a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Fairness(es) and the INDCs

It’s over 20 years since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force. According to Article 3(1) of the Convention, Parties would “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities”. It was recognised that this meant that “the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change”.

Despite this recognition that equity and differential responsibility and capacity were important factors to consider in global efforts to address climate change, agreement on what exactly this would entail for sharing the burdens of mitigation proved hard to come by. 2015 saw something of a change of tack, here, with Parties to the UNFCCC now invited to present an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the Convention objective of stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous climate change.

The move to nationally determined contributions has been lauded by some for its potential to facilitate cooperation. One of the ways in which it appears to do this is by bypassing any need for an international agreement on what exactly a fair distribution of the burdens of mitigation would look like. Instead, each Party is invited (though not required) to explain how it considers its INDC to be “fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances”. So, roughly speaking at least, rather than starting with an established emissions budget and trying to come to an agreement on how to share it fairly, Parties are now permitted to adopt any number of different conceptions of fairness in defence of their own INDC, with no guarantee that the resulting ‘fair’ shares will remain within the budget.

This technically works both ways. It is theoretically possible that each Party could adopt an understanding of fairness that would see the INDCs amount to the shouldering of a collective mitigation burden even larger than that which is broadly recognised to be necessary. In reality, of course, the INDCs have come in far under what is required for a decent chance at even a 2°C target (let alone the 1.5°C target that is rightfully demanded by those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change). Predictions for the warming that will occur if Parties actually live up to their proposed contributions vary, but an increase in global average temperature of 2.7°C appears to be the most optimistic estimate available, with others predicting 3.5°C or more.

The current insufficiency of the INDCs is partly the result of what looks like a fairly lackadaisical effort on behalf of many of the most significant emitters to step up to the call for fairness and ambition. The 160 INDCs so far submitted (representing 188 Parties to the UNFCCC) can be viewed here. I’ve only had time for a quick scan, but many of the comments on fairness and ambition that I read were far from impressive.

Few reports made a serious attempt to explain how the INDC could be understood to represent a fair share of the global effort. Many just paid lip service to the concept of fairness, like a reluctant job seeker who has been instructed to include certain keywords on an application form. The understanding of fairness being employed was frequently left vague, and for some seemed bizarre (one or two used the section on fairness to clarify that their INDC is considered totally voluntary, or revisable in the face of adverse economic and social consequences). A couple simply declared the offering to be fair and ambitious without anything, really, by way of explanation.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT), as referenced by Wouter Peeters in his post on the Paris Agreement, offers a far more in-depth assessment of a number of important INDCs (providing a good counterpoint to my own sketchy, rushed, and anecdotal comments). As some of CAT’s methodology makes clear, however, determining the fairness of any given Party’s intended contribution is somewhat complicated by the fact that disagreement remains about what a fair distribution of the global mitigation burden would actually look like. Researchers, decision-makers and philosophers are still debating the relative importance of factors including historical emissions, current emission levels, ability to pay, equality, the economic costs of mitigation, and development needs – and there is also disagreement about how carbon sink possession, land use and forestry should be taken into account in determining fair emission shares.

Some seem to think that this disagreement reflects the fact that fairness is just a matter of opinion. Though such ‘blithe subjectivism’ is clearly indefensible, I’m not ultimately sure just how much theoretical disagreement about fairness in mitigation might be reasonable or unavoidable – on the one hand there are certainly many unjustifiable ways to share the global mitigation effort, but on the other it is increasingly urgent that the world comes to some acceptable burden sharing arrangement.

Either way, though, if as varied a range of competing conceptions of fairness as those considered by CAT are really on the table (seven by their count, sometimes giving significantly different answers to the question of what would constitute a fair share of emissions); then even demanding that each Party defend its INDC as fair according to one of these understandings would most likely add up to an inadequate global effort.

This is because there remains leeway for the pursuit of national interest to undermine the global effort here, given that different conceptions of fair burden sharing will be more or less favourable to different of the Parties. Say we have a number of conceptions of fairness – a, b, c, d, e, etc. – each of which divides the total mitigation burden in a different way. If each Party opts for the conception of fairness that promises the least demanding mitigation burden for itself (Party X goes for conception a, Party Y goes for conception c etc.), then the sum total of INDCs is still not going to add up to the global mitigation effort that we need (unlike it would if all the Parties could agree to divide the global burden according to just one of these conceptions – which unfortunately doesn’t seem like a possibility).

This is not to deny that getting high-emitting Parties to the UNFCCC to pay more than lip service to the call for fairness would result in a huge improvement to the INDCs. But if continuing disagreement about fair burden sharing will mean that the INDCs would be unlikely to add up to an adequate global commitment even if the Parties were to defend them in terms of an existing candidate for a theory of fairness, what then? One option is to try to promote further international recognition of what fairness really amounts to, or at least provide some convincing reasons to remove some of the current options from the table. Another tactic is to press the Parties on their ambition, which many are gearing up to do. Given the urgency of the problem, however, I’m increasingly beginning to think that part of the mitigation effort must involve bringing the focus back down to earth, from the atmosphere and GHG emissions to fossil fuel reserves, and trying to find more direct ways to keep enough of the latter in the ground.

I am a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. My major area of research is global justice and the environment; with a focus on the problem of climate change and rights over land and natural resources.


The Paris Agreement on Climate Change: A historical landmark or an empty box? (longread)


“Refugees” and “economic migrants” – a morally problematic distinction


  1. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Megan, thanks for a great post on a difficult (and slightly depressing) subject! Something struck me about your last point: keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground. This would also constitute an answer in terms of fairness: those who would otherwise benefit from pumping up the oil would carry the burden. This may be a good thing – but probably not so much because of the fact that they happen to have the oil underneath their territory, but because of other factors, e.g. because they polluted a lot in the past, have benefitted from it, are able to carry the burden, etc. So we are back at questions about fairness . But maybe a solution that aims at leaving fossil fuel in the ground is “sufficiently fair”: it does not grossly violate whatever principles of fairness we may sign up to.
    More generally speaking: do you think that we might make progress by working with some notion of “sufficiently fair”? Many philosophers tend to think about fairness in rather idealized terms, but as you point out, these may simply not have purchase in practice. Could we make more progress by focusing on unfair outcomes that should be excluded?

    • I think that sufficiently fair is definitely the best that we can hope for, almost certainly more than we can hope for and the idea of making progress by focusing on unfair outcomes that should be excluded is a good one. The tactics of lots of campaign groups could probably be thought of in those terms. The question of which fossil fuels should be left in the ground does also raise questions of fairness, but I think that we are then into such a non-ideal realm that much of the focus really does have to be on preventing the outcome that too many of them get exploited. And it’s hard to see how wealthy, industrialised countries that have already benefited too much from fossil fuel exploitation in the past could have any claim to exploit ‘their’ (i.e. the ones that just happen to be located under land that they control) remaining reserves anyway.

  2. Wouter Peeters

    Thank you Megan, for your insightful post on this issue. It is indeed shocking how the concept of fairness is interpreted in different ways in order to best serve national interests. Seeing you mention gearing up ambition and the non-ideal realm, I am wondering whether you could comment on the following rather preliminary thoughts.
    In view of the stakes involved for each party, I am afraid we will never arrive at consensus about fairness in the distribution of the burdens. However, rather than letting ourselves down, I think we should take this as our point of departure and work from there. In his 2014 article Caney mentions two ways of approaching climate justice: harm avoidance (concern for the victims) and burden-sharing (fairness in distribution of the burdens). Seeing the failure of the second, maybe we should think about emphasising the first. Maybe we should change our value framework and drop reference to (international/global) fairness in the distribution of the burdens altogether, and rather focus on fairness towards vulnerable and future people? Could we try to motivate nations/people/corporations to increase ambitions irrespective of what others do, by reference to living up to the challenge, taking responsibility or leaving a legacy for the future. Since (at least in my opinion) each GHG molecule emitted, each square metre of nature or each tree destroyed harms some victims, we should emphasise that not-emitting this molecule and preserving this tree is laudable.
    This is a radically non-ideal position, but I am beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t side-track discussion about what is ultimately fair in the long-term, and now rather focus on how to prevent as much harm as possible. (Of course, we should not disregard the fact that the poor should not be asked to bear heavy burdens, but the non-ideal approach would probably automatically lead us first to the rich and high emitters anyway).

    • Hi Wouter. Yes, I think the harm avoidance approach is an important one (I’m also a fan of that Caney article) and probably a good way to defend attempts to try and keep fossil fuels in the ground. Like you mention at the end, though, it still depends on who we’re talking about because some can’t take on burdens without suffering similar harms to the ones we’re trying to prevent. And I worry that even the rich and high emitters won’t know how much they should be doing in the absence of some kind of understanding of fair burden sharing (e.g. a wealthy person might think that they’re doing quite a lot, but could turn out to actually be doing less than what they would have to as part of a fair global effort).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén