How fights over what's fair have stalled progress on climate change

What's fair — a concept so fundamental that toddlers and chimpanzees have opinions about it — has been far from simple when it comes to global climate change negotiations. As COP26 begins in Glasgow on Sunday, the pressure is on to move past old stalling tactics.

At COP26, pressure to move past arguments about who's doing what and step up

Over the years, countries with a lot of historical responsibility for climate change have often claimed efforts to act are unfair. Here, Oxfam activists wear papier mâché heads depicting the leaders of Germany, the U.S., Britain and Canada at a climate protest during the G7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, on June 12. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

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The feast has been grand, at least for those who arrived early on.

The early diners — call them developed countries — ordered advancements and luxuries without concern for the atmospheric price. Perhaps, at first, the cost wasn't clear.

Others joined the table, hungry for their turn and a taste of the same. Why should developing countries refrain from fossil fuels when some have been gorging for, well, more than a century?

But now, there's no doubt, it's time to pay up. 

Starting Sunday in Glasgow, the Conference of the Parties (COP) will meet for the 26th time in three decades trying to decide how to split the bill.

What's fair — a concept so fundamental that toddlers and chimpanzees have opinions about it — has been far from simple when it comes to global climate change negotiations. Claims of unfairness were part of the failure of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and one of the arguments used by President Donald Trump when the U.S. temporarily left the Paris Agreement.

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This time, although science behind human-caused climate change is clear and damage is mounting, especially in parts of the world least responsible, success depends on wealthy, polluting countries coming to agreement.

"Fairness is always in the eye of the beholder," said Prof. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, who has been at every annual COP meeting since they began in Berlin in 1995.

"When I hear these arguments [about fairness], I hear slave owners ... deciding who should sell their slaves or free their slaves first," said Huq.

"If you don't sell your slaves or free your slaves first, why should I? Nobody's asking the slaves."

The impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and flooding, have been felt around the world for years. Here, a mother carries her baby as a child wades behind on a street flooded with sea water in Mayangan village in Subang, Indonesia's West Java province, on July 16, 2010. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

A 'bellicose forum'

The understanding that some countries are more responsible than others for climate change has been part of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the start. 

That framework, enacted in 1994, includes a list of rich, industrialized countries — the United Kingdom, Japan, the U.S. and Canada among them. These "Annex I" countries are supposed to be doing more, "taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities," according to the document.

"They accepted they were the bigger polluters," said Huq, who advises the caucus of least-developed countries at COP negotiations.

"The practice of that is where it became problematic."

The framework didn't include rules for making it happen, so for the UNFCCC's decision-making body — COP — to make any decisions, all 197 countries involved have to agree.

"You need unanimity. And of course, this is a recipe for the lowest common denominator," said Guy Saint-Jacques, a longtime former diplomat and Canada's chief negotiator and ambassador for climate change from 2010 to 2012.

With no formula to determine fairness, splitting the responsibility pie has been a key sticking point since the first COP in 1995.

"That really is one of the challenges," said Simon Donner, a climate scientist and professor of geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a member of Canada's net-zero advisory body.

"There's legitimate disagreement on what the most fair system would be because there's so many different things to take into account."

One approach would be laying the burden on developed countries, which have both produced and benefited from historical emissions — let the rich early diners start paying the bill.

The Kyoto Protocol tried that, requiring major industrialized countries to meet emissions targets, but not developing countries like China, India or Brazil. The U.S. never ratified it, and Canada committed but then withdrew in 2011 under the Conservatives, arguing "all major emitters" weren't included.

"I concluded from my involvement in the negotiations … that this has become a bellicose forum where it will never be possible to achieve a meaningful agreement," said Saint-Jacques.

The U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which was part of its downfall. Twenty years ago, American students showed their support for U.S. President George W. Bush against the agreement as delegates negotiated how to implement it in Bonn, Germany, on July 18, 2001. (Reuters)

The Paris breakthrough — and problem

The Paris Agreement aimed to learn from that failure.

"One of the many breakthroughs of the Paris climate agreement," said Donner, "was the idea that every country submits its own voluntary contribution and sets its own emissions target," known as a nationally determined contribution or NDC.

"The hope was that this would shame countries into setting more stringent targets."

From left to right: Laurence Tubiana, France's special representative for COP21; UN climate chief Christiana Figueres; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius; and French President François Hollande react during the final plenary session at the world climate change conference in Paris in 2015. (Kiara Worth/Earth Negotiations Bulletin IISD)

While this got buy-in — including from China and India — it's a little like everyone at the group dinner chipping in what they think they owe. You're likely to come up short, and that's what's happened — so far.

The Paris Agreement's goal is to limit warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, but the countries' NDCs to date put the planet on track for 2.7 — what the UN calls a "catastrophic" path.

A key part of COP26 — along with securing promised-but-not-delivered funding from wealthy countries to help poorer ones adapt — is pressuring countries to ratchet up those plans.

"That's really what Glasgow is going to be about," said Huq. "We have to do a hell of a lot more."

Wealthy nations have failed to meet a $100 billion pledge to help developing countries tackle climate change. This week, a look at why trust is the 'most relevant currency of climate negotiations' and what can be done to restore it.

Eye of the beholder

Despite all the attention on the marathon negotiations to come in Glasgow, the true pressure is arguably what leaders receive at home — whether the public is demanding climate action and willing to pay for it.

A 2017 study tried to gauge how people perceive fairness, using an ultimatum game played online with real, albeit small, stakes.

Each participant, crowd-sourced using Amazon Mechanical Turk, was assigned some level of responsibility for climate risk and an amount of in-game currency. They met up with another random player, with one proposing a plan to pay for climate change mitigation and the other responding.

If they came to an agreement on who pays what, they'd avert disaster — and get a real cash payout on the order of a few dollars. If not, they'd risk a climate catastrophe that would wipe out wealth.

A screenshot of the experimental ultimatum game in a 2017 study published in Climatic Change. Players, assigned differing financial means (experimental currency units, or ECU) and responsibility for climate risk, were paired to come to an agreement — or not — on mitigating climate change. (Anderson et. al 2017)

The study, published in the journal Climatic Change, found players remarked a lot about what felt "fair," but with a closer eye on the other player's record.

"The proposer paid a lot of attention to what the responder had done ... how much they had emitted and how much sort of fictionalized capacity they had in terms of money," said lead author Brilé Anderson, now an environmental economist with the OECD in Paris.

"We definitely tend to downplay our own role. At least that's what the experiment suggested."

What now?

Despite our human failings and the checkered history of COP negotiations, many observers still feel optimism about current attempts to tackle what Donner calls "the biggest collective action problem in world history."

He'll be watching for solutions that come alongside or after the framework that Glasgow sets, including alliances to cut coal use and efforts in the financial sector led by UN special envoy on climate action and finance, Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England.

Saint-Jacques, who has lost faith in the UNFCCC process, sees potential in an idea that's been called a "climate club" of large emitters together enacting their own policies, including carbon tariffs on trade.

Students hold a Fridays for Future climate strike while environment ministers meet ahead of Glasgow's COP26 meeting in Milan, Italy, on Oct. 1. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

While Huq notes the fate of COP26 lies mostly in the hands of the biggest polluters — especially the leadership of the U.S. and China — he's buoyed by the public pressure to act led by youth climate activists. Anderson agrees. 

"I feel more optimistic now than I did," she said.

"OK, this generation is not going to stand for the same mistakes that the rest of us might have been sort of complacent in accepting."

WATCH | Officials temper expectations ahead of COP26 :

Officials temper expectations ahead of COP26

1 year ago
Duration 2:10
Ahead of the COP26 climate change summit in Scotland, some officials, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. climate representative John Kerry, are tempering expectations about what will be achieved because of disagreements about what to do and how quickly.


Lisa Johnson

Senior writer and editor

Lisa Johnson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She helped create CBC Radio's What On Earth which won the 2021CJF Award for Climate Solutions Reporting. She has reported for CBC on TV, radio and online for more than 15 years with a specialty in science, nature, and the environment. Get in touch at or through Twitter at @lisasj.

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