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A question of justice

by Eva-Maria Verfürth
Mosque in Dakar: who will pay compensation for damages when the sea level rises?

Mosque in Dakar: who will pay compensation for damages when the sea level rises?

During the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Bonn in June, it was evident once more just how difficult it is to find agree on solutions. Shortly after the conference, InWEnt and Transparency International brought climate change experts from all around the world together once more in Berlin to discuss whether a common and fair governance framework is at all possible in climate matters. [ By Eva-Maria Verfürth ]

When it comes to the climate, there is always the question of justice – after all, the countries responsible for the majority of emissions worldwide are not those which are worst affected by the consequences. The USA, for example, has an ecological footprint five times that of China, but 90 % of the people directly affected by climate change live in developing countries. So who is responsible for the reduction of what amount of emissions?

Viewpoints from the North and South clearly clashed on the podium in Berlin, and one thing became clear above all: the countries hold extremely diverse positions. “Perhaps you are not responsible for what your grandparents did. But you are rich because they did it.” José Miguez from the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology and Brazil’s representative at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, made it clear that he considers industrialised nations responsible for the reduction of emissions. He maintains that poorer countries first have to take care of their development and build roads and hospitals, for instance. According to Miguez, they would actually have to increase their emissions for this fundamental development. Climate adaptation strategies would slow down their development.

The debate on climate justice is contentious. The Kyoto Protocol set the year 1990 as the starting point from which to calculate each country’s “emissions debt.” However, developing countries are self-confidently calling for far more extensive reparation from the wealthy nations. They feel rich countries are the main cause of the climate change problem, dating back to the beginning of industrialisation.

Growth without emissions

Meanwhile, based on a calculation from 1990, emissions trading could guarantee that large sums of money would flow from countries with high emissions into countries with lower emissions – that is, mainly from industrialised countries into poorer countries.

Dirk Messner, Director of the German Development Institute (DIE), presented the budget approach of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Using a per-capital emissions quota, this calculates how many emission allowances the individual countries would still be entitled to in the coming years. At a price of $10 to $30 per tonne of CO2, financial transfers would amount to a total of $35 to 100 billion a year.

According to this approach, low emissions countries – as most developing countries are – would have a clear competitive advantage on this certificate market. Jacob Werksman from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington stated that “developing countries will realise that measures to reduce emissions will bring them advantages”. They will strengthen their institutions in order to prepare for emissions trading.

Estherine Lisinge-Fotabong from NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) in South Africa is also certain that developing countries want to prepare for the changed climate situation and implement efficient technologies. She believes that an offer of technology transfer and capacity building from the industrialised countries could also be a kind of compensation or reparation for past injustices.

However, it is not so easy to set up a functional emissions system. Large structures hold the risk of intransparency, corruption and fraud.

Moreover, the private sector needs reliable, long-term prospects for it to adapt, emphasised Carolin Zerger from the German Environment Ministry (BMU). But as long as even the fundamental principles of the Kyoto Protocol are still being debated, this is far off. Laura Altinger from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in Switzerland (UNECE) reinforced this argument: “If we move away from the climate change accord, we run the risk that companies will take this as an excuse for not reducing their emissions.”

Fairness in the negotiation process

However, the debate on climate justice is about more than historical justice and financial obligations. It is also about fairness in the negotiation process – no common solution will be reached without this. Fairness means transparency, the same level of information and just opportunities.

Differing information can bring international talks to a standstill. Sven Harmeling from Germanwatch maintains that Copenhagen almost ended in collapse due to the information policy of the Danish government. Many countries could not take part in the negotiations and were referred to the reports. However, these countries already heard Obama announce a result before they had even set eyes on the draft. “It’s no wonder they didn’t simply sign the treaty.”

Until now, there was an exchange primarily between science and politics, according to Harald Heinrichs from the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. How­ever, he maintains, it is also important to inform civil society because it is only through pressure from society that politicians really become active. “We have to get the people to make sure their government translates their plans into action too,” confirms Jacob Werksman from WRI.

High time to act – but how?

There were considerable differences of opinion regarding the question of responsibility and the assessment of the Kyoto results; some participants saw them as a failure, others considered them a small success at least. However, all agreed that the political negotiations are moving too slowly at present.

Climate change is progressing faster than the laborious international negotiations. Voices from the public in Berlin commented that instead of continuing these discussions on principles of justice, it’s time to act.

Roda Verheyen from the Climate Justice Program made a suggestion about how the diplomatic problem could be resolved: she is arguing in favour of establishing a jurisdiction on climate change even though the political negotiations are not yet concluded. “Perhaps that could untangle the political involvement,” she says.

There is a simple principle in international law which also applies to climate change issues: You are not to harm another. If protection from avoidable impacts of climate change could be obtained through legal action, this court could decide on a purely legal basis about a topic on which politicians fail to agree: who has to pay for what harm. For example, a community which is at risk of flooding could then take proceedings against their mayor if he refuses to build a dam.

Dirk Messner also believes a political decision and a consistent implementation of emissions trading are still too far off to wait for it. It is high time to act – and he calls the industrialised countries to do so. Europe should set a good example. “Make Europe a leading example of a low-emitting economy which, at the same time, is a globally-leading economic region,” he challenges.

Furthermore, Europe should cooperate with other dedicated regions – with “climate pioneer” countries – so that in the Cancún talks in December 2010 it has visible successes which prove it is standing by its commitments.