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28 November 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:02pm

It’s a delusion that everyone is equally responsible for climate change.

 We’ll all need to act to stop climate breakdown, but that action, and the cost, cannot realistically be spread equally across all countries and individuals. 

By Rachel Kennerley

There are many things our world desperately needs, at the forefront is a coordinated international response to climate change that delivers the small benefit of saving the planet from global warming. This is the context in which decision makers need to approach the next climate negotiations starting 2 December in Poland. 

There was always the risk that after ratifying the Paris Agreement, governments could congratulate themselves, satisfied by their pledges for emissions reductions but having done nowhere near enough to back the pledges up. Now, as feared, the agreement isn’t resulting in action. The pledges on the table put us on track to planetary warming of over 3°. That’s species-ending, and no mistake. Coral reefs? Gone at 2°, along with the ecosystems and food systems they support. An estimated 1 billion people need coral reefs for food. 

We can choose. Succeed through international cooperation to do our fair share and face down the largest crisis we’ve known, or, fail separately, in disastrous isolation and face the devastating consequences of 3-7° of warming, causing billions to suffer.

The climate crisis demands international cooperation on an unprecedented scale. It’s difficult, painful work. No country can solve “its own” climate problem, even if it rapidly drives emissions to zero. Countries need co-ordinated action to protect what is ultimately a shared climate. And for countries to take the ambitious steps now necessary, they must know they aren’t acting pointlessly alone. 

The recent IPCC report detailed the necessary actions to have the proverbial snowballs of a liveable planet. But there’s one crucial area needing more attention: equity between countries and inequality within them. We’ll all need to act to stop climate breakdown, but that action, and the cost, cannot realistically be spread equally across all countries and individuals. 

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Without considering how equity weighs in, global climate action will fail. Equity isn’t a moral add-on; a nice, academic argument to hold up to the light. It’s the bloody guts of the issue, and a practical necessity to prevail in the face of climate crisis. While it’s a global problem, it’s disingenuous to pretend the impacts of climate change are equally felt between countries and individuals. Tropical storms, extensive flooding, debilitating droughts, wildfires and diminished crop yields are disproportionately affecting poorer, marginalised people, usually in the global south. Already precarious livelihoods become ruined; as seen from rising sea waters in Bangladesh, East African droughts and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Even in wealthy countries, marginalised communities are left to fend for themselves, without a social safety net. Look at the variation in response to Hurricane Katrina, or more recently in Puerto Rico, or private firefighting squads employed by the rich in Californian wildfires. 

It’s a pretence that climate change impacts everyone equally, and it’s a delusion that everyone is equally responsible for climate change. This is the problem: meaningful discussion of equity, how we got here, how countries’ efforts compare to what’s required, and what can reasonably be expected of countries, that is, their fair shares, is being dangerously ignored. Side-lining equity means one thing: we won’t get a global solution to the ultimate global problem. 

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What can be said about inequity between countries can also be levelled at inequality between individuals, within nations. However unconscionable, some truly believe wealth disparity is inevitable, echoing E.M.Forster’s industrialist in Howards End, that “there will always be rich and poor”. Here, issues intersect, extending beyond the parameters of climate negotiations to how we live and divide resources. Good. While the main thing is equity among nations, it’s worth thinking about equity among people. The richest 10 per cent of the global population commands over half of global income. That income is mostly in wealthy countries, like the US and the EU. 

National climate action pledges must take account of the fact that high-consuming individuals – most of them in wealthy countries – have disproportionately contributed to the global emissions burden. Is the woman in Haiti, with electricity for only part of a day, expected to shoulder the burden equally with the businessman flying regularly? Even more importantly, national pledges must consider that wealthy countries have greater economic and institutional capacity to act, and their obligations are logically greater than countries with little emissions or capacity, and still facing developmental challenges. Only when countries recognise these disparities, and then act in line, can we meet the Paris Agreement goals, thereby containing global warming, which is – just – still possible. 

This isn’t debatable, it demands to be positioned as practical and beneficial, because blame won’t work. Without equity, global solutions to the climate crisis are impossible. We need to avoid narratives that equity is too political, too hard, too dangerous. Or more insidiously, that pursuing equity risks the precarious balance of the Paris Agreement, because any so-called balance is worthless if we flounder, unable to steer a pathway to the Paris goals. 

Collective responsibility for climate mobilisation is key: those with more, let’s boldly call them “the rich”, must take responsibility differently to those without. Can we here in the UK really say we can’t lighten our footprint more easily than those whose impacts are already minimal?  What about the 40 per cent of the population in the so-called “global middle class”?  Almost half of them live on $20 a day, or less!  Consumption, emissions, and the environmental impacts we cause are of a different order to those struggling to feed themselves. 

It follows that economies where the wealth of the rich is concentrated should support a global transformation. Wealthier countries must dramatically deepen their domestic mitigation, and if they are to contribute their fair shares to the common effort, support additional actions beyond their borders to help other countries transition to low-emission paths. Many, not all, poorer country pledges already meet or exceed their fair shares. But poorer countries must also do more, realistically that can’t happen without international support: transferring knowledge and technology, and crucially, money.

In our world of extreme disparities, claiming we “can’t afford” urgent climate action is malign fiction. We have a meaningful choice, armed with science and global ambition – succeed together, or fail separately. 

Rachel Kennerley is a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth.