The Pathway to Ambition

26 November 2012

Is equity really the pathway to ambition? ECO is here to say that it had better be. Without equity, nothing else will work. Which is to say that nothing else will work well enough. Without equity the story of the low carbon, climate resilient transition will be a story of “too little, too late.” And as the scientists are anxiously telling us – see, recently, the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat report – this is a story without a happy ending.

Let’s admit the public secret that we all already know – equity will either be shaped into a pathway to ambition or inequity will, assuredly, loom before us as an altogether unscalable wall. We can see how this would happen. The US – while insisting that it’s pushing bravely past the sterile politics of an obsolete North/South firewall – has managed to purge CBDR (and RC) from all official texts. But to what effect? For an overwhelming majority of Parties, absence of new equity language affirms the obvious. The Convention language applies. Has the US noticed that actions provoke reactions?

The head of the US delegation has rejected the Annexes as “anachronistic,” and has gone on to call for “the differentiation of a continuum, with each country expected to act vigorously in accordance with its evolving circumstances, capabilities and responsibilities.” It’s a good idea, though alas it suffers by its association with the US's aggressive – and often abrasive – drive to destroy 1997’s Kyoto Protocol. Coming into Doha, ECO can only wonder if this unfortunate picture is about to change. With President Obama’s re-election, there’s a chance to reset Washington’s international strategy, tactics and personnel. There won’t be many more chances before 2015.

Meanwhile, the position is obvious. The ambitious, global principle-based regime that we need can only come by way of a creative elaboration of the Convention’s principles, CBDR/RC first among them. So, yes Mr. Stern, we need a dynamic approach, one that takes the evolving realities of this mad and dangerous world into full account. Which is to say that we’re not going to get it without an approach to dynamism that is widely accepted as both procedurally and substantively fair.

Where does this leave us? With a desperate situation in which all wealthy countries must quickly do their part to close the short-term emissions gap. This, fortunately, is a goal that can be agreed politically and legally within the bounds of the existing accords and treaties, but only if Parties negotiate in good faith. In particular, existing commitments – to mitigate and to support the mitigation and adaptation of others – must be achieved. Beyond the short-term, a new accord will be needed, a more challenging accord that we’re not going to get without a vocal and political commitment to make “equitable access to sustainable development” into something real. This, in turn, will demand a robust negotiation on creative, principle-based approaches to sharing the long-term global costs and opportunities of mitigation and adaptation.

There’s still time to launch the ADP with high and cooperative ambitions. But, frankly, there’s not much time left. What’s needed now is courage and real statesmanship. The Obama Administration, for its part, has to begin negotiating for a regime that’s fair enough to actually work. And the G77’s negotiators must do better as well. When BASIC Ministers, writing in their September declaration, called for “an enhanced global effort to be implemented after 2020, under the UNFCCC, which would respect the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and differentiation between Annex I and non-Annex I Parties,” they weren’t exactly signalling an openness to fresh and expansive approaches to CBDR/RC. Given the current situation, their reticence was understandable, but it didn’t suggest the kind of leadership that we’re going to need in coming years. Perhaps, after Doha, such leadership will finally be on the agenda.

Difficult negotiations lie ahead. How can they best be organized? Equity is quite important enough to get its own work stream. But if this is not to be, we’re confident that either the Vision or Ambition workstreams – or both! – will be more than willing to open their doors to the equity discussion. One way or another, the discussion is going to have to take place, and no one should be foolish enough to believe that, by attempting to push it aside, they’re doing the hard and thankless work of true realism.

Here’s some free advice: Let’s discuss principles first, and having agreed on the keystones (hint: the indispensable points are ambition, capacity, responsibility and the sustainable development rights of the poor) we’ll be in a position to move forward to a practical, non-nonsense conversation about indicators and comparability. We’ll be in a position to move, that is, down the equity corridor – or, if you prefer, up the equity ladder – from principles, by way of indicators, to coherent and reciprocal agreements.

This situation will not be quickly resolved. But there’s not going to be any real trust, or momentum, until equity is a recognized, respected, and foundational part of this negotiation. And – does this still need to be said? – until there’s substantive progress on the finance front as well, for this and only this can translate rhetoric and good intentions into believable action. The good news is that both of these breakthroughs are ours for the taking.

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