Equitable Access to Sustainable Development: An idea whose time has come?


Equitable Access to Sustainable Development (EASD) was the dog that didn’t bark (much) in 2012. But I expect we will be hearing more from it in 2013.

Mattia Romani, James Rydge and Nick Stern in their December 2012 paper ‘Recklessly slow or a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy? Time to decide’ set out why;

We are acting as if change is too difficult and costly and delay is not a problem…One of the challenges is that there is a deep inequity in that rich countries grew wealthy on high-carbon growth and poor countries will be hit particularly hard by climate change. Recognition of that inequity must play a strong part in building international collaboration but must not be allowed to block progress; that would be the most inequitable of all outcomes.

Thinktanks in Europe, India , South Africa and China  have been working on proposals for sharing out access to the global atmospheric commons for some time.The idea was given a boost in 2010 under the championing of Jairam Ramesh, then Environment Minister of India. Highlighting that equitable access to the carbon space  seems to be sliding out of the negotiating discourse  he brought the principle back into the  negotiations and succeeded in getting ‘EASD’ written into the Cancun agreement at the end of 2010.

Perhaps it will end up as just another UNFCCC acronym; joining all the others in the scrapbook of agreed phrases covering deep divisions. But there are a couple of reasons for thinking that ‘equitable access to sustainable development’ may succeed in becoming more than a principle to be endlessly debated but never operationalised.

Firstly is the increasing recognition of the idea of planetary boundaries as the basis for bridging between science and policy. This approach  defines the limits that bound a “safe operating space for humanity”. As Alex Evans at Global Dashboard argues, if such ‘required by science’ limits are accepted, then a discussion about how to share out access to this environmental space becomes unavoidable.

Secondly, is the breakthrough in climate change negotiations that came in Durban in 2011. While the ‘Durban Platform’ agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 might seem like kicking the can down the road, it marked a dramatic break in the international staring contest set off  by the ‘Berlin Mandate’ agreed at the very first COP. The Berlin Mandate divided the world into Annex 1 countries (with emission reduction responsibilities) and Non-Annex 1 countries (with no responsibilities). As Robert Stavins notes this division introduced the critical rigidity that has prevented progress in international climate negotiations ever since.

2015 is just around the corner, and there is urgent need to define a new international climate policy architecture that includes all the major emitters and delivers emissions reductions at a scale, speed and cost that is consistent both with environmental limits, and economic and political acceptability.

‘Equitable Access to Sustainable Development’ is the holding text that marks the place for such a settlement.At the end of 2011 the ‘BASIC Experts Group’ released a book of proposals  which aimed to put some flesh on the bones of the principle.

Equitable Access to Sustainable Development Basic Experts Group report cover

You would never guess there is something interesting behind this brown cover

Any approach to staying within planetary carbon boundaries must chart a set of transition pathways that end up with low levels of per capita emissions by the middle of this century. The question of equity is not about this end point; which must be low emissions all round, but how to get there.  When do emissions in each country have to peak and begin to fall, how quickly do they have to decline, and if there are costs involved where will the resources be found to pay for them?

The BASIC Experts argue that the key to ‘solving for equity’ is time. Countries that have benefited from a hundred and fifty years of fossil fuel based industrial development have, they argue, little left little room in the carbon budget for countries which began to industrialise later. The approach to equity is therefore to set a safe global carbon budget – running from some time in the past to some time in the future – and to divide it up on an equal per capita basis, so that each nation has a total cumulative entitlement (at least as a reference point for agreement; they recognise that in practice there would need to be a formula-plus approach which reflects the specifics of national situations).

With fixed national carbon budgets, those that have already emitted beyond their budget would only be able to emit by cooperating, or trading with those who have carbon budget going spare. Countries could act as both recipients and providers of assistance. Such a system could address the call for historic responsibility and respective capabilities to be taken into account, while enabling the old Annex 1/non-annex 1 divisions to be broken down.

Obviously, the scale of transfers needed to balance the carbon budgets hinge on the critical question of what the starting year is.  China has proposed a carbon budget model which sets the meter running back in 1850. The financial flows implied in this case are large. Assuming emission reduction costs of $20 a tonne, a onetime transfer of 8 trillion dollars would be needed to balance emission budgets by 2050. More realistically perhaps, they have also run the model with a starting point of 1970 would bring the bill down considerably and require more ambitious self-funded low carbon transition pathways by emerging economies.

What has perhaps been most notable about the response to these ideas, is how muted they have been. The BASIC report attracted launch endorsements  of the kind seen on theatre billboards “A long awaited paper making concepts on equity in the greenhouse concrete” and so on, but after that there has been relatively little analysis of the proposals.

Youngos in Bonn demonstrating in support of equity

” What do we want? Equitable Access to Sustainable Development! When do we Want it? 2015!”

In May the UNFCCC hosted a Workshop on EASD in Bonn where some of the arguments were rehearsed amongst academics and negotiators.  Jonathan Pershing said that the US is supportive of the general concept of equity, but spoke against the idea of tying international climate agreement to a quantitative division of a finite carbon space (which begs the question isn’t that exactly the point?).

Nick Stern  has also written that figuring out how to operationalise EASD is critical, but does not hold out much hope for a ‘sharing out the pie’ approach. He states that formua based approaches don’t stand up to close ethical and economic examination, but admits that the problems that are more pragmatic than ethical;

Equity arguments and historical responsibility together point to allocations of emissions rights which would give large transfers to poor countries. Yet rich countries are most unlikely to accept the arguments for so doing or at least will refuse to do so.

To overcome this impasse Stern argues for tying the idea of equity to the dynamic opportunities for transition to a low-carbon economy. The ethical issues look very different and much less vexing he says if we understand them not only in terms of externality and market failure but also in terms of discovery and co-benefits.

Yes, Green growth is crucial. There is no way of achieving equitable access to sustainable development without it. And a new global economy is already in the making. Around the world from Ethiopia to Germany, from Indonesia to Colombia, and from China to Guinea, governments are developing green growth plans in response to the strategic economic risks and opportunities associated with natural resource pressures, as well as international market and international policy responses.

However, successfully avoiding environmental tipping points, securing rights and delivering improvements in social welfare are by no means necessary outcomes. Achieving low carbon growth that stays within environmental limits will require both nationally driven economic transition, technological innovation and the development of an international settlement that is fair and dynamic.

The Rio +20 Conference in 2012 generated thousands of words about the potential for green growth consistent with social equity. But there was little about the mathematics of how this circle could be squared.

The EASD analysis implies that one way to think about this is in terms of the sliding scale of starting years. If 1850 is too early to start dividing up the carbon space equitably, and 2030 is too late, what is the latest starting year that is that could be seen as fair, and what is the earliest year that would be pragmatically acceptable to historical high emitters if they have to foot at least part of the bill? What is the gap between these two starting years, and what is the level of technological progress needed to close the gap affordably? How do the numbers implied compare with other proposals for relating national goals and international transfers in relation to ‘required by science’ goals (such as the Center for Global Development’s proposal for payment by results linked to transition pathways)?  How can we understand whether national (and corporate) strategies are compatible with a world of EASD or whether they lock us into a pathway of recklessly low ambition?

In 2013 EASD needs to become more than the phrase of the day, it needs to become the dashboard for driving scaled ambition.

One Response to “Equitable Access to Sustainable Development: An idea whose time has come?”

  1. 1 davidflint

    This seems very optimistic. Ideas like EASD are not powerful enough to overturn the neoliberal consensus or to reconcile the populations of the rich world to the need to reduce their living standards. In my view no ideas, except those applied in wartime, are powerful enough.

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