Thursday, December 10, 2015

It’s about the money stupid! Ethics101 at COP21

Hugh hanging out at COP21 with the great climate ethicist
Donald Brown (Widener Uni, Pennsylvania)
It is perhaps unsurprising news that most developed countries employ scant moral reasoning when devising their NDCs. (NDCs are the nationally determined contributions each country puts forward to respond to the threat of climate change.) Instead, evidence suggests that countries calculate what level of effort fits with their own economic self-interest. Sometimes they  temper this calculation with a reputational concern for remaining in-step with the NDCs of similarly-positioned countries.

But it is surprising news that in many countries, not only the media but also major non-government organizations (NGOs) seem incapable of systematically challenging their countries’ NDC on moral grounds. States are thus able to avoid responding to common-sense moral questions like ‘What if everyone followed the same policy we are employing?’ and ‘How would we feel about this policy if another state was imposing such risks upon us?’

Mitigation-centred thinking

One result of this dearth of basic ethical interrogation is that the moral dialogue in developed countries tends to focus on national mitigation efforts. Attention hones in on the percentage of economy-wide carbon reduction the country promises to achieve. (Alternatively, the country may report the actual tonnage of carbon they aim to remove from their overall emissions. This is usually a more informative metric.) The protocols of the global climate regime mirror this focus on mitigation.

But as soon as we consider the situation from a developing country perspective, it is easy to see that such efforts – important as they are – constitute only one part of the developed countries’ moral responsibilities. Another numerical figure is at least as important: the brute sum of cash that developed countries are willing to hand over each year in order to fund developing countries. Such funds can help developing countries to: (a) pursue their own low-carbon economic pathways, (b) put in place adaption measures to deal with the challenges raised by inevitable future warming, and (c) respond to climate-related humanitarian disasters, such as island states facing rising sea-levels.

These three issues make up the thorny question of finance at the heart of the Paris talks – the core question that will probably only be resolved in the final drawn-out-but-nevertheless-frantic moments of negotiation over the next few days. The question comes down to this: How much will developed countries assist developing countries in the form of mitigation efforts, adaptation, technology transfers and loss and damage?

Reasonable finance

It would be easy to write these claims off as opportunistic demands for massive transfers of cash from the global north to the global south. To be sure, it would be naïve to suppose some avaricious governments are not seized by the prospect of gleefully carving out their piece of (say) a $100-billion-per-annum pie.

Yet the grim moral reality for developed countries – and one that their citizenry must begin seriously appreciating – is that any fair moral outcome must include enormous financial assistance for developing countries. (To be clear, we are not speaking here of emissions-trading, where rich states pay for poor states to mitigate so that the rich states can continue emitting. The mitigation, adaptation and loss-and-damage finance questions remain quite independent of developed countries’ own mitigation responsibilities.) 

Of course, there is room for argument about what a fair division of burdens in confronting climate change challenges would look like. Some might prioritize historical responsibilities for previous emissions – perhaps going back to the dawn of the industrial revolution, or perhaps just from the time that the problem became widely recognized around 1990. Others would prefer to look forward, and to work from a principle where those possessing the greatest capacity to act shoulder the greatest burdens (as progressive tax systems work in most advanced economies). After all, it seems unconscionable to demand that the poorest of the poor should make sacrifices from their already meager economic prospects to deal with a problem to which they have not contributed.

The original text of the Framework Convention reflects both these concerns for historical responsibility and capacity.

Hugh at COP21 alongside lots of important and clever people.
Certainly, there can and should be robust debate about the status, nature and interpretation of these and other relevant moral principles. None of the above remarks should be seen as definitive. However, the reality remains that on almost any recognizable moral principles, developed countries should be doing vastly more than they are – not only in terms of their own emissions but also in assisting developing countries in their adaptation and mitigation efforts. The recent Civil Society Review of country’s NDCs graphically shows this. It allows readers to select from an array (an ‘equity band’) of moral principles, and to give those principles different interpretations and prioritizations. And it shows that even the edge of the equity band that is most favourable to developed countries imposes far greater financial burdens than any of them have yet acknowledged. (My country, Australia, scores woefully on even the most generous parameters available. See also the Climate Action Tracker’s report on Australia.)

Reasonable transparency and differentiation

All of this might give the impression that the developing countries are entirely on the side of the angels. But the moral arguments cut both ways. The G77+China group continues to insist that the dividing line between developed and developing countries was set by the Annexes of the 1992 Convention. But moral principles of responsibility and capacity must attend to the realities at any point in time – such as the realities of China’s enormous economic growth and ensuing carbon emissions over recent decades.  

So too, if developed countries are morally required to part with vast sums of money, then developing countries need to acknowledge that such funds come attached with powerful duties of accountability and transparency. As obligations for finance grow in significance for the Paris Agreement, so must responsibilities for governance.

Neither of these sets of duties – for developing and developed countries alike – will be easy for duty-bearers to stomach. But in the face of a challenge as great as climate change, the need for a moral perspective has never been greater.


Unknown said...

I agree with these observations. Civil society needs leaders to encourage ethical and moral reflection on national climate change policies. It looks like nations will be required after Paris to submit new commitments every five years,
Donald Brown.

William Ferguson said...

Totally agree. These 2 questions should be the starting point: ‘What if everyone followed the same policy we are employing?’ and ‘How would we feel about this policy if another state was imposing such risks upon us?’

To my mind it seems pretty obvious that we should determine the amount of emissions per capita that can be allowed and then ensure each state converges to that.