A fair climate deal? Accountability first!

On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he would take the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, and that he could negotiate a “better deal”. Saul Loeb/AFP

On June 1, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, ignoring pleas from businesses (including fossil-energy heavyweights such as ExxonMobil), city mayors (including the former steel capital Pittsburgh), federal states (including the world’s sixth-largest economy, California), his own Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, all other G7 leaders and, last but not least, the Pope.

After almost two decades of tedious negotiations, the Paris Agreement (or Accord de Paris) was adopted in December 2015 by virtually every country in the world, including the US. The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to hold global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement not only involves greenhouse gas emission targets for developed countries but also for emerging and developing countries such as China and India.

The countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement are obliged to submit a plan every five years to the United Nations stating how they intend to achieve their “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), which are voluntary pledges to limit national greenhouse-gas emissions and to help developing countries cope with climate change. In a nutshell, President Trump essentially decided to pull his country out of a voluntary deal that has no enforcement mechanism in place, thereby snubbing the global coalition of almost 200 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, and adding stress to transatlantic diplomatic relations.

Why did Donald Trump dump the Paris Agreement?

According to his Rose Garden Speech delivered on June 1, there are several reasons but “bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States”.

Allocating emission reduction efforts across countries may be regarded as a typical problem of distributive justice. In 1992, countries agreed on fundamental principles for such a burden-sharing in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC):

> “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

These principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities build the basis for all UN climate negotiations. While there are numerous interpretations of what this actually means in the context of the climate negotiations, four core approaches have emerged in climate negotiations and the academic literature. First, accountability (or responsibility) relates to past and current levels of greenhouse gas emissions (polluter pays principle). Second, ability to pay highlights countries’ heterogeneous financial and technological capabilities to reduce emissions versus economic development needs. Third, egalitarian approaches such as an equal-per capita rule underline that all people should have equal initial rights to use the atmosphere. Finally, sovereignty-based rules stress countries’ rights to govern their own climate-policy targets, which typically imply preserving the current pattern of countries’ shares of global emissions (grandfathering).

President Trump Announces US withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement, June 1, 2017.

The different effort-sharing rules have very different distributive implications. For example, the USA or the EU would be better off under a grandfathering principle than under an equal-per-capita rule. The reverse would be true for China. Indeed, policy makers and negotiators at climate conferences have been found to prefer burden-sharing rules that are in their countries’ economic interest.

What do ordinary citizens think a fair burden-sharing rule should look like?

A recent journal article explores citizen’s perceptions of distributive justice across countries with regard to the key burden-sharing rules, relying on a representative sample of more than 3,300 citizens aged 18 and older in China, Germany, and the United States. These participants were asked how strongly the following rules should, in their mind, be considered when allocating costs across countries in order to reduce global warming:

  • Every country has to bear costs according to the emissions it causes (hence countries causing higher emissions have a higher share of the costs) – accountability.

  • Every country has to bear costs according to its economic strength (hence richer countries have a higher share of the costs) – capability.

  • Every country is allowed to produce the same amount of emissions per capita (hence countries with currently high emissions per capita have higher costs) – egalitarianism.

  • Every country is allowed to produce the same share of global emissions as in the past (hence the proportional reduction of emissions is the same for every country) – sovereignty.

According to the findings, citizens in all countries exhibit the same ranking of the key guiding principles for the burden-sharing of mitigation costs: accountability first, then capability, egalitarianism, and, lastly, sovereignty.

Perceptions of distributive-justice principles across countries (responses per answer category in % of total). Author provided

When citizens of China, Germany, and the United States are asked what the fairest way to distribute climate costs is, the answer is effectively the same: countries that have contributed most to climate change should pay the biggest share. Thus, citizens in these three countries have very clear ideas about what constitutes a fair distribution of the costs.

In this sense, the “unfair” argument brought by Trump is not consistent with US citizens’ beliefs, and the sovereignty approach he appears to have chosen is the least popular in his own country.

Which countries are responsible for climate change?

China surpassed the United States as the top annual emitter of CO<sub>2</sub> about a decade ago and now accounts for about 30% of global CO<sub>2</sub> emissions; with a share of 14% the US currently comes at a distant second, ahead of the EU 28 with 10%. But countries differ in size and population. For example, per-capita annual emissions in the United States are currently twice as high as in China. Since the CO<sub>2</sub> emissions (and other greenhouse gases) stay in the atmosphere for many decades, it is the cumulative emissions, which determine global warming.

Summing up CO<sub>2</sub> emissions by country since 1850 suggests that the United States, which accounts for just over 4% of the world population, is responsible for almost a third of global warming, just slightly ahead of the EU 28, which makes up 6.5% of the world population. With a population share of 18%, China is responsible for less than a sixth of historic emissions.

What exactly does the Paris Agreement oblige the United States to do (voluntarily)?

The NDC submitted by the Obama administration foresees a reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 21-28% in 2025 compared to 2005 levels, corresponding to 9-16% below 1990 levels. In comparison, the NDC submitted by the European Union foresees at least 40% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030 below 1990 levels. For Germany, the individual NDC reduction target for 2030 is 55% below 1990 levels. The NDC for China foresees a reduction of intensity (CO<sub>2</sub> emissions per unit of gross domestic product) by 60-65% in 2030 relative to 2005.

Are countries’ efforts towards fighting global warming distributed fairly across countries?

Climate Action Tracker, an association of independent European research organizations, continuously evaluates whether countries NDCs and efforts are consistent with a fair burden sharing towards reaching the “2 degree target”, thereby using a mix of criteria which include accountability, capability and per-capita emissions. The current rating for China and the EU is “medium”, while for the US it is “inadequate”.

The New York Times recently asked Climate Interactive, a US-based NGO, to estimate when the United States would have run out of fossil fuel if the US population had, hypothetically, at the beginning of the industrial era, been allocated a per-capita emission budget equal to those of the rest of the world’s population, which is consistent with meeting the 2 degree target. Accordingly, the US would have used up their “fair share” in 1944 – two years before Donald Trump was born.