The least developed countries, equity, and a brave new world

In mid-June, the United Nation’s negotiating session concerning what will become the future international agreement on climate change ended in Bonn, Germany. The agreement, which is expected to be adopted in 2015 and come into force by 2020, promises to be radically different from the existing climate treaties.

Polluted air coming out of the smoke stacks of a factory in Shanghai, China.

Unlike the increasingly abandoned Kyoto Protocol, which failed to successfully involve all nations, each of the 195 countries committed to the UN’s Convention on climate change have pledged to contribute. For the first time, the world's biggest carbon emitters, China, the US and India, will be legally bound. The nations have agreed. The future climate agreement will be applicable to ALL.

But, HOW?

If under the climate change agreement of the future all nations must act, by what merit will the UN determine the contributions – or in UN speak, commitments – each country must make?  With global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide breaching the records of human history, achieving the Convention’s ultimate goal of preventing dangerous interference with the climate system will require an unprecedented amount of effort.  

How then will the world decide to allocate responsibilities for cutting back emissions, financing adaptation to our changing planet, and transferring technologies that allow for sustainable development?


The word buzzes in the corridors of the international climate negotiations. How negotiators define and implement the principles of this notion will fundamentally influence the architecture of the new agreement. While traditionally defined as fairness, when viewed in light of climate change and its impacts, equity’s meaning becomes rather multifaceted. First, there’s the historically imbalanced cause of climate change. The nations who first emitted carbon dioxide during industrialization not only hold notable pollution records, but also possess the resources and capacity to face the impacts of climate change. Thus one inequity, the unfair distribution of pollution, has lead to another, the ability of wealthy nations to better cope with climate impacts than poor ones. As if that’s not enough, add to it the unfair impacts climate change will cause to unborn generations.  As such, equitably assigning nations commitments becomes a very difficult exercise indeed.

What then should be the approach?  Let countries to decide for themselves? If so, how does the United Nations ensure it reaches the Convention’s ultimate goal of preventing dangerous interference with the climate system rather than committing to the least emissions reductions possible?  How does the world encourage countries to race to the top rather than the bottom? Really, the question essential to the new agreement becomes ‘how do we use equity to motivate actions, rather than justifying inaction’?

Take the case of the Least Developed Countries. The UN currently classifies 49 nations as least developed because they meet three criteria.  First, each country possesses a low income meaning a per capita gross national income of under $750 USD. Second, they possess weak human assets, which the UN bases on indicators of: nutrition, health, education, and adult literacy. Finally, each nation experiences high economic vulnerability. The UN calculates this economic vulnerability using factors such as the instability of agriculture production, the economic importance of non-traditional activities, and the percentage of population displaced by natural disasters.

A man herds cattle in northern Burkina Faso, in west Africa.

These 49 nations, drawn together by their shared circumstances and extreme vulnerability to climate change, act as a negotiating bloc during UN climate talks. Though they have contributed a mere 0.3% of the world’s cumulative carbon dioxide emissions, in recent meetings the group expressed its willingness to act as a “deal maker” during negotiations. This ambitious stance builds on the leadership the LDCs’ displayed in the 2011 negotiations that initiated the future agreement. When negotiations in Durban reached stalemate, it was the group’s coalition with the EU and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) that proved critical to the talk’s successful conclusion. Together, the coalition’s determination to negotiate a new, legally binding treaty united developed and developing countries to initiate an agreement that would be applicable to all.  The LDCs played a vitally important role in establishing the new agreement, which may involve agreeing to mitigate their own miniscule emissions, and is willing to continue to act as dealmaker.

Considering the LDCs’ position of extreme economic and climatic vulnerability, what inspires the group to take such an approach?

  1. The climate impacts the least developed nations experience on a daily basis.
  2. The knowledge that every carbon tonne has the same effect (no matter where it comes from).
  3. The realization that the more you mitigate the less you have to adapt (or face losses and damages).
  4. The need for ALL to take action if we are to reach the Convention’s goal.

This leadership by the group that has contributed least to causing climate change and is hindered most in acting shames many other nations’ stances on an equitable distribution of commitments. For example, the US currently favors an agreement wherein all parties can design their own mitigation commitments based on national circumstances, capacity and other factors that they consider relevant. While this approach sounds reasonable for nations like the LDCs, whose extreme poverty may well hinder mitigation efforts, it hardly seems befitting for the world’s foremost economy. Again, won’t such an approach inspire a race to the bottom rather than the ambitious action necessary to achieve the Convention’s ultimate goal?  

As climate negotiations progress, the nations of the world will begin formally submitting their positions on equity and the role it will play in determining country commitments under the new agreement. How will equity differentiate countries’ contributions? Which indicators should determine a country’s responsibilities? What role should factors, such as historic responsibility and countries’ intrinsic capability, play in determining commitments? Should all nations be bound to reducing carbon dioxide emissions? What do you think?

Find out more about how IIED is supporting climate change negotiators from Least Developed Countries in the context of the international climate negotiations.

This guest blog is written by Brianna Craft, a consultant working with IIED's climate change group.