US, equity and the elephants in the room

The issue of sharing the common atmospheric space has been at the core of discussions—the elephant in the room that we want to forget. It is what needs to be discussed for an effective climate regime, says Sunita Narain

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 06 December 2012

Indian top negotiator, R R Rashmi said yesterday at a side event we had organized on equity in climate negotiations that they could not use the word ‘equity’ in the final Durban Platform document because of the aversion to that word of a particular country. He said that they had to instead use the phrase, ‘under the convention’ meaning that future actions would be determined by the principles of the climate convention, which were based on equitably sharing of the world’s atmospheric space. In typical ‘diplomatic’ ways R R Rashmi did not name the country, but it is common knowledge that the US has a serious objection to equity, being the basis of present and future actions to contain greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
It should come as no surprise that equity is a highly divisive issue in Doha. The fact is that emissions are linked to economic growth and nations would not like to share economic or ecological space. This is not new. But what is clear is that the fight will be hard and bitter.
As I arrived in Doha I found that a transcript of remarks made by US deputy climate czar, Jonathan Pershing had gone viral. My colleague had attended a discussion and recorded these views, which he subsequently published. Pershing made some devastating statements about his government’s views on equity. Pershing not only rejected the very idea that the atmospheric space could be allocated but also frankly said that he could never ‘sell’ the idea to the US Congress. It was a dead issue for them. As the transcript went public, there was a silent uproar.
Silent, because nothing was publicly said to condemn the US negotiators views. Instead, top US climate NGOs went ballistic in email conversations, condemning my colleague for publishing what they said was private discussion. This is when many powerful Washington beltway groups have programmes to work on ‘equity’. There was no squeak from them or even an embarrassed whimper that however wrong we were, Pershing’s views were completely unacceptable. Interestingly, even southern civil society, including colleagues from South Asia, have decided that the best policy in these divisive issues is to sit it out.
But sometimes raising some dust clears the air. The next day, I heard Jonathan Pershing explain in a press conference in response to an Indian journalist’s query about his country’s position on equity in climate negotiations that in his country “equity is part of the discussions and they will engage with countries on this issue”.
His boss Todd Stern followed up saying in his statement to the High Level plenary of the conference saying, perhaps for the first time ever, an admission on the need to review and discuss principles of equity. “Lets provide opportunity for Parties to discuss all critical issues, including the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The US would welcome such a discussion, because unless we can find common ground on that principle and the way in which it should apply in the world of the 2020s, we wont' succeed in producing a new Durban Platform agreement.”
This is clearly the way it should be. But I cannot stop myself from asking if this statement had something to do with the fact that for once the US was publicly named and shamed on its rejection of the issue of equity. 
The fact is that for the past 20 years of negotiations, the issue of sharing the common atmospheric space has been at the core of discussions – the elephant in the room that we want to forget. It is what needs to be discussed so that we can have an effective climate regime with limits for all, hard targets, but based on equitable sharing.
I did a detailed presentation on CSE view on equity and how we would like the negotiations under the Durban Platform to move ahead. I hope we can continue to discuss this and find the way ahead.

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