As the world becomes increasingly interconnected- socially, economically and politically, the overarching threat of climate change is forcing a global response. The main issue discussed here is that those least responsible for climate change are the most vulnerable, simultaneously, those most responsible for climate change are least affected by it.
So, who is most vulnerable, who is most responsible and who is most capable of making an impact?
What are Climate equity and Climate Justice?
What is the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’?
While equality can be understood as having equal chances; opportunities; and outcomes, equity solely considers equal outcomes. Equity focuses on fundamental inequalities, arguing that because there is no equal starting point, there cannot be equal outcomes without certain equalising measures. Climate justice argues for accountability in relation to climate change. Climate equity looks at how climate change disproportionately affects people around the globe, arguing for an equal distribution of resources and acknowledgement of current inequalities to create equal outcomes1.
Climate equity is centred around distributive measures to create fair opportunities; corrective measures which acknowledge those who have contributed the most towards climate change historically- most notably the Annex-12 countries; and procedural measures which implement measures ensuring fair processes. This concept is closely linked with climate justice, which argues that individuals and societies should contribute towards combating climate change to the degree of their capabilities and their effect on the issues itself; this argument is also enshrined in the UNFCCC’s Article 3.1.
Climate change is a global issue, and yet it affects different regions and inhabitants of this planet differently. This is due to both natural geographical reasons as well national and individual capacities to respond. While geography determines the types of climate impacts in a specific region, socio-economic factors determine the type of response to these changes and how the environment and society is affected. Different regions, different individuals and even different species contribute differently towards climate change and experience its consequences to different degrees. The UN has certain policies and plans to account for those in geographically precarious situations such as those liable to draughts, suffering from high atmospheric pollution, SIDS and others, all noted in Article 4.84.
Who Is Responsible?
How do we determine who is most responsible? A common point of analysis is to look at which countries have emitted the most in terms of CO2 since the industrial revolution cumulatively. Global CO2 emissions from 1751 to 2017 have amounted to about 1.5 trillion tonnes, of which the United States have contributed the largest share- 25% of total global emissions. The US is followed by a grouping of the 28 EU states- who have contributed 22% of global emissions, and China- with 12.7%5.
Since the time of the industrial revolution, the US has emitted 399 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is two times as much as China, the third largest emitter. Between 1850 and 1990 (historical emission) 18% of the global population, those from Annex-1 countries6, emitted 71% of total emissions. The first two top contributors have been emitting high amounts of CO2 historically, however there are countries which have become heavy emitters in recent decades, most notably China7, India and Brazil. However, when taking populations into account, the outlook is quite different. If we break down the EU-28 to individual countries, India is the third largest emitter globally, however per capita, they are 158th8.
Although assessing countries does offer a lot of insight on a broader level, it does not lend information on who is responsible or who bears the weighty negative effects of climate change. This is best assessed by taking a closer look into different socio-economic groups across countries. ‘The carbon footprint gap” is a concept to denote how much more the rich and wealthy across the world contribute towards CO2 levels9. From 1990 to 2015, the richest 10% of the world were responsible for over half of the world’s emissions, while the richest 1% were responsible for 15%. This is important to note as during those 25 years, the world has doubled its CO2 emissions10.
Who Is Most Vulnerable?
In fact, those who contribute the least towards climate change are most prone to the adverse effects of climate change. This claim can be looked at in different levels. On the broadest level, climate-change-caused disasters affect the Global South disproportionately due to the lack of infrastructure and capabilities to respond to these calamities11. Across countries, national levels of development cause some societies to be less vulnerable, as compared to their neighbours. Financial capabilities of an individual or a nation dictate the level of vulnerability to climate change. Within a country itself, climate change affects different groups disproportionately, most notably, the lowest income group. Other social factors such as gender, race, age, among others, may also affect levels of vulnerability.
Climate equity is important because of how climate change negatively impacts people and the environment. Vulnerability is closely linked to a country’s and an individual’s socio-economic status. Due to precarious living situations, marginalised groups are more at risk by natural disasters and pollution. For example, safety for women decreases in the aftermath of a natural disaster12.
At the same time, targets of limiting temperatures to pre-industrial levels to 1.5℃ by 2030 and net-zero are unattainable. The biggest contributors, the US, China and India, are no where close to achieving set goals, their climate action plans have been assessed as insufficient or highly insufficient by the Climate Action Tracker13. This follows a trend of Annex-1 countries setting targets which are then met by inaction. OECD countries have stressed how climate finance can shape the fight against climate change, however they have continuously missed their pledges when it comes to the amount of financial support towards the countries who are most vulnerable14
The arguments behind climate equity and justice consider a myriad of issues as interlinked, by tackling one, others would be improved. Reducing the emissions of the richest individuals and investing in the security of those most vulnerable, would benefit socio-economic and environmental issues. If governments focussed holistically on socio-economic and environmental issues, policies would be targeted towards present inequalities and creating equity. The same argument is present when considering intergovernmental organisations15.
Annex-1: Australia; Austria; Belarus; Belgium; Bulgaria; Canada; Czechoslovakia; Denmark; European Economic Community; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Iceland; Ireland; Italy; Japan; Latvia ; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Netherlands; New Zealand; Norway; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Russian Federation; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Turkey; Ukraine; United Kingdom of Great Britain; Northern Ireland; United States of America
Annex-1: Australia; Austria; Belarus; Belgium; Bulgaria; Canada; Czechoslovakia; Denmark; European Economic Community; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Iceland; Ireland; Italy; Japan; Latvia ; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Netherlands; New Zealand; Norway; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Russian Federation; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Turkey; Ukraine; United Kingdom of Great Britain; Northern Ireland; United States of America https://unfccc.int/cop3/fccc/climate/annex1.htm?gclid=CjwKCAjw2OiaBhBSEiwAh2ZSP37wGjvUzWPPQAio2c2iprCFxBCi4uWDTbN6w5Jc9QObX2qB7GpNUBoCTQoQAvD_BwE
Kanitkar, T. (2022). Foregrounding Equity in Climate Action (NIAS Policy Brief No. NIAS/NSE/EEC/U/PB/15/2022). http://eprints.nias.res.in/2243/1/2022-PB-15-TK.pdf