Principles of Public Reason in the UNFCCC: Rethinking the Equity Framework

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Since 2011, the focus of international negotiations under the UNFCCC has been on producing a new climate agreement to be adopted in 2015. This phase of negotiations is known as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The goal has been to update the global effort on climate for long-term cooperation. In this period, various changes have been contemplated on the design of the architecture of the global climate effort. Whereas previously, the negotiation process consisted of setting mandated targets exclusively for developed countries, the current setting requests of each country to pledge its contribution to the climate effort in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The shift away from establishing negotiated targets for rich countries alone towards a universal system of participation through intended contributions raised persistent questions on how exactly the new agreement can ensure equitable terms. How to conceptualize equity within the 2015 climate agreement, and beyond, is the focus of this paper. The paper advances a framework on equity, which moves away from substantive moral conceptions of burden allocation toward refining principles of public reason specially designed for the negotiation process under the UNFCCC. The paper outlines the framework’s main features and discusses how it can serve a facilitating role for multilateral discussion on equity on a long-term basis capable of adapting to changing circumstances.

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    The most vulnerable among them are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), as well as low-lying developing countries, such as Bangladesh.

  2. 2.

    United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC 1992)

  3. 3.

    For reference, see also Bodansky (2004, p. 30).

  4. 4.

    For a review, see Caney (2014a), Gardiner et al. (2010), Singer (2002).

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    For further discussion, see Boran and Shockley (2015).

  6. 6.

    The substantive framework dominates the literature on climate justice. In fact, it is so predominant that Simon Caney has called it simply “burden sharing justice” (Caney 2014b, p. 127). What characterizes the literature on climate ethics and climate justice is a debate between allocative patterns, including those informed by a polluter pays principle, principles of distributive justice, or what is termed equal-per-capita emissions rights. Examples include, but are not limited to Caney (2014a), Neumayer (2000), Gardiner et al. (2010), Jamieson (2012), Singer (2002), Vanderheiden (2009).

  7. 7.

    This is to be distinguished from an equal-per-capita approach to cost allocation. The equal-per capita approach prescribes equal division of atmospheric sink on a per-capita basis over the global population. This provides a formula to calculate how much each country would be entitled to emit in a global carbon trading system. For a critical analysis, see Posner and Weisbach (2010, chapter 6).

  8. 8.

    Jamieson (2012) asserts that there are internal inconsistencies in the theoretical foundations underlying international paretianism as defended by Posner and Weisbach. This illustrates the multiplicity of reasons for resisting this position. The details of the arguments, however, are not within the purview of this paper.

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    A similar shift is defended by Heath (2008) and Scheffler (2003) as a general position for egalitarian theories of justice.

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    For a succinct critical review, see Scheffler (2008).

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    Special thanks to Hugh Breakey for this point.

  12. 12.

    This is in keeping with Rawls’s idea that “the content of public reason is given by a family of political conceptions of justice, and not by a single one” (Rawls 1999, p. 581). Here, I provide three examples of political values, but additions to this list can be made.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to Hugh Breakey for helping me clarify this point.

  14. 14.

    Thanks to Karsten Löffler for insights on this point.


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Work on this paper began during the UN Climate Change Conference, June 2014, held in Bonn, Germany. An earlier version was presented at the workshop on climate science and policy in June 2014 at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. I wish to thank Sabine Roeser for organizing the workshop and for inviting me. As well, I wish to extend my thanks to workshop participants for their insightful comments. I am thankful to Karsten Löffler, who has read earlier versions closely, for his detailed insights. I am also thankful to Hugh Breakey, Sabine Roeser, Ray Spier, as well as two anonymous referees, who have provided incisive written comments. I have benefited from ongoing conversations with Andrew Light, Joanna Patouris, and Kenneth Shockley. Nevertheless, I am responsible for any limitations the paper may have. I wish to acknowledge Dawn Bazely, Department of Biology, York University, for her continuous support and for facilitating my participation in the UNFCCC meetings as accredited observer. The final revisions on this paper were done at COP 21 at Paris-Le Bourget. I wish to extend my thanks to the UNFCCC for providing an inclusive environment for research organizations. Last but not least, funding support from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University and from York University’s SSHRC Small Grants Program is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Idil Boran.

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Boran, I. Principles of Public Reason in the UNFCCC: Rethinking the Equity Framework. Sci Eng Ethics 23, 1253–1271 (2017).

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  • International climate change negotiations
  • Paris Agreement
  • Agreement architecture
  • Institutional structure
  • Public reason
  • Reasonable pluralism
  • Political conception of justice
  • Equity
  • Common but differentiated responsibilities