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Why is equity important when tackling climate change?

Why is equity important when tackling climate change?

Poorer countries, which often face a more immediate threat from climate change argue, understandably, that those who polluted the atmosphere should do the most to fix the problem. The fossil fuels burned by developed countries like ours helped create our wealth, which means that we can better afford the measures necessary to transition to a zero carbon future.

Along with the rest of the world, the UK signed up to a principle of equity, or fairness in tackling climate change. It was formalised in international law in Kyoto in 1992 and known as Common but Differentiated Responsibilities. This established that all countries share responsibility for tackling the climate crisis, but that those who contributed more to the problem, and who generally have deeper pockets, must do more to fix it. This includes:

  • Cutting emissions more quickly than countries which have yet to industrialise;
  • Providing financial and technological support to the poorest countries to help them decarbonise. Wealthy countries pledged over a decade ago to transfer $100 billion per year in support but action has fallen short of promises.

The CAN Bill will simply enshrine these principles (which we have already signed up to) in UK law, helping us lead by example.

Some people ask why we should give financial and technological support to other countries. There are two main answers to this:

The moral reason. As the 5th largest historical emitter, the UK played a major part in causing this problem, with most CO2 emissions from the start of the industrial revolution still in the atmosphere, or just as bad, dissolved in the oceans raising the acidity of the water. It’s a simple matter of taking responsibility for cleaning up our own mess.

The self-interest reason. As poor nations rise out of poverty, the cheapest way to industrialise can sometimes be the most polluting – e.g. burning coal, particularly as other countries ban coal power and prices drop. Faced with the choice between poverty and burning coal, many will take the latter route. This will make climate change worse – for everyone in the world. We can help by providing green technology and financial assistance. In addition to mitigating climate impacts, this will provide a boost for our companies operating in the green sector.

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) also sometimes appears with ‘and Respective Capabilities’ on the end, referring to different abilities to afford to pay for decarbonisation. The short version is usually used.

The original 1992 definition of CBDR was based on an outdated categorisation of countries into developed and developing. This led to the unhelpful situation where relatively wealthy and advanced countries like China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia (still classed as ‘developing’) were categorised together with very poor countries like Gambia or Bhutan. The 2016 Paris Agreement has moved the definition on, introducing the idea that not all ‘developing’ countries are equal, and removing the possibility that, for example, Greece might have to support Saudi Arabia. More here.

Discover more frequently asked questions about Zero Hour, the Climate & Nature Bill, Climate Change, and the Nature Crisis.

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