discussion on equity. This is needed for a fair sharing of global action and a significant shift away from conventional development paths.

I once asked a class of 11-year-olds to calculate their carbon footprint, and I immediately realised which kids came from the wealthiest families and which the poorest. The wealthiest kids and their families had huge carbon footprints and could make choices about their carbon emissions: how many overseas holidays they took, how they fuelled their 4x4 cars, and the energy consumption of their houses. The poorest kids had low carbon emissions and no choice but to walk to school, live in draughty rented flats and consume electricity from the cheapest, dirtiest provider.

In short, the wealthiest kids generated more emissions than the poorest, and at the same time held more power to address this. A similar trend occurs when we look at climate action internationally.

Research from the Civil Society Equity review shows that the top 10% of wealthy individuals are responsible for over half of global greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon footprint of the poorest 10% can barely be traced. Wealthy people overwhelmingly reside in wealthy countries. Wealthy countries which committed in the UN Climate Convention to "take the lead in combatting climate change" need to recognise the implications of their position of privilege for the scale of action they need to take, both at home and globally.

Equity as we implement the Paris Agreement

‘Equity’ in climate change negotiations concerns the idea that different countries have different responsibilities for action. But within the current negotiations over implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement there is a huge resistance to using the word ‘equity’ because of past disagreements and political positioning. Under the Kyoto Protocol, equity was used to describe a clear divide between 'developed' countries which had emissions reduction targets, and 'developing' countries, which didn't. Under the Paris Agreement, equity is far less well defined.

In reality, the biggest opponents of a constructive discussion of equity are wealthy nations, which want to evade or minimise their own obligations. They know that equity means changing the way they run their own economies. It also means letting go of some of their global power; sharing their financial and technological wherewithal with poorer nations to help them develop in a climate-smart way.

The national pledges made at the Paris climate negotiations speak volumes. Detailed equity analysis by the CSO Equity Review calculates that wealthy nations, including the EU countries and the USA, are taking on less than a quarter of their fair share of the global action needed to cut enough greenhouse gas emissions to stay within the 1.5˚C limit. They need to up their game, fast.

Poorer nations can also go further in taking alternative low-carbon pathways, but to make that choice, they need the wealthy countries to partner with them, sharing finance and clean technologies. There is a huge opportunity to work together to keep us all in a climate-safe world.

Getting negotiations back on track

It’s well known that one of the major powers is not playing ball at all in the negotiations: the USA. However, that does not mean the rest can sit back and do nothing. The climate crisis rolls on like a runaway train, bringing forest fires, drought, floods and ecological collapse, resulting in economic and social chaos. The IPCC special report on 1.5˚C has told us we have a little over a decade to get back on track and give us a chance to avoid disaster.

It is time for a mature discussion on climate justice, urgency and equity as we move to implement the Paris Agreement and take on the enormity of the task ahead. For those of us in wealthy countries, this means admitting both our historic responsibility for causing climate change, and recognising our economic capacity to support the national and global transitions that are needed. Wealthy countries partnering with poorer countries to support the international zero-carbon transition is not charity – it is a necessity and a responsibility. A climate outcome is neither ambitious nor fair if it fails to avert catastrophe.

During a recent discussion on how to accelerate climate action, a civil servant asked me how they could ensure climate equity by getting poorer communities to cut their CO2 emissions, so that we include them in climate action. He had completely missed the point. Can we be blaming a poor African woman for emitting black carbon from her open fire cook stove, while we jet around the world in relative luxury? A wealthy individual should not hide their over-consumption behind the low emissions of a poor farmer. We all need to be part of the climate change solution. But we need to recognise that some of us have clear choices and wealth to make changes, while others need to be supported to be able to take positive choices.

Recognizing the power underlying decision-making is vital to achieving climate change ambition, whether it is at an individual or a national level. Acknowledging which countries have the power to make choices, and which will require partnership to take the zero-carbon pathway is essential to negotiations. We will only achieve a lasting solution to our climate crisis if we talk about and act on equity.