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Equity, burden sharing and development pathways: reframing international climate negotiations

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Distribution issues have been critical in international negotiations on climate change. These have been framed as a ‘burden sharing’ problem since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Three key difficulties are associated with this approach under a cap-and-trade system, namely the lack of consensus over what is equitable, uncertainty over estimates of policy costs, and lack of political realism and economic effectiveness of large-scale international transfers. These difficulties point to the risk of failure of post-2020 negotiations if these are based on the same premises of ‘sharing the emission reduction pie’ within a cap-and-trade regime. History has shown that different development paths can lead to similar economic performances with contrasted emission intensities. This paper proposes some insights into what could constitute a way forward, by recasting the discussion about emission reductions from a development perspective. It concludes that climate negotiations should depart from the current framework and shift to a debate focused on choosing a development path that would address domestic issues, while aligning pure climate policies with development policies.

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  1. The idea that all nations will lose can be refuted by considering not only the costs of acting, but also the benefits in terms of avoided climate damage. Even when only looking at direct costs, climate policy might trigger macroeconomic feedbacks which would lead to net direct benefits, for instance through double dividend mechanisms at the global level (Goulder 1995). In addition, benefits may accrue to some regions through carbon trading, depending on the selected quota allocation rule.

  2. Article 4 of the KP (the ‘EU bubble’) allows a group of countries (e.g. the European Union) to agree on a common reduction target which can be subsequently redistributed among the group.

  3. Directive 2003/87/EC.

  4. Cost–benefit analysis can help determine the optimal aggregate level of abatement using integrated assessment models like DICE (Nordhaus 1993), PAGE (Hope et al. 1993) or FUND (Tol 1999).

  5. A (unique) distribution of abatement efforts equalizes marginal abatement costs across countries, irrespective of initial endowments.

  6. Examples include milk quotas within the European Union (Burton 1985), most Individual Tradable Quotas for fisheries and, to some degree at least, the US. SO2 trading programme.

  7. Historical emissions are a by-product of wealth, of which all individuals can claim a share proportional to their contribution to wealth creation. Grandfathering is ethically defensible assuming that these property rights can be transferred to future generations. Müller finds the basis of this argument in the entitlement theory of distributive justice (Nozick 1974).

  8. In 2011, energy related CO2 emissions ranged from above 16 tCO2 per capita in the US to an average of less than 1 tCO2 per capita in African countries (IEA 2012).

  9. Mitigation and adaptation capacity within each country—as determined by wealth, technologies, natural resources, institutions, human capital (Yohe 2001)—is broader than ability to pay.

  10. E.g. submissions by Poland (1997) Estonia (1996) Russia (1995) and South Korea (1997) to the Ad hoc Group of the Berlin Mandate.

  11. A general solution to the problem of who should contribute to the provision of public goods is provided by the Bowen-Lindahl-Samuelson framework (Bowen 1943; Lindahl 1919; Samuelson 1954).

  12. Using two earth-system models and CO2 emission data series starting in 1751 (Wei et al. 2012) estimate the contribution of developed countries to the global temperature increase in 2005 to 60–80 %, developing countries contributing to the remaining 20–40 %.

  13. Today’s individuals may be richer than they would have been had their ancestors not followed an emission intensive development path.

  14. In addition, the non-identity problem—i.e. the idea that today’s individuals cannot be assumed to be the same individuals who would have lived in a counterfactual world with different emissions (Parfit 1984)—questions the concept of historical responsibility.

  15. The Brazilian proposal allocates responsibility of climate mitigation among Annex I Parties according to the relative effect of each country’s historical emissions on global temperature increase (Den Elzen et al. 2005).

  16. Submissions by Norway (1996), Australia (1997), Iceland (1997) to the AGBM7.

  17. These proposals follow a top–down logic. Bottom-up approaches have also been proposed, such as the Triptych proposal (Phylipsen et al. 1998) used to guide the sharing of the EU global −8 % target under Kyoto, and the Multi-Sector Convergence Proposal (Sijm et al. 2001).

  18. Note that proposed cap-and-trade schemes have incomplete sectoral coverage or allow for delayed entry of some Parties. They would therefore possibly be supplemented by other measures, such as domestic tax schemes or standards targeted at specific sectors. The assessment of the economic burden of climate policy should therefore include all these dimensions, i.e. should not be limited to the quota allocation rule.

  19. Decision-makers do not usually know the cheapest ways to abate emissions. Engineers do not always anticipate the evolution of production costs, due to uncertainties on future technological developments.

  20. In 2010, fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) represented over 80 % of World primary energy demand (IEA 2012).

  21. This section focuses on international transfers entailed by the implementation of an allowance allocation rule in the context of a cap-and-trade mechanism. North–South financial transfers may also be used as a way to help vulnerable countries adapt to the harmful effects of climate change, for instance through the Adaptation Fund under the Kyoto Protocol.

  22. Lecocq and Crassous (2003) show that a per capita allocation would result in significantly larger North–South money transfers than grandfathering and contraction and convergence schemes.

  23. This is despite Russia’s promise to invest the trading money from its spare permits in clean energy projects (Pearce 2000).

  24. It might be impossible to think of development paths for each country independently, without accounting for general equilibrium mechanisms. For instance, removing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies worldwide may alter the functioning of fossil fuel markets, which may affect emission intensity.

  25. Note that the terms of the cost–benefit analysis may have changed in World (B), and the new optimal response may be to stabilize global warming to a lower target, simply shifting the issue in time.

  26. For instance the development of cities in combination with transportation systems as a way to anticipate congestion issues in World (B) would result in lower CO2 emissions, but would also lower the additional cost of further abatement compared to World (A), where few substitutes to private cars are likely to exist as in Barcelona and Atlanta (Bertaud and Richardson 2004). Retrofitting the metro in Atlanta to allow for the same type of mobility as in Barcelona would indeed be very costly.

  27. Note however that in some cases, climate change mitigation measures may have adverse side effects as regards other environmental issues. While the co-benefits of climate change mitigation outweigh its adverse side effects in energy end-use sectors (transport, buildings and industry), this may not always be the case for energy supply (Fleurbaey et al. 2014).



Gross domestic product


Greenhouse gases


Least developed countries


Nationally appropriate mitigation actions


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


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Aurélie Méjean acknowledges funding from the Chair ‘Modelling for sustainable development’ (led by Ecole des Ponts ParisTech and Mines ParisTech).

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Méjean, A., Lecocq, F. & Mulugetta, Y. Equity, burden sharing and development pathways: reframing international climate negotiations. Int Environ Agreements 15, 387–402 (2015).

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