Fall 2016 (30.3) Essay

Climate Contributions and the Paris Agreement: Fairness and Equity in a Bottom-Up Architecture

Ethical questions of fairness, responsibility, and burden-sharing have always been central to the international politics of climate change and efforts to construct an effective intergovernmental response to this problem. The conclusion of the Paris Agreement last December, lauded by the media, governments, and civil society around the world, is the most recent such effort, following the collapse of negotiations six years prior at the 2009 Copenhagen conference. The shape and form of the Paris Agreement, however, represents a radically different governance structure to its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, reorienting the international regime toward a “bottom-up” structure, emphasizing national flexibility in order to ensure broader participation. In doing so, the Paris Agreement also provides a different answer to the question of what constitutes a fair and equitable response to climate change.

The purpose of this essay is to review the normative implications of the Paris Agreement, namely in the challenges it poses for attaining a fair distribution of the “carbon budget” and for maintaining a good chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. In these new institutional arrangements and political compromises that have set the framework for climate action in the coming decade and beyond, how will fairness and equity be ensured in a world of voluntary climate “contributions”? The first section of this essay presents the key features of the Paris Agreement in the context of the “top-down/bottom-up” discussion on governance architectures and the notion of a carbon budget that has framed much of the recent ethics-based discussion on the distribution of emission rights and responsibilities. The second section then highlights the new ways in which the Paris Agreement has sought to respond to the normative importance of equity considerations in the climate response, namely, in its accommodation of “national circumstances” as a context for fairness. Finally, this essay points to the more positive implications of this emphasis on national circumstances—particularly regarding the new opportunities for argumentation and social scrutiny that claims of being “fair” and “ambitious” are subject to that will need to be used to ensure that the new climate architecture delivers on its promise.

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